Davies’ Finest

The book under discussion today is Robertson Davies’ (1913-1995) final novel of the Cornish Trilogy. My favourite. It isn’t that I didn’t enjoy the other two novels in this literary triptych. On the contrary, I love all of them. But The Lyre of Orpheus – from my first reading of it in 1988 through the most recent (just finished) – is the best of the Cornish novels, in my judgement. And the Cornish trilogy is the best of Robertson Davies’ fiction (I’ve read – in addition to the Cornish Triology – his Salterton and Deptford Trilogies as well as The Cunning Man; the only fictional work of his which I haven’t really enjoyed was Murther and Walking Spirits).

If you want to get as much as possible out of The Lyre and to fully appreciate the gems of characterization within, you should begin at the beginning. So I suggest starting by reading each of Davies’ earlier novels in the trilogy: (1) The Rebel Angels and (2) What’s Bred in the Bone.

What is the principal task that brings the central characters together in The Lyre? In a word: Opera. The members of the well-funded Cornish Foundation decide to accept a proposal from Hulda Schnakenburg – aka Schnak – who wants to complete an opera started, but unfinished, by E. T. A. Hoffmann – aka ETAH. Schnak proposes to flesh out the music of one of ETAH’s operas as the means of completing her doctor of music degree. The Foundation, however, takes things a step further, and decides to stage the completed opera (the fictional ‘Arthur of Britain’) before a live audience.

The person through whom Davies relates most of the story is Simon Darcourt. He is an Anglican priest who has taken on an academic life teaching Greek in Ploughwright College. He is kept busy in the novel serving as the opera’s librettist and with researching and writing a biography of the Foundation’s namesake, Francis Cornish. During the course of the story, Darcourt comes to see himself as “The Fool”, and that proves to be a worthy realization. Enough said!

Here is Darcourt’s first impression of Schnak (as she prefers to be called):

Schnak’s dirt was not a sign of feminine protest, but the real thing. She looked filthy, ill, and slightly crazed. Her dirty hair hung about in hunks about a face that was sharp and rodent-like. Her eyes were almost closed in squinting suspicion, and on her face were lines in improbable places, such wrinkles as one does not often see today, even on ancient crones . . . . If it is possible to say so, Schnak was distinguished only by her insignificance; if Darcourt had met her on the street he would probably not have noticed her. But as someone on whom large sums of money were to be risked she struck chill into his heart.

Welshman, Geraint Powell, directs the opera. He is silver-tongued and good-looking. Here he is in the early pages of The Lyre, as described by Maria Cornish (nee Theotoky), a central character from The Rebel Angels, recently married to Arthur Cornish – a nephew of Francis (after whom the Foundation is named):

Geraint knew a lot about the Arthurian legend, though Maria suspected that it was coloured by Geraint’s lively fancy. It was he who insisted that Arthur’s determination that the Foundation should take an unusual and intuitive path was truly Arthurian. He urged his fellow [Foundation] directors to “press into the forest wherever we saw it to be thickest” and would emphasize it by repeating, in what he said was Old French, la ou ils la voient plus expresse. Maria did not like Geraint’s theatrical exuberance. She was in flight from exuberance of another sort and, like a real academic, she was wary of people outside the academic world – ‘laymen’ they called them – who seemed to know a lot. Knowledge was for professionals of knowledge.

The ‘exuberance of another sort’ from which Maria was in flight was her Gypsy background (through her mother, whom you get to meet in both The Rebel Angels and in The Lyre). I don’t think I’ll say anything more about Maria, nor her husband, Arthur (nor, for that matter, Maria’s colourful mother!)

Most of the characters in the novel speak to the reader through Davies in the Third Person Omniscient point of view. The single exception, however, is ETAH, who speaks in the First Person Omniscient (because he is a Spirit in the novel). ‘ETAH in Limbo’ typically appears at the conclusion of the major sections of the Lyre. Here he is in his first such appearance:

[I have] been wide awake in Limbo, for ever since I died I have been aware of people reading what I wrote about music, and now and then seeing Undine, my best completed opera, on the stage, and never forgetting my tales of wonder where, the critics say, the fantastic meets the everyday . . . . We were not sinners. Just artists who, for one reason or another, never finished our work on earth and so must wait until we are redeemed, or at least justified, by some measure of human understanding. Heavenly understanding, it appears, is what brings us to Limbo; we never really did our best and that is a sin of a special kind . . . . Can this be my great chance? Is this extraordinary waif Schnak to be my deliverer? . . . . I shall stand at Schnak’s shoulder and push her in the right direction, so far as I can . . . . [I]f my luck enables me to be Schnak’s Luck, I may have a chance to sleep eternally, my work accomplished.

Two of the delights of The Lyre, for me, are the author’s development of complex, fascinating, and memorable characters and in being taken behind the scenes of a theatre production by someone who knew a thing or two about it. Davies was a notable playwright and actor and was a founder of the Stratford Festival.

It seems fitting to conclude this post with one of my favourite quotes in The Lyre – about the value of reading books. Schnak complains to Powell that he, Darcourt and others involved in the opera “seem to live out of books. As if everything was in books!” Powell replies:

Well, Schnak, just about everything is in books. No, that’s wrong. We recognize in books what we’ve met in life. But if you’d read a few books you wouldn’t have to meet everything as if it had never happened before, and take every blow right on the chin. You’d see a few things coming.

I highly recommend The Lyre of Orpheus!

4 thoughts on “Davies’ Finest”

  1. That final quote… I must remember it for the times I’m trying to convince some young adults I know that picking up a good book could actually be a valuable experience.

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