Thursday, 2 August 2012

A year in Books 2012 - The Cornish Trilogy

Canadian author Robertson Davies is not one of those that you see mentioned much. He doesn't appear on many best ofs or must read lists. He is not mentioned as a comparison in many reviews, etc. which is a real shame as he had a beard that is well worth remembering

During his life he was a major literary force , possibly most famous for a series of trilogies. When I was discovering books properly (ironically after finishing A level English) his books were everywhere with their distinctive covers . I would keep picking them up but with a limited budget would always put them down for something else.

Well I've finally got round to reading one of the trilogies , the Cornish trilogy (made up of the rebel angels , what's bred in the bone and the lyre of orpheus) and 1100 pages later it has left me regretting that it has taken so long.

The three novels, published between 1982 and 1988, can be read stand alone , but work best as a trilogy. The edition I've got has the 3 together and I read them with no break. 1100 pages and time flew by. In their own way the 3 novels are quite different but core themes run through all 3. The main one I guess it about the circles of history and how the lives of those gone by impact on the actions of those still here

The Rebel Angels is mainly a satire on academic life. A trio of college professors are brought together to dispose of the estate of Francis Cornish one of their peers. The estate consists of a haphazard collection of old manuscripts , paintings , sculpture, historical documents etc. The trio are employed by  Arthur a successful banker and the nephew of Francis. All 4 become fascinated and a little obsessed by Maria , a half gypsy free spirit student and hampered by ex monk , liar , charmer and rogue John Parlablane.

Life at the college is so well drawn that I suddenly wanted to do a career change and become a university professor.

Whats Bred in the Bone is the best of the three. This time we focus on the life of Francis Cornish and the secrets of his family. We move from early life in Canada through to studying in Oxford , studying art and spying in Nazi Germany, until finally he achieves a kind of greatness.  This book is more of the great family historical novel

The final novel sees the characters from the first book return as they head up The Cornish Foundation who allocate funds to worthy artistic endeavours, in this case the completion and performance of an unfinished opera based on the Arthurian legend. A satire on the arts , at the same time the lives of the opera's characters begin to be reflected in the actions of those on the Foundation.

All 3 are a delight and part of the fun is spotting the themes and echoes that weave in and out of the 3 books. They are smart books and at times they did leave me with a list for wikipedia as I wanted to really understand all the artistic and historical references. Don't let that put you off because there is a humour and lightness of touch that as I mentioned makes time fly by as you become immersed in Davies's world.

If you have read his books and wonder at my ignorance than I apologise, but it is worth discovering someone who deserves a lot higher profile and not just for his beard

You can buy the Cornish Trilogy here


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