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.
“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!