The Lyre of Orpheus by Robertson Davies


The third book in Davies' Cornish Trilogy (The Rebel Angels and What's Bred in the Bones are the first two) adds new characters to the familiar Darcourt, Maria, Arthur and the late Frances. Much of this book centers on the creation of an opera based on sketches and bits of music by E.T.A. Hoffman about Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere. This echoes Frances' painting done in the style of the Old Masters which the art world believed was from that era by an unknown artist. A smaller, but for me, more interesting strand of the book was Darcourt's effort to learn more about Francis and this particular painting was key for him to complete the biography.

The creators of the opera include some absurd figures: Schnak, a snarling, unkempt but talented graduate student who composes the music, Geraint Powell, the dramaturge, and Dr. Gunilla Dahl-Soot who oversees Schnak. In another echo of the borrowing from other eras, Darcourt rewrites poetry of Sir Walter Scott for the libretto. 

In general I am happy to read detailed descriptions of places, processes, interests that I know nothing about, but in this case Davies did not successfully bring me along. I kept thinking of the phrase "inside baseball." Somehow in this book he was not able to make these characters' work come alive, unlike the equally esoteric subject of What's Bred in the Bone, recreating paintings to appear to be from an earlier era. 

I found the characters' to be much less appealing than the previous two books; except for the sensible Darcourt and the always fascinating (but dead) Francis, they seemed less fully-developed. Even the banter among Darcourt, Arthur, and Maria seemed stilted and silly at times. 

Darcourt was able to learn much, but not all that we learned about Francis in the previous volume. By diligent searching through the mountains of material left by Frances he learned that the figures in the painting The Marriage of Cana were individuals important in Francis' youth. He found the pencil drawings Francis made in the morgue, the photographs made by Francis' grandfather of the townspeople, and he realized the strange figure at the top of the drawing was Francis' older brother, Francis the First who was hidden in the attic. Francis put his life into the painting by recreating those who touched him in his youth in an ancient style. 

Robertson Davies, The Lyre of Orpheus, Macmillan of Canada, 1988, 472 pages. Available from the UVa and public libraries, and from Amazon.

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