What's Bred in the Bone by Robertson Davies (1985)
This month, Forgotten Books is considering Canadian authors, which gives us participants a lot of great books from which to choose. I suppose I could have picked any novel by Robertson Davies, but I zeroed in on one of my favorites: What's Bred in the Bone, the second book in the author's "Cornish Trilogy."
The Cornish Trilogy concerns the life and influence of Francis Cornish -- artist, art collector, and patron of the arts. What's Bred in the Bone is bookended by The Rebel Angels and The Lyre of Orpheus. The trilogy begins with Cornish's death and ends with his heirs producing a lost work by the great German fantasist E. T. A. Hoffman. The middle book is the one that actually records Francis Cornish's life from its beginning in a small Ontario town.
Magical reality is often considered the province of Latin American writers, but Davies puts his own distinctive stamp on the genre. Davies (1913-1995) was one of the premier essayists and critics of the Twentieth Century. His early career as an actor, playwright, director, and newspaperman prepared him for his future careers as an educator and as one of the best-known and most admired Canadian authors. (It was said that he had been a potential candidate for the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature.) His fiction often blended myth and psychology to portray individual struggles to maintain a Canadian identity.
The story is narrated by the Recording Angel as he reviews Franicis Cornish's life. On hand is a daimon who occasionally interrupts the narration to explain how and when he influenced Cornish's life to make him better himself. (A daimon here is not to be confused with a demon; a daimon is more like a guardian angel -- a positive preternatural influence.) The point being that greatness is often acknowleged only after the fact. Davies has an easy but erudite style, leavened with humor and humanity. The book can be enjoyed for the story alone, as well as for the subtext.
I've read most of Robertson Davies' novels (they are readily available in paperback, often in omnibus editions) as well as several collections of his essays and have found them all worthwhile. Some of his other writings are also worth looking up, such as The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, an omnibus of humorous essays Davies wrote while he was editor of the Peterborough Examiner. These essays cover day-to-day events, often concerning themselves with the author's struggles with a recalcitrant furnace during Canadian winters. Also worthwhile is his collection of eighteen ghost stories, High Spirits, each of which was written for an annual Christmas party (a la M. R. James) while Davies was Master of Massey College in Toronto.
Here's an interesting 1973 interview with Robertson Davies and his magnificent beard:
Todd Mason is taking over Patti Abbott's duties this week while she takes a well-deserved break. For further Forgotten Books, go to Sweet Freedom for the links.