It’s humbling–I suppose I need it–to be introduced to wonderful writers I ought to have known about years–nay, decades–ago. So I’ve been chastened once again by following a tip, again from that Canadian son-in-law I’ve mentioned before, that I might like a certain author of Canadian renown named Robertson Davies. Why I haven’t run across this prolific storyteller of great intellect and wit before must be a matter of my earwax or some kind of American literary snobbery. The man is a first rate writer, that rare combination of aesthetic and entertainer. I plucked The Rebel Angels off the library shelf at random, and (lucky me) it turns out to be the first in one of the Monty-Wooly-lookalike author’s several trilogies. I’ll certainly go on to the other two of the threesome in The Cornish Trilogy, What’s Bred in the Bone, and The Lyre of Orpheus.
So what’s so good about him? First of all, he’s produced a novel set in academia that is neither pretentious nor supercilious. I tend to shy away from these things because they often become self parodies. The writer so wallows in his characters’ academic affections that said affectations reveal themselves as belonging as much to the author as to his creations. Not so Davies.
Among the main characters are several learned and established academicians, and their research provides important grist for the action mill. Discussions of the likes of Rabelais and Paracelsus play important parts in relationships, and numerous conversations include generous helpings of Latin. Indeed, a bit of research (I’m not willing to spend the time.) would undoubtedly yield amusing insights into both character and action.
However, amid all this scholarly give-and-take (which Davies manages to make engaging even when the reader is not quite sure what people are talking about) there appears an enormous amount of shit. Literally.
Davies uses excrement as an emblematic source of creativity and spirit as well as of corruption. It’s also a source of delicious (so to speak) satire. One professor (nickname, “turd skinner”) receives a high prizes for research on “faeces,” research which no one understands, which has yielded no discernible results nor is expected to. Prized violins are cured in beds of horse manure. All this earthiness is completely appropriate to the Rabelaisian dimension of the work. but it’s perhaps unprecedented in a university-set novel. I’m reminded of a couple of images from probably my favorite poet. W.B. Yeats is noted more for his ethereal imagery than for for his earthiness, but that’s the fault of his squeamish readers, not his. Try these lines from (I believe) “Crazy Jane Talks to the Bishop:”
Love has pitched his mansion
In the place of excrement.
Nothing can be whole or sole
That has not been rent.
Or this entire poem called “A Stick of Incense:”
From whence did all this fury come?
From empty tomb or virgin womb?
St. Joseph thought the world would melt,
But liked the way his finger smelt.
Just so are universities as replete with the down and dirty as all other institutions of human enterprise. Yes, and as full of superstition as well. The Rebel Angels has magic at the center of it. Gypsies, Tarot cards, spells, curses and the power of menstrual blood move the action every bit as much as scholarship and intellect. The grotesque image on the cover art is from the Tarot and is entirely appropriate to the feel of this novel, which pays homage to the entirety of the human comedy, it’s pain and savagery, as well as to its superficial wit. “Honor not only your crown but your root.” If you care to know what that little quote means, read The Rebel Angels. And, for no particular reason, I leave you with Rabelais’s will:
I owe much, have nothing, the rest goes to charity