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It was the title and lurid cover of The Rebel Angels that first drew my attention. I'm afraid I had not heard of the author Robertson Davies. The back of the book announced it was "A glittering extravaganza of wit, scatology, saturnalia, mysticism and erudite vaudeville." Although, at the time, I didn't actually know what scatology was I was familiar with the other terms and suspected that it might be my kind of book. And it was. Scatology The study of fecal excrement, as in medicine, paleontology, or biology. An obsession with excrement or excretory functions. The psychiatric study of such an obsession. Obscene language or literature, especially that dealing pruriently or humorously with excrement and excretory functions. Origin: scato-+ G. Logos, study Scatological - a new term for me but metaphorically, and in fact literally on occasion, a highly appropriate adjective for this novel. Very early in the book I realised that this was no ordinary novel and was not at all surprised when I later discovered that Robertson Davies was a very highly regarded Canadian author. The story is set in a university in the Gothic college of St John and the Holy Ghost aka Spook. The college is in Canada but could equally be Oxbridge or any similar university college and will be familiar to any reader who has studied in such an establishment. The academy it seems is the academy regardless of its location. The story opens with Maria Magdalene Theotoky trying to overcome the embarrassment of facing her Professor, Clement Hollier, who had at their previous meeting "had me amid a great deal of confusion of clothing, creaking of springs, and periferal anxiety lest somebody should come in." Maria is a research student, highly intelligent and beautiful and desired it seems by all who meet her. Professor Hollier and his colleagues, Urquart McVarish and Rev. Simon Darcourt, aided by Ar
thur Cornish are executors for the fantastic collection of art recently bequeathed to the college by one Francis Cornish. The collection includes a manuscript by Rennaissance scholar Rabelius which Professor Hollier hopes will become the subject of Maria's PhD thesis. But the manuscript becomes buried in the chaos and dust disturbed as the three Professors catalogue the treasures. Maria hides her embarrassment with the statement that "Parlabane is back." Parlabane is a black sheep of the college. Clothed in the garb of a monk he exudes his evil, corrupting and yet enlightening influence as he meanders through the story - a rebel angel par excellence. Maria also has to cope with the embarrassment of her family background - her mother is a Hungarian Gypsy who, since the death of her husband, has reverted to her true heritage and in spite of being incredibly wealthy prefers to steal food from the stupid gadjo and use other Gypsy wiles to dupe them Her uncle Yerko has recently discovered the beautiful Bebby Jesus. With these characters the author weaves a wondrous tale of intrigue in academia, injecting Gypsy magic into the staid Gothic grandeur, throwing Jungian psychology and alchemy into the melting pot to challenge societies mores and satirise the life that the author, as Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto, knew so well. The Rebel Angels, although complete within itself as a novel, is also the first of the Cornish Trilogy which revolves around the Cornish fortune. What's Bred in the Bone is the "biography" of Francis Cornish and the main focus is on art. The book is narrated by the two invisible spirits who served as Cornish?s guardians on Earth--the only ones who will ever know the whole truth about him. The Lyre of Orpheus, concern the convoluted doings when a young musical genius tries to recreate an unfinished opera about King Arthur by E.T.A. Hoffmann. This one
is narrated by Hoffman's ghost and is focused on theatre and music. These final two novels are very definitely on my must read list.
Feel guilty when you want something "easy" to read ? Need something that isn't Jackie Collins at one end or Dosteyevsky at the other ? Give this a try. I particularly suggested this for the dooyoo site because I noticed there seemed to be a few John Irving fans around. Whilst the similarities between JI and Robertson Davies aren't immediately obvious, devotees of Garp, Owen Meany et al will find this very familiar territory. Robertson Davies writes wonderful novels of academia, the arts, history ancient and modern, magic, the "unseen world" and some beautifully drawn, all-too-human characters. Yet he does all this within superbly crafted stories that flow from beginning to end, immensely satisfying novels that you find yourself returning to many times. As one of the quotes says which appears on the cover of the paperbacks, the kind of writer who makes you want to nag all your friends to read him. Very difficult to characterise, but a wonderful old man of letters, I love all of his novels but this rambling trilogy would be my recommendation for where to start.
Published by Penguin Books