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What's Bred in the Bone by Robertson Davies

What's Bred in the Bone (1985)

by Robertson Davies

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1,492184,973 (4.08)1 / 68

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When the story begins, Francis has already died, and a friend wants to write a biography of his life. There is some concern by relatives that such a biography might reveal Francis as an art forger, and so they are hesitant to allow him to write it. The friend writing the biography has some concerns of his own, desiring only to write the truth and yet not convinced that he has all of it. The story becomes unique when the Angel of Biography and the Daimon Maimas enter the plot. They decide to review Francis' life, rather like watching a video of it. The Angel of Biography has done his job and recorded Francis' life. The Daimon Maimas has been given the job of making Francis into a great man. The rest of the story is the record of the life of Francis Cornish.

Francis is born to a wealthy, influential family in a small town in Ontario, Canada. He grows up mostly in the home of his grandparents, cared for by a great-aunt. His parents are rarely home. Although his father desires him to be brought up protestant, Francis is given an upbringing in both the Catholic and protestant faiths. Francis discovers early a love of drawing and art and carries a pencil and notebook with him wherever he goes, drawing whatever he can.

As a young teen, Francis discovers that he has an older brother who was concealed from everyone, hidden away in the attic of the home because of his disabilities. Francis is sent to school in Toronto, and since his parents are away much of the time, he boards there. While at school, Francis discovers the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and that discovery clarifies the style of art he will attempt to master for the rest of his life.

Francis spends a further four years in Toronto attending college. Here he begins writing letters to Uncle Jack, a man his father knows in "the profession." Although Francis understands little of what "the profession" is and the purpose of the letters he writes, he accepts his task. By the end of college, Uncle Jack has retained a large file of letters from Francis.

After college, Francis goes to England to attend Oxford. Before he leaves, he returns to Blairlogie for one last visit. While there, he learns of the death of his brother. He also visits Zadok in the hospital, where he hears a story, although he does not yet understand its significance. However, through the observations and interpretations of the Lesser Zadkiel and the Daimon Maimas, which appear sprinkled throughout the story, the reader realizes that Zadok is actually the father of Francis' older brother.

Francis attends Oxford, where he meets Tancred Saraceni. After finishing school, Francis becomes Saraceni's apprentice and moves to a castle in Bavaria to begin his apprenticeship. He learns how to make the kind of paint that the Old Masters would have painted with and helps to restore pictures. While there, he takes on a new assignment from Uncle Jack, continuing his murky role in "the profession."

During Francis' apprenticeship, he paints his masterpiece, "The Marriage at Cana," which he is never able to claim as his own without the label of forger being thrust upon him. This painting ends his apprenticeship, and with World War II looming, Francis goes back to England. Francis continues his work for the profession, which he now knows is MI5, and he is eventually given the role of ensuring that lost artwork is returned to rightful owners. Late in life, Francis returns to Canada, where he becomes a patron of the arts. He uses the money he inherited from Saraceni to acquire works of art in order to elevate the arts in Canada. When Francis dies, he leaves a sizeable sum to the Gallery of Canada.
  bostonwendym | Mar 3, 2016 |
I enjoyed the main part of the story but had a hard time finishing it as it just gently petered out, killing off just about everyone until we get to the main character. I'm afraid I've been in rather a WWII rut of late and this one just felt like another of that series. I also found myself rather unfavourably comparing it to Any Human Heart, which was not a good comparison but I loved that one and this I merely enjoyed but was not particuarly satisfied when I finished it.
  amyem58 | Aug 11, 2015 |
(one of 24 books found today at 2nd hand shop...24 for $10!)
  velvetink | Mar 31, 2013 |
This is excerpted from my review of the entire Cornish trilogy
In the second novel of the trilogy, Davies steps back to explore (with the aid of the daimon Maimas and the Lesser Zadakiel, the Angel of Biography), the life of Francis Cornish from his beginnings in a remote and backwards logging town to his time in Europe before, during, and after the Second World War, and his subsequent return to Canada. It is a story of a child learning to understand his world and its secrets, largely on his own, and largely through drawing; of a young man who is introduced to secrets of other kinds, artistic and otherwise, while suffering from discovering some of the secrets of love. Again, we the see the transformation of material objects, from paintings that are mediocre to ones that are better, to an exchange for something still better, and we see Francis's transformation into an artist and a lover, both, however, briefly. And, again, we see Davies' wit and humor, and his penetrating psychological and mystical insight
  rebeccanyc | Jul 14, 2012 |
Possibly Robertson Davies's finest work, offering a fascinating amalgam of forger's handbook, spy novel and potted history of early twentieth century Canada.
In effect the novel represents a biography of Francis Cornish, the news of whose death came at the start of "The Rebel Angels". Although he grew up in Blairlogie, generally thought of as "the Jumping Off Point" in the middle of the Canadian wilderness, he was no simple country boy. Left largely to his own devices as his parents relocated to Ottawa, he spent much of his childhood learning to draw, assisted by lowly servant Zadok Hoyle who in addition to managing the family's stables also acts as embalmer for the village. His friendship with Hoyle gives Francis access to the corpses that the embalmer prepares for their funerary rites, which in turn yields great dividends in Francis's artistic skills.
After studying at Toronto and Oxford universities, Francis is recruited as a very junior player in the British Secret Service. Meanwhile he becomes apprenticed to the world-renowned art restorer, Tancred Saraceni from whom he learns a multitude of skills, some more legitimate than others. Acquaintance with Saraceni offers a solid springboard from which to establish himself as a leading figure in the post-war art world, which Francis duly achieves, though at the same time he sinks into the life of a recluse.
Throughout the novel we are given startling insights into his psyche from his personal daimon who has supervised his life's passage.
A dazzling novel bursting with ideas. ( )
2 vote Eyejaybee | Aug 30, 2011 |
Showing 1-5 of 16 (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)
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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."
[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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To most people, Francis was the eccentric, artistic son of a wealthy family. Others knew him as an art expert, a secret intelligence agent, and a wealthy man shrouded in mystery.

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