Monday, 25 August 2014

Robertson Davies

   The University of Waterloo was offering a free literature course at the Cambridge Library (now known as Ideas Unlimited).  The subject of the course was Robertson Davies.
   We began with a biography of Davies: "Robertson Davies: A Portrait in Mosaic" by Val Ross.  Mosaic is a term used in art when making a pattern or picture by putting small multi-coloured items together.  I can see how the term 'mosaic' is effective for this book.  There were small items from over one hundred contributors.  Each person added a tiny aspect of Davies' life in an effort to present a unique picture of the man and his work.  At first, I was frustrated by the jerky delivery.  But, like a mosaic, eventually, a picture began to form.  I wondered why the professor had not chosen the biography written by Davies' personal biographer, Judith Skelton Grant. Grant had interviewed him over seventy times.  But our professor felt that book was too long and dry.  I found Robertson Davies to be an interesting man of many talents.  He had a great fascination for the theatre, writing, directing and performing.  Did anyone really 'know' him?  Perhaps his whole life was a 'performance'.
  Most of the class did not like the man that was portrayed in this biography.

"None is Too Many" by Irving Abella and harold Trope.
It was suggested that we read this non-fiction book about Canada and the Jews of Europe in 1933-1948.  It documents Canada's response to Jewish refugees. Only 5000 refugees were allowed into Canada during this time period and the title is based on a quote from an immigration agent when asked how many Jews would be allowed into Canada after the first world war.
Vincent Massey was in full support of this plan.  Massey was very important in Davies' life and the issue of the Jews is a theme throughout the series of Davies' books that we studied.

 So, on to his novels.  Davies did not start writing novels until he was 37.  He had been very busy with the newspaper business and the theatre.
 The Cornish trilogy was chosen for the course- not his best known or best loved, but his last series.

"The Rebel Angels"
This novel was written when Davies was 68 and retired from Massey College in Toronto.  It has a university setting -  the College of St. John and Holy Ghost- nicknamed "Spook".
Francis Cornish, a patron of the arts, has died and his nephew Arthur is the executor of the will.  But there are three others involved in sorting out Cornish's huge collections: McVarnish, Hollier and Darcourt .  Add Parlabane, a defrocked monk and Maria Magdalena Theotoky, a graduate student, and you have an interesting cast of characters.
There are two narrators.  Many of the characters are based on real people and also you can see personal characteristics of Davies in some of the characters.
I found the novel dry, with words that are out of the modern vernacular and not listed in dictionaries.  I chose to use the 50-pages rule for the first time and gave myself permission to 'skim and drop'.

"What's Bred in the Bone"
The title refers to family inheritance.
After the lecture on "The Rebel Angels", I had more understanding and interest and decided to persevere with this second novel in the series.  After all, it is a university course, so I had better just buckle down and read.
And so I read!  And read, and read, and read!
A very long, scholarly book detailing the life of Francis Cornish. The structure of the novel is a 'frame narrative'- in other words, a story within a story.
Francis' destiny is clear throughout, but, as the professor said, "You may not fulfil your destiny in your lifetime".
The professor asked questions like: "Are the readers creating the narrative or passively receiving the text?" Thought-provoking questions and the lecture is more interesting when I have finished the book.

"The Lyre of Orpheus"
This is the third book in the trilogy.  And it is even longer than the second book.  Do I want to spend another week pushing through this novel?  Dilemma time!
My purpose in this course was to become familiar with Robertson Davies and his work.  I feel that I have accomplished that.  I certainly have learned a lot about the man.  And I know that he writes 'a nice turn of phrase'.  No doubt about that!
This book was not well-liked by the class.  The ending was too tidy and not satisfying- after the long read.
Questions were raised such as: How much control do you have over your life?  How much is "bred in the bone'?

Did anyone ever really know Robertson Davies?
How much biography is actually fiction?

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