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Books: Whisperings Of Intuition THE LYRE OF ORPHEUS by R. Davies

4 minute read
Paul Gray

Numerologists might be intrigued to learn that this novel completes a trilogy, that this trilogy is the third that Canadian author Robertson Davies has written, and that a painted triptych figures prominently and mysteriously in the narrative. What this plethora of threes may signify is anyone’s guess, but those more interested in words than in integers will face a calculated problem. Specifically, is it possible to understand and enjoy The Lyre of Orpheus without having read The Rebel Angels (1981) and What’s Bred in the Bone (1985), the books that lead up to it?

Of course. Having completed the Salterton and Deptford trilogies, Davies, 75, is by now adept at welcoming latecomers to his entertainments and making them feel right at home. He gracefully provides enough information about what has happened in the two preceding novels to keep everyone, including forgetful fans, up to speed. But he is also solicitous toward those who have been present and paying attention from the beginning; the plot and characters of The Lyre of Orpheus gain resonances from the earlier books that only initiates will hear.

For openers, though, the story’s surface is sufficiently beguiling. Big money is immediately introduced: the fortune left by the late, eccentric Francis Cornish. Meeting in Toronto, the benefactor’s nephew Arthur and the four other board members of the Cornish Foundation consider an offbeat project. A graduate student named Hulda Schnakenburg wants to earn her Ph.D. in music by finishing an opera that E.T.A. Hoffmann left incomplete at the time of his death in 1822. Not only does the foundation agree to underwrite Hulda’s expenses, but it also coughs up the funds for a full-scale production of the final product. As soon as feasible, Arthur of Britain, or The Magnanimous Cuckold, will be staged at Stratford, Ont. From his position in Limbo, the composer Hoffmann cheers this decision and vows to pay close attention to everything that follows.

That last touch — the voice from Limbo — is Davies’ only deviation from strict narrative plausibility, and it is a minor one at that. Hoffmann cannot intercede in the proceedings; he is just another spectator along with the readers. Davies does not need spooks or disembodied souls to demonstrate that even the most mundane, realistic events can be steeped in magic. Simon Darcourt, an Anglican clergyman, a professor of Greek and the secretary of the Cornish Foundation, believes “that everybody had a personal myth,” that people’s lives unfold in accordance with invisible but implacable patterns. Despite his extensive education, Darcourt sees limitations in a logic used as “a means of straining out of every problem the whisperings of intuition.”

Hence, Darcourt suspects early on that reviving the Arthurian opera may have unforeseen consequences, particularly for Arthur Cornish and his wife Maria, who is also on the foundation’s board. Might these two well-meaning, influential and exemplary people be fated to suffer Maria’s adultery with Arthur’s best friend, a Lancelot in modern dress? No sooner is this suspicion raised than it begins to seem inevitable. Davies does not try to generate much suspense on this score; his interest lies in how the principals will react once the predestined has occurred and what they will learn from the unpleasant, archetypal experience.

The opera is not the only unfinished business in The Lyre of Orpheus. Darcourt is struggling to complete his biography of his friend Francis Cornish and trying to fill a mysterious gap in his subject’s life between 1937 and 1945; readers who remember What’s Bred in the Bone already know the bizarre information Darcourt will discover, including the existence of a 16th century triptych with unmistakable ties to the 20th. And a potential blackmailer turns up, hoping to hold several characters responsible for deeds that occurred way back in The Rebel Angels.

Davies juggles these plots with consistent good humor and remarkable insider erudition. The latter should come as no surprise, given the author’s extensive background in the theater and academe; as a young man he was an actor in Britain’s Old Vic Company, and he later served 20 years as the master of Massey College at the University of Toronto. The novel is crammed with funny renditions of wheezy professorial badinage and flamboyant dramatic monologues. But it is Davies’ own voice that seems most memorable: confident, unhurried, interested and amused. Late in the novel, on the brink of the opera’s opening night, the narrative pauses briefly to consider Oliver Twentyman, a trouper in his 80s who will sing the role of Merlin the magician: “He liked being old — and still a great artist. Age, linked with achievement, was a splendid crown to life.” So it is, as this novel and Davies’ remarkable career munificently demonstrate.

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