I’m going to go out on a limb and say that most Americans have never heard of Robertson Davies, novelist, essayist, playwright, actor, professor and publisher, who died in 1995. It’s a shame, really, because this old-fashioned Canadian has written some of the cleverest, most erudite-yet-accessible and tightly-plotted novels I’ve read.
His Deptford Trilogy is made up of three novels: Fifth Business (1970), The Manticore (1972) and World of Wonders (1975). My paperback copy of this omnibus has 825 pages. The same cabal of characters inhabits all three novels although the focus of each separate novel is different. Fifth Business is told in first person and narrated by Dunstan Ramsay, a Canadian boy who grows up to be a schoolteacher and a world-renowned expert on saints. The Manticore is related as dialogue between David Staunton (son of Boy Staunton, a childhood and adult friend of Dunstan Ramsay) and his Swiss Jungian psychoanalyst. World of Wonders returns to Ramsay, technically as first-person narrator, who quotes the conversations and stories told to him by Magnus Eisengrim, a famous magician. The action that sets the three novels in motion is this: Ramsay, as a child, ducks a snowball thrown by Boy Staunton which hits Eisengrim’s pregnant mother, causing her to go into labor prematurely.
The Cornish Trilogy is comprised of The Rebel Angels (1981), What’s Bred In the Bone (1985) and The Lyre of Orpheus (1988) and the paperback comes in at an impressive 1,136 pages. As in the earlier trilogy, the same characters populate all three novels in varying degrees. The Rebel Angels takes place at a Canadian University: an eccentric art collector, Francis Cornish, has died, naming three of the professors as his executors. What’s Bred In the Bone leads us through Cornish’s very interesting life, from his childhood in a small town in Ontario, to his university education in Toronto (where his path crosses that of Dunstan Ramsay), to his apprenticeship as a painter and restorer, his war experiences and his return home to Canada. In The Lyre of Orpheus, the executors of Cornish’s will have established a charitable foundation which is sponsoring the completion of an unfinished opera by a doctoral candidate prodigy.
I don’t remember how I discovered these books. I do remember sitting down with The Cornish Trilogy, a little intimidated at first, but almost immediately getting sucked into this world Davies had created. These novels are dryly funny, intellectual – incorporating, with reason and clarity, art history and criticism, comparative literature, opera theory, hagiology and Jungian archetypes (to list just a sampling) – and yet understandable to the layperson. The scope of the narratives span decades, generations and continents but Davies brings everything together by the end – the Lost writers could learn a thing or two from him about tying up plot points! Do not be put off by the number of pages, although I suppose in this age of Harry Potter folks are less alarmed by a book’s thickness: these smart and funny novels should be savored at length.
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