- Robertson Davies's Cornish Trilogy: A Reader's Guide
In Judith Skelton Grant's magnificently thorough biography, Robertson Davies: Man of Myth, she refers to a letter that Davies sent to her on 7 April 1986. In it, he declares, '[T]he imagination is a cauldron, not a filing cabinet. But in most of the criticism of my work I read I find that imagination is the quality that appeals least to the majority of critics.' However much critics now might debate the nature of Robertson Davies' imagination, he may have had a point, particularly with regard to Victor Lams's Reader's Guide to the Cornish Trilogy.
Robertson Davies's Cornish Trilogy seeks to illuminate the volumes in the Cornish trilogy with that very old-fashioned but useful exegetical tool we know as close reading. Lams (in the briefest of introductions) makes no grand claims for his guide; he simply wants, he says, to provide a book-length study of the trilogy (which he says has been undervalued) that assists the reader to unfold Davies' sometimes headlong narrative. More grandly, he asserts that he wants to 'articulate the essence of these novels' - The Rebel Angels, What's Bred in the Bone, and The Lyre of Orpheus - so the reader need not be burdened by having to balance and retain the elements of a demanding structure.
This guide succeeds in tracking Davies' scenes with a magnifying glass, but it relies overmuch on plot recapitulation at the expense of intensive analysis. The result is a version of pedantic detective's report, without the benefit of critique that can help to salt the act of readerly rereading. Ironically, Lams's text succumbs to an almost Victorian scholarship redolent of Davies' own approach to his characters and their challenges.
Lams excuses himself for the extent to which he quotes from Davies (and this guide is larded with lengthy quotations), by insisting that this method enables 'meditation-upon' passages, which precedes 'insight-into.' In fact, this tactic signals the double challenge of Davies' erudition, for the critic ends up replicating the master without matching his skill. [End Page 508]
Lams outlines the characters and events of the Cornish trilogy in enormous detail, and to some extent the pleasure a reader experiences in first encountering this serial contretemps is repeated in his summary. These novels depict an academic and art world that incites a frisson of delight in every academic and art expert. We love the hand-held mirror, permission to indulge in narcissistic contemplation just as, in What's Bred in the Bone, when Francis Cornish tries to 'enter and become the picture' (Love Locked Out) that speaks so powerfully to his inchoate desire. Perhaps this pleasure is most germane to academics, or at least those academics who crave an excuse to enjoy Parlabane's ill-tempered dishevelment (The Rebel Angels) as revenge against the institutions that hound us to our graves with petty expectations. It is only too transparently true that the yearning of every university is to be accessory to a crime.
But the academic game at play here is a tricky one. As Seneca reminds us, '[N]othing is so offensive as excessive cleverness.' The temptation that Robertson Davies continues to proffer is emulation, which can lead a critic to rhubarb on and on about this aspect and that element, only to make compote out of fine ingredients.
And the structures of melancholy and mockery that Davies is so adept at do not fare well in regurgitation. Lams moves from recapitulation to occasional speculations that are surprising because they stand out but are still not on the whole nearly analytical enough to satisfy the perspicacious reader. He is more gumshoe than sharpshooter, more audience than cognoscente. At one point, he makes a fascinating observation about Davies' employment of masks, how preparing 'a face to meet the faces that we meet' is key to his disclosures and dissimulations. This astonishingly perceptive discussion of the 'performing' embedded so fundamentally in all of Davies' characters is the more surprising...