The Rebel Angels (See my review of March 7, ’09) opens Robertson Davies Cornish Trilogy and opened my way into his work. Lyre of Orpheus ably continues the saga of the denizens of “Spook” (St. John and the Holy Ghost University) beyond the first fireworks passion and murder that provided the juice for Rebel Angels.
Lyre centers around the production of an original opera. Well, not quite original, since it is drawn from notes left by E.T.A. Hoffman (the Tales of Hoffman guy). The opera is to be completed by a doctoral candidate of great musical ability and repulsive personality. The funds for the project come from the Cornish Foundation, a pot of money left for just such projects by an uncle of Arthur Cornish, businessman, dilettante, and the one member of the “real” world among the academicians, priests, gypsies, and creative types who people the rest of the book.
The opera works well as a plot engine and enables Davies to bring in a wonderful cast to surround his main core. His wit and cynicism roars along superbly throughout, and for a theater guy like me, all the backstage intrigues are fascinating and entertaining. I do think Davies falls into the trap that so many university-set works do. He too often becomes so wrapped up in intellectual repartee that it acts like an anchor on the action. Rebel Angels avoids the problem by virtue of a heavy dose of the gypsy crew that dominates so much of the work. There is no such balance in Lyre, and it hurts. I also think Davies gets carried away with inventing characters. The introduction of a pair named Al and Sweetness, for example, is a throwaway couple who add nothing to the action. One of those nice ideas that should have been left on the cutting room floor. Finally, the subplot comes to dominate the denouement and brings the book to the end with a bit of a thud. I can point to details, but it all adds up to a matter of chemistry, something like main character Simon Darcourt accuses the lovely Maria of losing after her marriage–that Rabelaisan spirit is not in sufficient abundance.
So, it’s not Rebel Angels, but it’s still damned good, and it won’t keep me from going after the third in this little tryptych–What’s Bred in the Bone.