Davies - The Cornish Trilogy - discussion
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Above all, Robertson Davies is a story teller. Even at his most scholarly (and he can be scholarly), his vividly drawn characters and wizardly plotting propel his narrative forward and delight the reader. While his subjects can be serious, he writes with verve and a wonderful sense of humor.
The three books in this trilogy are linked by the characters, particularly by Francis Cornish (who is dead for the entire first and third novels), as well as thematically. They focus on art in many of its forms (literature, painting and drawing, and music and theater), explore myth and the mystical, delve into psychology, theology, and history, educate the reader about subjects as diverse as gypsy techniques for restoring violins and art restorers' techniques for matching older paints, play with ideas about what is real and what is fake, treat readers to the conversations and thoughts of daimons and souls in limbo, and poke fun at the conventional and the respectable. Davies achieves the admirable goal of making the reader think and laugh at the same time, and become fond of the characters -- the major ones and the dozens of minor ones -- and their foibles.
I am going to briefly describe each of the novels, with the caveat that each could be discussed at infinite depth.
The Rebel Angels
The first novel introduces most of the major characters of the trilogy soon after Francis Cornish, an eccentric and rich art collector and connoisseur, has died. He had appointed three of the characters, all affiliated with the College of St. John and the Holy Ghost, affectionately known as Spook, to essentially act as his artistic executors. That narrative of one of them, Simon Darcourt, an Episcopal priest who has become a college professor, alternates with the narrative of Maria Theotoky, a brilliant and beautiful graduate student, the daughter of a gypsy mother, who is pining away for the professor she works for (another of the executors) while pursuing her studies of Rabelais. The plot thickens with a missing and valuable manuscript and the reappearance of a disgraced former professor.
The world of academia and the world of the gypsy mother and her tarot cards provide a fertile field for Davies as he explores, in various guises, the alchemical process of creating gold from base materials (some very literal base materials, in fact). As always with Davies, the story, which veers towards the melodramatic at the end of this novel, exists on several levels -- the literal, the psychological, and the mythical -- and gives him ample opportunity to skewer academic pretension and the implacable ignorance of those who think everything must serve a practical purpose.
What's Bred in the Bone
In the second novel of the trilogy, Davies steps back to explore (with the aid of the daimon Maimas and the Lesser Zadakiel, the Angel of Biography), the life of Francis Cornish from his beginnings in a remote and backwards logging town to his time in Europe before, during, and after the Second World War, and his subsequent return to Canada. It is a story of a child learning to understand his world and its secrets, largely on his own, and largely through drawing; of a young man who is introduced to secrets of other kinds, artistic and otherwise, while suffering from discovering some of the secrets of love. Again, we the see the transformation of material objects, from paintings that are mediocre to ones that are better, to an exchange for something still better, and we see Francis's transformation into an artist and a lover, both, however, briefly. And, again, we see Davies' wit and humor, and his penetrating psychological and mystical insight
The Lyre of Orpheus
In the final novel of the trilogy, Maria from the first novel has married Arthur Cornish, Francis Cornish's nephew and heir, and they have established a foundation to carry out Francis's legacy. Their first project is supporting an unformed but brilliant young musician who is attempting to fulfill the requirements for her doctorate by completing an unfinished opera about King Arthur by E. T. A. Hoffman. At the same time, Simon Darcourt, again from the first novel, is struggling with his biography of Francis, also commissioned by the foundation, because he doesn't know, what readers of the second novel know, about Francis's wartime years in Europe.
The creation of the opera gives Davies free rein to depict the artistic and theatrical processes, explore connections between the contemporary characters and those of the Arthurian legend, introduce some wonderful new characters to the mix, and allow some familiar characters the opportunity to grow and discover themselves. Towards the very end, Davies quotes Keats: "A Man's life of any worth is a continual allegory -- and very few can see the Mystery of his life." Davies' genius is that he lets us see the mystery and the allegorical aspects of his characters while keeping their feet firmly on the ground of this world.
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