Robertson Davies’s “The Rebel Angels”

The Canadian novelist Robertson Davies is one of the best writers of the 20th century, and, though it may not be true that he is neglected, American bookstores seldom carry his books anymore.  And that’s a pity: he is in the class, I think, of Anthony Powell.  Davies’s books are still in-print, but have not yet been published as e-books.  Does electronic accessibility determine a writer’s reputation these days?

Like many Americans, I fell in love with the Deptford trilogy years ago, and then eagerly read his other books. This month, when I felt like celebrating the fall with an academic novel, I found my copy of The Rebel Angels, the first in the brilliant Cornish trilogy. (N.B.  I wonder if I was conflating the season of fall with the fall of the rebel angels, with whom one of the narrators, Maria, identifies her favorite professors.)

Davies’ scholarly characters comically discuss alchemy, tarot cards, theology, and Rabelais.   At the fictional Canadian College of St. John and the Holy Ghost (nicknamed “Spook”), Maria Magdalena Theotky, who is one of the two narrators of the novel and a graduate student specializing in Rabelais, is desperately in love with her mentor/dissertation advisor, Clement Hollier, a gorgeous, absent-minded scholar who is researching “filth studies” (don’t ask!) in the Middle Ages.  Maria has not heard from Hollier since they impulsively had sex on the couch in his office before summer vacation, but the new semester is starting, and she plans to tell him the latest gossip:  Parlabane is back.

Who exactly is Parlabane?  Everybody is talking about him.  This robust novel opens with Davies’ rapidfire dialogue.

“Parlabane is back.
“What?”
“Hadn’t you heard? Parlabane is back.”
“Oh my God!”

Hollier explains to Maria that his old friend Parlabane was a brilliant student who never fulfilled his potential, went rogue, fell in love with a gorgeous man, failed at many jobs,  briefly joined a monastery, and then asked Hollier (and others, it turns out!) to send him money so he could return to Toronto.

Maria’s first meeting with Parlabane happens in the outer room in Hollier’s office, which is her work space.

I was rearranging my papers and things on the table in the outer room after lunch and there was a soft tap at the door and in came someone who was surely Parlabane.  I knew everyone else in St. John’s who might have turned up in such a guise; he was wearing a cassock, or a monkish robe, that had just a hint of fancy dress about it that marked it as Anglican rather than Roman.  But he wasn’t one of the Divinity professors at St. John’s.

Maria and Parlabane struggle for ascendancy in Hollis’s outer office:  Parlabane sleeps on the couch, stinks up the room (he never washes), borrows money from her, and goes through her papers when she is out.  But  Maria is determined not to go back to her carrel in the library,  and is not as conventional and biddable as she at first seems.   It turns out Maria has a secret life: her wealthy businessman father left the family very well-off,  her mother is a gypsy and has an illegal business restoring violins smuggled in from the U.S., and Maria lives at home, sleeping on the couch (rather like Parlabane), even though she has money to leave,  because she does not want to hurt her mother’s feelings.  And her mother has more-or-less gone native since her husband’s death:  she wears layers of gypsy skirts and cleans herself with oil rather than soap.

The second narrator is Simon Darcourt, an Anglican priest and professor, who is writing a sort of Aubrey’s Brief Lives about the college–and the gossip he picks up is fascinating.  He is by far the kindest man in the book, and the only one who could really be called “good.” And then, at dinner at Maria’s house, Simon falls in love with Maria.

As in A. S. Byatt’s Possession, scholars scramble for rare manuscripts.  Who will get his hands on a rare document by Rabelias? Arthur Cornish, a wealthy collector of paintings, music, and manuscripts, has died and left behind many treasures.  The executors of the estate are all professors at Spook:  Hollis, Simon, and Urky McVarish, a  rival Renaissance scholar,.  When Rabelais’s documents disappear, all  know Urky took it.  But what can they do?  He denies it.

Actually, what happens is very exciting and unexpected.  Good against evil, turning into evil, evil against evil, and does evil ever save the good?  God knows!  But there are lots of parallels between characters, even when they are opposites.

I loved The Rebel Angels, and enjoyed it more than I did the first time, though I also liked it then.  Over time, I seem to have have gleaned  a little more information about alchemy and medieval philosophy.  This remarkable novel has aged very well, and is very amusing.  Davies is always erudite, but I had forgotten how very comical he is.  A great book!

23 thoughts on “Robertson Davies’s “The Rebel Angels”

  1. I remember Davis being shortlisted for the Booker back in the eighties and I have occasionally seen copies of his novels for sale but I don’t think I know anyone other than you who has read him. From what you say, I suspect I would either love this or be extremely irritated by it. I belong to a reading group who would probably battle it out to the death over a book like this. Would this be a good one to suggest to them, or would you start elsewhere with his work?

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  2. I remember how much I laughed aloud (aloud) the first time I read one of his books of essays cum life-writing. To share a sense of humor truly, is to share an outlook. When I “discovered” him in the 1980s in a bookshop I went through that first trilogy and I remember thinking Fifth Business was extraordinary, a tragic novel — but I don’t remember any thing else any more. He was so refreshingly old-fashioned in his surface realism. Then somehow I tired of him, and stopped.

    We should mention he was an early outspoken gay man, and his novels center on homosexuality too (though like Henry James sometimes in disguise).

    I agree the “ebook” has become a measure of popularity. I had a hard time finding any audiobook of Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts; finally this morning an ebook only by recorded books but I can’t figure out how to register so will phone (!) them on Monday..

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    • Yes, I did laugh out loud as I read this! I know so little about Davies personally! I didn’t know he was gay, but certainly the men in this novel, with the exception of Parlabane, who IS gay, struggle to repress their sexuality. Thank God for Maria, my favorite character in the book!

      On Sat, Oct 28, 2017 at 9:21 AM, mirabile dictu wrote:

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  3. Friends gave me The Rebel Angels back in 1984. I thought Davies was an amazing and imaginative writer. I’ve read The Deptford Trilogy and a couple of others, but I haven’t read anything by him since 2005. Time to get back to him.

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  4. I’ve loved Davies for years and met him twice at book talks/signings while living in Boston.He was so very gentlemanlike in the good old fashioned way. And I don’t think he was gay!

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    • Oh, I’d love to have gone to one of his readings! So many really great (dead) writers had such an effect on readers, and he was very entertaining, too.

      On Sun, Oct 29, 2017 at 8:52 PM, mirabile dictu wrote:

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  5. I found this post after it appeared on the “recently liked” posts on Heaven-Ali’s blog and I’ve put you on my Feedly now. I adore Davies’ books and have done for decades, I love his trilogies and the worlds he creates, which are so real and absorbing. I haven’t read this one for ages and must do again, soon!

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    • Always glad to meet another Davies fan! He’s such a remarkable writer, and it’s really chance–I was shelving books on our bookcases–that I came across this.

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  6. I used to reread this one along with Fifth Business, more than the others (which I read only once). Now I am no longer sure if that’s just another way of demonstrating my affinity for books which begin series, as opposed to those which continue them, or whether they were actually more enjoyable.

    He was an early favourite author of mine, and a highlight of my younger years was having been in attendance at the dramatic performance of “World of Wonders” (the third Deptford book) at the Canadian Stratford Festival on the first afternoon, and seeing him stand in the audience to accept the applause of the audience. He seemed to have such a presence, even viewed from some distance there!

    I wonder if the earlier commenter might have been thinking of Timothy Findley, who was openly gay and also involved in the theatre scene and whose works figured prominently in the 1960s-1980s as well. He’s also a favourite of mine, although very different in some ways.

    Davies’ books are all available in epubs here; I wonder if that’s an international rights issue. I was very pleased to find even the Samuel Marchbanks volumes are available in that format now!

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    • Maybe the first books ARE the best in trilogies. I’m having to change my expectations in What’s Bred in the Bone, because there is a major character shift. Not that it’s not brilliant! Oh, how wonderful to have seen an adaptation at Stratford. (And, yes, I gather the gay thing was a mix-up.)
      Aha! International copyright! You’re probably right.

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