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The Lyre of Orpheus by Robertson Davies

The Lyre of Orpheus (1988)

by Robertson Davies

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: The Cornish Trilogy (book 3)

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I reached this by way of Hoffmann, of course, he being a minor but constant obsession of mine, with additional interest-weight added by way of Orpheus and Davies. I meant to read it back in my first or second year of undergrad and even took it out of the library. In fact I think I got pretty far into it because I remembered the "pastiche/pistache" conversation before exams hit or school ended and I had to return the book to the library. Despite that, I talked about this book a lot. Really, it was very disproportional for a book that I hadn't read and that no one else was talking about, meaning I deliberately brought it up in the conversation. Given that I read [b:The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr|594852|The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr|E.T.A. Hoffmann|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1375745289s/594852.jpg|581567] earlier this year and only heightened my Hoffmania it really seemed high time to take it out again. Another university library, but the exact same edition, conveniently.

I've got to note, before I go on though, that I once had a professor of Arthurian literature who was also a Canadian Lit prof (which, I mean, perfect marriage for this book, right?). He's since been awarded both the Order of Ontario and the Order of Canada. And someone in my class, I don't think it was me, asked him during a break about Roberston Davies, and I just clearly remember him saying that he didn't find Davies that interesting. He asked, why would he care to read about upper-middle class white people?

That got me, and that haunted me, and especially when I started reading this book again I couldn't stop thinking of his remark. It made me dislike everybody to start with, and given that I haven't read [b:The Rebel Angels|74405|The Rebel Angels (Cornish Trilogy, #1)|Robertson Davies|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1387741372s/74405.jpg|1336027] or [b:What's Bred in the Bone|265767|What's Bred in the Bone (Cornish Trilogy, #2)|Robertson Davies|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1328019283s/265767.jpg|2994820] (Davies trilogies aren't hard-sequential trilogies) I didn't have much in the way of back-story that might've potentially made me fonder. For the first half I was thinking mostly about how I wasn't in love with the voice of Hoffmann's ghost the way I wanted to be (not nearly frenetic enough for the Hoff, but I suppose limbo will do that) and how these characters were, in actuality, not that interesting. And yes, in quite a lot of way they're really not. But then by the second half of the book I was craving more, and luxuriating in the book, really sinking in and looking forward to whatever time I could find to keep reading, and there's a part of me that's really sad that I won't have more of it to look forward to reading before bed tonight. (I bought a copy of The Rebel Angels at a bookstore just the other day though I've got a few library books to read before I can get to it, and part of me thinks I should savour.) I don't know how that happened. I don't know what Davies did. All I know is that suddenly even though Al Crane's appearance is in the style of this very-Canadian American caricature, it hollowed me out inside when he talked about Mabel, "a twenty-two year old woman," wanting her mother. Christ, Davies, hold nothing back. ( )
  likecymbeline | Apr 1, 2017 |
Summary: The project of a gifted but difficult graduate student to realize an unfinished opera of E. T. A. Hoffman uncovers darker and hidden aspects in a number of the central characters who join in undertaking the project.

"The lyre of Orpheus opens the door of the underworld." -E. T. A. Hoffmann

E. T. A. Hoffmann was one of the major authors in the 19th century Romantic movement. He was something of a polymath who also wrote libretti to a number of operas, and composed Undine and other musical pieces. His greatest claim to musical fame probably was that three of his stories inspired Jacques Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann. He died in 1822 at the age of 46, a victim of alcoholism and syphillis.

In this novel, the third in Davies' Cornish Trilogy (but can be read on its own), a difficult but talented graduate student, Hulda Schnakenburg ("Schnak") has proposed as her doctoral project to complete an unfinished opera by Hoffmann, Arthur of Britain or The Magnanimous Cuckold. The Cornish Foundation, established by a bequest of Francis Cornish have been approached with a request to fund what sounds like a long shot. But Arthur Cornish, perhaps already showing symptoms of the mumps which will render him sterile, forcefully persuades his fellow trustees, Maria (his gypsy wife), Simon Darcourt, a priest turned scholar and friend and biographer of Francis, Clem Hollier, an owlish scholar, and Geraint Powell, a charming actor friend, to proceed.

In deciding to make this music, the characters embark on a course that opens the door to "the underworld" of their own lives, facing them with choices of how they will proceed. For "Schnak" this comes in the form of the woman who becomes her advisor, Dr. Gunilla Dahl-Soot. Through both her musical mentoring, and a love affair between these women, "Schnak" comes out of the protective shell she developed to cope with a rigid religious upbringing and some abusive encounters with boyish men, to come into her own as a composer and a woman.

Others in the Cornish Foundation face underworlds of their own. When life imitates art and Maria conceives a child through a strange one night fling with actor-friend Powell, Arthur must decide how he will respond to his own cuckolding. Will he be "magnanimous" as well. Maria, the daughter of gypsies must decide between simply keeping up appearances as the wealthy wife of author, or assert the "Rabelasian" within her, to also be the daughter of her mother who lives in the basement "underworld" of her building.

Simon, the priest friend and "fixer" is perhaps the most interesting character. He is writing a biography of Francis Cornish, one with a big blank space in the middle of it. Along the way, he must decide whether the opportunity to gain this information (and as it turns out, the critical insight into his friend and a major art find) warrants theft and some devious maneuvering.

He is also the main librettist for the opera and here as well, he somewhat deviously "borrows" much of his work from a nineteenth century author. He must decide whether he will be the relatively colorless, competent and understanding friend, or at times act "the fool." Simon is disillusioned as a priest, but his keen sense of the human condition makes him the ideal narrator of this tale, seeing as he does, both his own, and other characters' "underworlds," and sometimes helping them see those "underworlds" for themselves.

There are several "breaks" in Simon's narrative when "ETAH in Limbo" speaks. This is the ghost of Hoffmann from the underworld, reflecting on his life, and the progress of the realization of his unfinished project. It is a curious device, that Davies uses, I think, to give us insight into Hoffmann, into private lives of the characters, including the love-making between Dahl-Soot and Schnak, and as well as what Hoffman thinks of the work he never finished.

All this happens as the project moves forward from composition to staging of the actual opera. Along the way, we get an inside glimpse of an opera production--staging, singers, director, costumers, the composer and librettists, and the most overlooked of all, the benefactors, who discover the painful realities of having lots of money to give away. Davies' experience as a scholar at the University of Toronto also comes through in the scenes where "Schnak" comes up for her doctoral defense and he portrays a truly believable episode of the kind of academic hazing these rites of academic passage involve.

Robertson Davies was one of Canada's best know novelists of the 20th century, passing away in 1995. Reading this work takes us into the Canadian artistic circles of Toronto and Stratford with which he was obviously well acquainted. There is a combination of humor and deep psychological insight in his writing. His plot moves forward as much in the development of his characters and their relations as in the action of the story, leaving us alternately to delight and to muse as Davies plays with a lyre of words to open doors into the underworlds of our lives. ( )
1 vote BobonBooks | Mar 30, 2017 |
As is only right and proper, this third part of the trilogy ties up the threads from the previous two parts, bringing us back to the foreground narrative in late-20th century Ottawa and to the heirs of Francis Cornish. The artistic focus this time is a project to realise an opera on the subject of King Arthur which E.T.A. Hoffmann left unfinished at his death. This of course provides the trilogy with a suitably spectacular grand finale, but it also gives Davies the opportunity to play around with a lot of interesting corners of the philosophy of art. We are made to think about what it means to realise an unfinished work, the relationship between music and libretto, artistic integrity versus effective theatre, artist versus patron, and much more. At the same time, of course, there is a plot, and the relationships between the people sponsoring the opera production are seen to be mirrored by the plot of the opera in ways that they find mortifyingly absurd. E.T.A. Hoffmann pops up to comment on the action from the limbo to which unrealised artists are consigned, Kater Murr becomes an allegory of bourgeois Canadian taste, we get some loving caricatures of the PhD examiner from hell and other academic absurdities...

Probably more than a little over the top - but that's as it should be when we're dealing with opera - a very clever and entertaining conclusion to the trilogy. ( )
  thorold | Jun 13, 2016 |
Not my favorite Davies but still a pleasure. The books are about a world of academia, arts and ideals that seems in decline, if not dead. I would have enjoyed living that life and settle for visiting it. ( )
  ltfitch1 | Jun 5, 2016 |
This is the third book in the Cornish trilogy from the pen of Robertson Davies (the others being Rebel Angels and What's Bred in the Bone). This book is told from the perspective of Simon Darcourt who was an executor of the will of Francis Cornish and who has been commissioned to write the biography of that man. Interestingly, the biography was detailed in What's Bred in the Bone but we get more information about how Darcourt discovered some of the information about Cornish.

Darcourt is part of the board of The Cornish Foundation, a charitable institution set up with the late Cornish's fortune, and in that capacity he becomes involved in a scheme to put on an opera about the life of King Arthur. The Cornish Foundation has agreed to back a young music student who wants to finish the opera begun by E. T. A. Hoffmann who died before it could be completed. Hulda Schnakenburg is dirty, foul-mouthed and foul-tempered but her professors think she has genius and think she could complete this monumental task with the advice of the right person. Enter Dr. Gunilla Dahl-Soot, a Scandinavian professor of music with eccentric taste in clothes and an ability to drink that astonishes. She takes the Schnak in hand, cleans her up, makes love to her and assures that the enterprise will be finished. Darcourt is pressed into writing the libretto for the opera. Arthur and Maria Cornish write the cheques. Geraint Powell, a handsome Shakespearean actor who wants to become a director, undertakes to do all the business to put the opera on the stage in Stratford. It soon becomes apparent that the myth of King Arthur is going to be played out in Ontario with Arthur Cornish as King Arthur, Maria as Guinevere and Powell as Lancelot. And the spirit of E. T. A. Hoffmann (ETAH) hovers over all of them from his spot in Limbo where he languishes because he died before he finished his opera. He is most interested in the outcome because if it is finished he may get to leave Limbo.

Davies shows his love for theatre in this book. After all, he was an actor with the Old Vic Company in London, England before he became a publisher and writer. Davies also wrote two libretti amongst all his other fiction. For this reason I think the sentiments espoused by Simon Darcourt are autobiographical. I found Darcourt charming and I suspect I would have adored Robertson Davies in person. Unfortunately Davies died in 1995 with another trilogy only two-thirds complete. Does this mean he is sitting in limbo waiting for someone to finish it so he can be freed? If so, and if he can read this, I hope he realizes his influence on Canadian life and literature is still being felt. The following portion of the Wikipedia page on Davies shows that:

Davies is one of the authors mentioned in the Moxy Früvous song "My Baby Loves a Bunch of Authors". The line "Who needs a shave? He's Robertson Davies" makes reference to his long white beard.
In The Sacred Art of Stealing, Christopher Brookmyre (an admirer of Davies) has a character refer to a painting of "The Marriage at Cana", saying that some experts consider it to be a fake. This is a reference to a decidedly fake (although excellent) picture painted by Francis Cornish, the protagonist in What's Bred in the Bone. Many of the characters in Brookmyre's novels are named after characters in Davies's books.
John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany contains several references to Davies' novels, including strong echoes of Fifth Business; for example, the narrators of both novels work as teachers in Toronto in private schools (Bishop Strachan School in Meany and a fictionalisation of Upper Canada College in Davies's novels).
Indie-rock band Tokyo Police Club references the gravel pit scene in Fifth Business. ( )
2 vote gypsysmom | Oct 6, 2012 |
Showing 1-5 of 15 (next | show all)
"But this novel, from its overdetermined title to its predetermined end, never releases its hold on the mind's more abstract functions even as it grapples to stir up emotional depths. Let's hope that the urge to summation is vastly premature, and that Mr. Davies goes on to give us three-times-three more novels that amaze, delight, instruct and infuriate. "
added by GYKM | editNew York Times, Phyllis Rose (Jan 8, 1989)
Il n'y a rien de sec
ou de bref chez Robertson Davies. Il s'agit d'un
coureur de fond, je vous l'ai dit Chacun de ses
personnages (et ils sont innombrables) a sa
chance. Son côté ombre et son côté soleil. L'ironie
du romancier ne brûle que les mauvaises
herbes. Autrement dit, sa « Lyre d'Orphée » résonne
aussi de tous les accords de la véritable
générosité romanesque. Un régal de l'intelligence
et du coeur. Le plus chaleureux des livres
méchants. Ou le contraire.

» Add other authors (8 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Robertson Daviesprimary authorall editionscalculated
BascoveCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Information from the French Common Knowledge. Edit to localize it to your language.
La lyre d'Orphée ouvre la porte du royaume des ombres.

E.T.A. Hoffmann
First words
Information from the French Common Knowledge. Edit to localize it to your language.
Maître dans l'art de présider, Arthur résuma la réunion pour amener celle-ci à sa conclusion.
He now regarded himself as a biographer, and the scruples of a biographer are peculiar to the trade. Any hesitation he felt was not about how could he bring himself to steal, but how could he steal without being found out?
The life of a librettist is the life of a dog. Worse than the playwright, who may have to satisfy monsters of egotism with new scenes, new jokes, chances to do what they have done successfully before; but the playwright can, to some degree, choose the form of his scenes and his speeches. The librettist must obey the tyrant composer, whose literary taste may be that of a peasant, and who thinks of nothing but his music.
'What would you say if I accused you of stealing musical ideas?’

‘I would deny it indignantly. But you are too clever to be deceived, and you
know that many musicians borrow and adapt ideas, and usually they come out
so that only a very subtle critic can see what has happened. Because what
one borrows goes through one’s own creative stomach and comes out something
quite different.’
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Book description
A chronicle of the creation of an opera based on Arthurian legend, and the lives of the the people involved in the opera come to replicate the stories of the Arthurian myths.
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The Cornish Foundation, set up with money left by the late art expert, collector, and notable eccentric Francis Cornish, must choose a worthy undertaking upon which to expend a portion of its considerable funds. It is decided that the Foundation will fund the doctoral work of one Hulda Schnakenburg, a grumpy, difficult, and extraordinarily talented music student. Her task is to complete the score of an unfinished opera by the Romantic composer E.T.A. Hoffmann. Additionally, and against all common sense, the Foundation will undertake to stage the opera, entitled Arthur of Britain or The Magnanimous Cuckold. As the production takes shape, Hoffmann's restless spirit hovers rather too close for comfort, and his dictum "The lyre of Orpheus opens the door of the underworld" proves prophetic for many a participant as their lives begin to resemble the opera's plot.… (more)

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