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What's Bred in the Bone (1985)

by Robertson Davies

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: The Cornish Trilogy (2)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
1,738237,033 (4.08)1 / 99
Francis Cornish was always good at keeping secrets. From the well-hidden family secret of his childhood to his mysterious encounters with a small-town embalmer, an expert art restorer, a Bavarian countess, and various masters of espionage, the events in Francis' life were not always what they seemed. This wonderfully ingenious portrait of an art expert and collector of international renown is told in stylish, elegant prose and endowed with lavish portions of Davies's wit and wisdom.… (more)
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 Literary CentennialsDavies - The Cornish Trilogy - discussion2 unread / 2rebeccanyc, December 2012
 
 

» See also 99 mentions

English (21)  Spanish (2)  All languages (23)
Showing 1-5 of 21 (next | show all)
Am I the only person who has trouble with the name Maimas? Not only is it Sam-I-Am spelt backwards, but every time I type it it comes out as Miasma. It's an interesting choice to mediate third-person omniscient viewpoint through an associate of the Recording Angel, but unfortunate when an author comes up with a distracting name that appears frequently through the course of the book.
  muumi | Jun 12, 2020 |
I read this years ago, but was just thinking of it. (This says something about the reach of a novel, that it comes to mind in our own life circumstances.) Mr. Davies used his own family and the stories that filtered down to create a plausible personal history. What are the stories we tell ourselves about who we are? ( )
  MaryHeleneMele | May 6, 2019 |
Robertson Davies uses the word “chthonic” more than once in What’s Bred in the Bone and that’s a lot to pardon. However, I’m going to pardon it because in this novel from 1985 he employs the word “trumpery,” which word, it turns out, means “worthless nonsense” according to Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th edition). Well worth knowing.

Davies is a story teller of great gifts whose abundant intelligence and knowledge fill his book with humor and interest throughout. Early on I was inclined, despite a lively first chapter, to nickname the book If Read It Will Bore as a grumbling reaction to his naming of the early female characters: Maria, Marie-Louise, Mary-Jacobine (Mary-Jim), Mary-Teresa (Mary-Tes), Mary-Benedetta (Mary-Ben) and, mother of mercy, Mother Mary-Basil. An unjust thought that proved.

The man that’s bred, Francis Cornish, is the son of extraordinarily self-absorbed parents who seldom can be bothered to slight their own pursuits so much as to allow their son sight of them. Even Christmas time does not fetch them his way. Love, to the child, seems a thing locked away. Francis’s guardian daimon, the Daimon Maimas (“I am no guardian angel”), worries little about parental absence, or locked love, or whether the boy will become broken-hearted by it. This is, among much else, what’s being bred in the child’s bones and then in the man’s. It will present its challenges.

Art is the vital commerce of the book at many levels, with attention paid to matters of authenticity and fakery, triviality and consequence, care and craft, fortune and fealty, mastery and modernism, Catholicism and Protestantism, pity and pitilessness, what is known and what should not be unknown yet is. Ultimately, the story takes us on a mostly retrospective viewing of the streams of exploration or exploitation presented by one man’s life and visits the tributaries of influence that entered into them. Francis Cornish is a man seemingly made to be often denied—in some instances singularly so. But he isn’t, after all is done. That’s the ingenuity of both author and character. No trumpery in that. ( )
1 vote dypaloh | Jan 8, 2018 |
I was sure I had read this book before but, if so, I had forgotten it entirely. So it was a pleasure to be able to read it.

From Publisher Weekly:
Known to discerning readers for his beguiling Deptford Trilogy and the more recent Rebel Angels, Canadian author Davies has written another irresistible novel. His story of the secret life of Francis Cornish, full of ironic twists and surprises, has the added enticement of a look inside the rarefied world of art experts and restorers. There is even a hint of the thriller genre, since Cornish joins British Intelligence to participate in an international scheme to defraud the Nazis of Old Masters. But this is primarily a character study, built around the theme: "what's bred in the bone comes out in the flesh,'' with the corollary that suffering endured when one is young builds character for later achievements. Born into an eccentric, wealthy Canadian family in a backwoods town, enduring a lonely and suffocatingly pious upbringing, Cornish eventually becomes a respected art appraiser and collector, at the sacrifice of his considerable talent as a painter. In addition to the tantalizing story of how this comes about, related with elements of intrigue and mystery, Davies delivers a wickedly funny, trenchant dissection of provincial society and some witty observations about religion and art. The book is seamlessly constructed, interpolating some marvelous set pieces of comic intensity, and the reader hurtles through the taut, compelling narrative wishing it would never end.

The review from Publisher's Weekly adequately describe the bare bones of the plot but it is so much more than that. Francis Cornish is ostensibly a Protestant, Anglo-Saxon and Canadian but in his life each one of those defining characteristics is turned on its head. His Roman Catholic aunt helps to raise him when his parents abandon him to do important war work and so his religion is a mixture. His grandmother comes from a French Canadian family and she also takes part in his upbringing. Then, when Francis is a young man, he goes to England to attend college and doesn't return to Canada for decades. In fact, any one person's description of Francis could be refuted by another person and neither one would be wrong. His guardian devil, the Daimon Maimas, may be the only being that knows all there is to know about Francis. Even the Angel of Biography, the Lesser Zadkiel, has forgotten most of what he has recorded about Cornish's life. The two supernatural beings act as the narrator and interpreter throughout the book, just one of the devices Davies uses to propel the book along.

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a thought-provoking but not difficult book and especially anyone who enjoys Robertson Davies. ( )
  gypsysmom | Aug 7, 2017 |
This second part of the trilogy leaves most of the threads from the first part dangling, and instead of picking them up it jumps back in time to 1909 to look at the life of the enigmatic and surprisingly wealthy art-critic Francis Cornish. It's essentially a good old-fashioned Bildungsroman, dressed up with a bit of fancy stuff about daemons and angels (because, why not?), but really just a simple linear life-story. Superficially much easier for the reader to deal with than the more static narrative structure of the other two parts, but Davies is still making sure that our brains get a workout. He gives Cornish an (almost) impossibly complicated mix of background influences and explores the nature-versus-nurture implications of this combination (hence the title). In parallel, there's another story going on about the nature of creative art, playing around with our notions of where the lines can be drawn between restoration, forgery and original work, and then twisting things a bit further when we think we've got the point.

It struck me after I'd finished this that Francis Cornish would be a near contemporary of Charles Ryder, and there are a lot of parallels here to themes dealt with in Brideshead revisited. But Robertson Davies is no Evelyn Waugh: he may be prepared to indulge in the occasional joke at the expense of his characters, but he never floats off into lyrical pessimism. The world is as it is, and that's that: no use blaming poor old Hooper. ( )
  thorold | Jun 12, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 21 (next | show all)
J'ai lu un roman fabuleux qui s'intitule un homme remarquable en 1994. C'est un ouvrage de Robertson Davies, écrivain canadien anglophone bien traduit en français. Dans ce roman d'aventures intelligent et populaire, les deux personnages narrateurs sont un ange biographe et un daïmon protecteur. L'idée de donner la parole à un daïmon qui prend en charge la biographie d'un être humain était déjà un petit clin d'œil servant à relier le paganisme et le christianisme et puis c'est original, amusant.
 
Le titre français du roman de Davies, Un homme remarquable, publié en 1985, ne tient aucun compte de l’original, What’s bred in the bone, c’est-àdire littéralement « ce qui a été mis dans la moelle », lui-même traduction médiévale d’un proverbe latin qui dit ceci : « Ce qui a été mis dans la moelle ne sort plus de la chair. » Cette citation tronquée propose au lecteur de découvrir les ressorts secrets et déterminants d’une personnalité, celle de Francis Cornish, figure fictive dont le roman retrace la biographie.

Julie Wolkenstein, « « Rosebud » : le motif du secret dans la fiction biographique chez Welles et Davies », Recherches & Travaux, 68 | 2006, [En ligne], mis en ligne le 06 novembre 2008. URL : http://recherchestravaux.revues.org/i...
 
"The novel is certainly not a 'bad copy' of anything; its intricate conception and intelligence are impressive on their own terms. But those terms also prevent the book from being the original it might have been. "
added by GYKM | editNew York Times, Larry McCaffery (Dec 15, 1985)
 

» Add other authors (5 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Robertson Daviesprimary authorall editionscalculated
BascoveCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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"What's bred in the bone will not out of the flesh." / English proverb from the Latin, 1290
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"The book must be dropped."
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[The PreRaphaelites] were full upand slopping over with Art, but they hadn't troubled to master Craft. Result: they couldn't carry out their ideas to their own satisfaction.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Francis Cornish was always good at keeping secrets. From the well-hidden family secret of his childhood to his mysterious encounters with a small-town embalmer, an expert art restorer, a Bavarian countess, and various masters of espionage, the events in Francis' life were not always what they seemed. This wonderfully ingenious portrait of an art expert and collector of international renown is told in stylish, elegant prose and endowed with lavish portions of Davies's wit and wisdom.

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