Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Rebel Angels, by Robertson Davies

I read The Deptford Trilogy several years ago, and remember being absolutely enchanted, especially at the end of the first volume, but a little disappointed at the end. The first novel (Fifth Business) ends with a fascinating mystery the solution to which is, perhaps inevitably, far less interesting that the possibilities generated by the unresolved situation. It is also not really convincing.

The real pleasures of the novels, in any case, are elsewhere -- the observations on human nature, the prose style, the beautiful pacing and construction, and to some extent the characterization -- but one can't help feel let down when a trilogy of novels is built around a single question.

The Cornish Trilogy -- or at least the first novel -- provides many of the same pleasures without putting too much weight on a single plot point. It is again ingeniously told, alternating between two narrators: Simon Darcourt, a pastor, and Maria Theotoky, a beautiful half-gypsy graduate student (I know that sounds terrible, but believe me, it's a good book). There is a fair amount of plot involving unhappy loves and stolen manuscripts, but filled with long detours into pre-modern science, violin repair, gypsy love potions, the importance of excrement, and the Greek of the New Testament.

This may seem like one of those awful information-stuffed novels designed to show off the author's intelligence, but Davies's erudition didn't annoy me the way it can in some books, perhaps because this is a book about a university and the discussions of scholarly pursuits are, in a way, a form of characterization. Or maybe just because I found them interesting.

A note on characterization: this novel reminded me of something Orwell said about D. H. Lawrence, that he avoided the "novelist's problem" simply by making all of his characters equally sensitive. The same could be said of The Rebel Angels, but I'm not really sure that it is a genuine problem. A novelist is not obligated to feature characters with varying levels of intelligence. A book full of characters capable of fascinating insights is just a different kind of book. I actually felt a real connection between Davies and Lawrence: even with drastically different narrative styles, both of them wrote novels that are (perhaps primarily) vehicles for a philosophy of life. It is telling that Davies is an admirer of John Cowper Powys, who at least in the one book of his I've read appears to have a similar inclination.

There is one problem with this attitude towards novel-writing; the author seems to be everpresent, regardless of what character we are dealing with. For example, virtually everyone in The Rebels Angels talks in the same way; only the barest attempt is made at differentiation. I frequently had to doublecheck a passage to figure out who was speaking. The things they say are often interchangeable as well, and one can imagine a whole handful of insights in the mouths of any of four major characters. Even our beautiful young gypsy sounds like a crusty old novelist.

But, finally, who cares? I enjoyed this book immensely. I actually looked forward to my daily subway ride because of it. Like the single novels of The Deptford Trilogy, it is clearly designed as part of a whole, and the ending is far from satisfying. I'm taking a break at the moment, but I'm very much looking forward to dipping back into it.


Doug Bassett said...

See, I had different feelings about THE REBEL ANGELS. To my mind it was an overstuffed intellectualized novel but I just didn't find the ideas very interesting, despite all the superficial "brightness" of the story. I also remember thinking that the portrait of university life was not especially believable, although it's now been awhile and the book's no longer fresh in my mind.

To my mind Davies's one indisputable classic is FIFTH BUSINESS -- of the Cornish Trilogy the best is probably the second, WHAT'S BRED IN THE BONE, which takes some of Davies notions about art to they're logical endpoint, although I too found BONE rather dry, compared to Davies earlier work. One has the disconcerting feeling of hobbyhorses being mercilessly ridden.


Akshay said...

Thanks for the comment. It's been years since I read Fifth Business and I think I might have underrated it because the other books in The Deptford Trilogy didn't seem nearly as good, and the end was a letdown.

As for The Rebel Angels, Davies and I might just share the same hobbyhorses. And it's definitely true that St. John's resembles no university I have ever come across, but I forgave the lack of realism since it felt more interesting than a real one rather than less.

But I haven't read the next two novels in the trilogy, so we'll have to see if I revise my opinion...

farmlanebooks said...

I've just finished reading The Rebel Angels. I agree with you that it wasn't overstuffed with intellectual stuff. It had a reasonable amount, and some of it went over my head, as I'm not an expert in art/literature, but I didn't think there was too much. It didn't detract from the enjoyability of the book, and I'm now looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy.

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