Magnanimous Cuckolds

Jack Matthews

  • The Lyre of Orpheus by Robertson Davies
    Viking, 472 pp, £11.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 670 82416 X

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.

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