Saturday, February 11, 2017

the last book I read

The Rebel Angels by Robertson Davies.

So here we are at the college of St. John and the Holy Ghost, affectionately known by its denizens as Spook, in a city which I don't recall being named but which we are presumably meant to infer is a thinly-fictionalised version of Toronto, that being where a great many of Davies' novels are set.

As all academic institutions do, Spook carries a varied cast of eccentric academic types: professor Clement Hollier, priest Simon Darcourt, exotic half-Gypsy temptress Maria Magdalena Theotoky, Hollier's graduate student and erstwhile lover, and John Parlabane, defrocked monk and ex-student at Spook, recently returned to the college in an impoverished state to presume on the generosity of his old friends Darcourt and Hollier.

Hollier, Darcourt and their devious colleague Urquhart McVarish are thrown together by the recent death of Francis Cornish, art collector and benefactor of the college - Cornish has named the three men, along with his nephew Arthur, as co-executors of his will. The elder Cornish's somewhat haphazard methods of cataloguing his art collection make the task of disposing of the collection somewhat time-consuming. The collection also includes a manuscript which may or may not be some unpublished writings by Rabelais, one of Hollier's key areas of study.

Many plot strands branch off here: Maria's Gypsy mother, her Tarot readings and her devious schemes to rekindle Maria's romance with Clement Hollier; Hollier's attempts to retrieve the Rabelais manuscript from Urquhart McVarish, who he suspects has stolen it, by getting Maria's mother to put a Gypsy curse on him; Ozias Froats and his research into human excrement; John Parlabane's attempts to get his dreadful autobiographical novel published.

Things reach an unexpected conclusion when the deaths of Parlabane and McVarish are discovered in quick succession, followed by the delivery of a letter to Maria and Hollier which turns out to be an extended confession-cum-suicide note from Parlabane in which he describes the lurid arrangement he and McVarish had agreed upon to satisfy McVarish's unusual sexual tastes, and the circumstances in which he subsequently murdered McVarish during the course of an elaborate sex game.

The novel ends with Arthur Cornish proposing marriage to Maria, and being accepted, and various publishing houses expressing a belated interest in Parlabane's novel in the wake of his posthumous notoriety.

Very much like the previous Robertson Davies novel in this series, The Cunning Man, this one features a lot of hugely entertaining philosphical discussion and digression on a whole host of interesting topics, but not a great deal actually happening until, to quote myself from the previous review: "a few deaths at the end just to tie up a few loose plot strands". It's not a book that appears to have been written out of a burning desire to make a particular point, unlike, say, Surfacing or The Dark Room. But that's fine, different books do different things in different ways. The character of Maria Magdalena Theotoky, in particular, is one you want to spend more time with, and as it happens The Rebel Angels is the first book in a trilogy, so the keen reader has the opportunity to do just that. Davies was a bit of a one for trilogies; all of his novels were grouped into threes except the last two (The Cunning Man was his last published novel) whose planned capping-off into a trilogy was thwarted by Davies' death in 1995.

Davies also sported, during his lifetime, one of modern literature's more spectacular beards.

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