The Lyre of Orpheus 
by Robertson Davies.
Viking, 472 pp., £11.95, September 1988, 9780670824168
Show More
Show More

No novelist can bring off a committee meeting with quite the flourish and high style of Robertson Davies. So it is good to report that his latest novel, The Lyre of Orpheus, opens (the theatrical metaphor is appropriate) upon a meeting in a Canadian city, presumably Toronto, of the board of the Cornish Foundation. They are gathered to decide whether they should subsidise a project which Arthur Cornish characterises as ‘crackbrained’ and ‘absurd’, adding that it ‘could prove incalculably expensive, and violates every dictate of financial prudence’, after which he recommends that, in view of all these disadvantages, they should, of course, vote to go ahead with it. And with this breezy paradox, Davies’s latest novel – last in the Cornish trilogy, which includes The Rebel Angels and What’s bred in the bone – is off and running.

The project under discussion is an opera to be called Arthur of Britain, or The Magnanimous Cuckold – a work said to have been left unfinished by E.T.A. Hoffmann at his death; the score now to be completed by a singularly unattractive and difficult young genius named Hulda Schnakenburg (‘Twaddlesville’?), who will thereby earn her PhD in Music. To help things along, the famous and redoubtable musicologist. Dr Gunilla Dahl Soot, is brought in as an adviser – surely bringing coals to Newcastle, for all of Davies’s characters are spilling over with advice, and hardly have time to listen to one another.

The term of the opera’s creation, from the committee phase of its conception to its public performance over four hundred pages later, provides the basic temporal frame of the novel: but this is only one of many thematic bonds intricately woven into the text not simply of The Lyre of Orpheus but of the entire trilogy. Simon Darcourt’s biography of Francis Cornish, for example, was begun early in The Rebel Angels and is completed at approximately the same time as the opera. Cornish was Arthur’s uncle and eponym of the Foundation – a man who had gathered great wealth and great art during a life that began and ended in Canada, although much of it was lived in England and Europe, where he was occupied with intelligence work during World War Two.

During those of his investigations into Cornish’s life which are recounted in The Lyre of Orpheus, Darcourt discovers that his subject’s greatness lay not only in his collecting money and art, but also in his secretly painting an astonishingly ‘authentic’ 16th-century masterpiece. The Marriage at Cana, hitherto assigned to some anonymous ‘Alchemical Master’: this discovery is one of the major satisfactions for the reader who has read the works of the trilogy in the order of their publication.

This is not the same, however, as the chronological order of the events they describe. The Rebel Angels, the first novel of the trilogy, begins shortly after the death of Francis Cornish, with the setting-up of the Cornish Foundation, and with Simon Darcourt’s initial brooding over the artistic problems of fitting such a man into a book. What’s bred in the bone carries the reader back in time, focusing upon the life of Francis Cornish himself – the fons et origo of so much that has to be lived out by his heirs and successors, who seem destined to explicate in terms of their own preoccupations and realities what he has so cunningly complicated. In writing this novel, Davies is doing Darcourt’s job, as it were – but from a greater distance, so that his view includes Darcourt. He is painting a portrait of Francis Cornish, showing the back of Simon Darcourt in the foreground as he paints his portrait of Cornish within this lesser frame. Now, with The Lyre of Orpheus, we pick up temporally where Rebel Angels left off.

As for Francis Cornish’s biographer, Simon Darcourt: he is a priest, a bachelor, and a professor of Greek in the College of St John and the Holy Ghost (familiarly known as ‘Spook’); he is also a man of acute observation and humane understanding. In addition, since much of the action of all the novels derives from Francis Cornish’s life and accomplishments, Darcourt provides a sort of artistic mediation, and if any character other than Cornish himself may be said to possess the action of the trilogy, it is Darcourt. He is in many ways worthy of the role, although he suffers, I think, from an affliction which is shared by some of Davies’s other characters: he often does not quite measure up to his talk.

Davies possesses rare insight into human dividedness, and can argue a contrary case with admirable conviction. In his essay, ‘Truth in Melodrama’ (in Voice from the Attic), he wrote: ‘Melodrama stirs us, and stirred our forefathers, because we sense its basic truth.’ The argument is not unfamiliar, but in Davies’s essay ‘From the Attic’ (i.e., from Canada to the US), the argument finds a unique relevance to an age that seems to be working with all its might to destroy history.

The pervasive belief in hidden truths is closely connected with melodrama, for what melodrama can exist without a secret? Certainly, there are secrets and hidden truths in The Lyre of Orpheus, for, like all of Davies’s fiction, it is to some extent about art itself – which is concerned with the truth of appearances – and gives pleasure to the extent that we are momentarily, willingly deceived, and then edified, only to be deceived again – and so forth, in a sort of dialectical progression in which hiddenness and revelation play thesis and antithesis, turn and counter-turn, until their final various syntheses and revelations.

The title of this new novel derives from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s observation that ‘the lyre of Orpheus opens the door of the underworld of feeling.’ The utterance is germane to all of Davies’s fiction, for his subject never drifts far from magic, and that special institutionalised form of magic we call art. Davies has been labelled a Jungian, and the elemental divisions Jung found in human experience provide rich material for his special gifts and interests. Most of these divisions are variations on the classical separations of truth from appearance which, with the advent of modern epistemology, have begun to seem simplistic, even disreputable: for today we are evidently condemned to experience a world of graded appearances, providing endless opportunities for a novelist who understands and delights in fictional games employing levels of deceit.

I have claimed that Davies creates committee meetings in his fiction that are wonderfully interesting and unlike those of any other writer. No doubt his experience in the theatre (he is a playwright and studied acting at the Old Vic, where he was Tyrone Guthrie’s literary assistant) has been useful in his mastering the craft of fiction: but while his dialogue may have been learned in the theatre, it is still his own. Fictional dialogue is an art in itself, and, by everyone’s admission, a very difficult one. And for all his gifts, Davies does not always create ‘pure’ dialogue – which is to say, his characters do not always speak as they alone could speak. In fact, when they are inspired by topics of a scholarly nature, they almost inevitably begin to sound exactly like Davies himself in his literary essays. Since I value these essays as models of grace and insight, however, I am content to let his people step out of character long enough for the voice of the magician who has created them to be clearly heard.

Over a large dinner one-third of the way though The Lyre of Orpheus, while all the guests are ‘chirping over their cups’, Geraint Powell announces that their opera needs a story. This idea seems to catch everyone by surprise, and they are immediately launched into several pages of delicious haggling. Probably the drink has something to do with the scene’s reminding one of Alice’s mad tea party: but drink, together with Powell’s remark, is only the catalyst, for all of these characters are madly articulate, madly informed, madly outspoken, and madly partial in their views. The mention of such a scene, however, should not be taken to suggest that Lyre, or the trilogy it completes, lacks either a complex and interesting architectonics or good storytelling. The narrative lines are interwoven, contrapuntal, and bound together by various themes that are sounded over and over in different ways, and with a gratifying sense of authenticity. The quest motif is everywhere apparent, and it functions in different ways just as it means different things to different people. If the Arthurian analogue in Lyre is focused upon, the quest becomes twofold: the opera itself, as a completed work of art, as well as a properly more mystical possession. But possession of what? Of knowledge, of course – beyond that, of understanding; and beyond that, of wisdom. Nothing in the world of sensation proves to be exactly what it seems, and yet what is perceived always carries within itself a seed of mystic revelation.

Like Jung before him, Davies is infatuated with the constant discovery of human wisdom in ancient knowledge. All his work, and the Cornish trilogy especially, teems with old and half – forgotten lore – Tarot, astrology, the chemistry of pigments in Renaissance painting, alchemy, Gypsy lore, Arthurian legend, the old and discarded subtleties of the Schoolmen. The Rebel Angels also includes a treatise on somatotypes and features a biologist named Ozy Froats (how John Cowper Powys would have liked that name!) who is earnestly engaged in what might be termed ‘scatomancy’ – the biological analysis of human feces and what they might reveal of what we are, and are not.

One of the motifs in The Lyre of Orpheus is supplied by the ghost of E.T.A. Hoffmann, who is heard periodically (in italics, naturally) commenting upon the action. He speaks from that limbo which is reserved for artists who have not done their best or have left work unfinished, and his function here is somewhat that of a Greek chorus. His sections are analogous to the phased commentaries of ‘the Lesser Zadkiel, Angel of Biography, and the Daimon Maimas’ in What’s bred in the bone. With considerable panache, these two explain one of the most astonishingly melodramatic coincidences in all literature, under-scoring Davies’s defiant insistence upon the event happening, and to hell with plausibility. Hoffmann’s comments upon the completion of his own imagined work are dim and uncertain – which is perhaps only natural for an artist in limbo. ‘Operas devour incident,’ a character remarks in Lyre: and, indeed, this opera acts as a mirror and metaphor for the novel itself, as it devours incident. When works of art are given prominence in a novel, they inevitably tell us something about the novel. How could they not? Like Darcourt’s biography of Cornish, all that talk about how to conceive an opera, and produce it adequately, reflects upon and energises the action of the novel in which the talk takes place.

Davies’s many years of theatrical experience enliven these scenes, and one can feel that special shared excitement that comes when artistic collaboration moves to a public performance. But there is another sort of personal experience Davies has evidently drawn upon to enrich his fiction: his tenure as Dean of Massey College at the University of Toronto. One is not invited to identify Spook with any specific aspect of the university life Davies has known personally and from within; nevertheless, there are sorts of madness that are exquisitely peculiar to academic life. Most of these have to do with the curse/blessing of over-specialisation, so that – unbalanced by profession – scholars occupying neighbouring territories can suddenly turn vicious over matters the world must view as trivial. Spook is a microcosm, as well as the setting for most of the trilogy’s shenanigans: in its great rooms the committees meet and the banquets are held. Alma Mater continues to nourish all within – the faculty and administration especially – and even favours deans and sub-committees with xeroxed agendas. Davies’s playfulness with the academic mind contributes to wonderfully comic scenes, scenes so exuberant and so good-natured in the Horatian mode that the satire is more joyful than bitter. Notable exceptions are the only three ‘Americans’ – those living beneath the attic – so grubby and silly a trio of specimens that it would have been better had they been distributed over the trilogy, one to a novel.

As the theme of the opera suggests, cuckoldry is a dominant motif – but it is not limited to Lyre, for there are two other cases – if one can call Francis’s aristocratic father a cuckold (he married knowing that his wife was pregnant with a child begotten by champagne, by accident and by a stranger). Arthur Cornish himself is the magnanimous cuckold in Lyre, and it is unfortunate that he is not especially convincing as a character. Possibly he is not meant to be, for his existence as a rather pale symbol possessed of the kingly power of money might seem justification enough. His wife Maria (née Theotoky – she is half-Gypsy, and her mother, Mamusia, has a lively part in the earlier action) is another matter altogether. She is the learned and subtle protégé of Clement Hollier, a ‘paleo – psychologist’ who seduced her at the very beginning of The Rebel Angels. Her scholarly interest is Rabelais, and, like most of Davies’s characters, she is interestingly at odds with herself, divided between her half-Gypsy heritage (embodied in her terrible, fascinating Mamusia) and the Western world of higher learning.

Now, having been married to Arthur, Maria is again ‘seduced’ – this time by the flamboyant Geraint Powell, who comes to her at night wearing Arthur’s robe. To a sleepy and amorous woman, whose husband has just become sterile from mumps, her acquiescence might seem no more than a willing suspension of disbelief. Geraint Powell is a guilt-tormented con man with a handsome profile and a flair for the theatrical. His dividedness, too, is spectacular, manifest in his ambivalence towards his father, an evangelical pastor in Wales whom poor Geraint can neither forgive nor forget.

The novel is about cuckoldry, art and salvation. But, like virtually everything in the mirror-muddled world these novels present, none of them is exactly what it seems. For example, cuckoldry is not simply the deceiving of basically good men by women, two of whom would hardly be accounted wicked even from a Victorian point of view (the third, however, is one of the great bitches in all literature – she appears in What’s bred in the bone). It is also a metaphor which suggests that all of our truths are merely appearances, that there is a compassion, or caritas, that accepts what fate has dumped into our nests, and that such magnanimity and acceptance can help us to find our humanity. This wisdom parallels artistic creation, which does not really operate independently and personally, but rather participates always in the perpetuation of old skills and old knowledge.

I found the ending of Lyre crowded, hurried, with important issues tossed dismissively aside (Darcourt’s completion of Cornish’s biography is given little more than footnote status). And yet, perhaps, this is in one sense as it should be: perhaps every trilogy should be thought of as consisting of four books, the last unwritten.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences