Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Rebel Angels

What a shitty book!

Professor Ozias Froats examines human excrement by the bucketful.

Clement Hollier is interested in Medieval Filth Therapy.

Maria Theotoky's mother uses horse dung to refurbish old violins.

John Parlabane bequeaths his arsehole to the university.

Urquhart MacVarish likes having ribbon shoved up his bum.

And here are a few pungent thoughts from the Reverend Simon Darcourt, after visiting Ozy's lab:

I walked on toward Ploughwright, thinking about faeces. What a lot we had found out about the prehistoric past from the study of fossilized dung of long-vanished animals. A miraculous thing, really; a recovery of the past from what was carelessly rejected.

And in the Middle Ages, how concerned people who lived close to the world of nature were with faeces of animals. And what a variety of names they had for them: the Crotels of a Hare, the Friants of a Boar, the Spraints of an Otter, the Werderobe of a Badger, the Waggying of a Fox, the Fumets of a Deer.

Surely there might be some words for the material so near to the heart of Ozy Froats better than shit? What about the Problems of a President, the Backward Passes of a Footballer, the Deferrals of a Dean, the Odd Volumes of a Librarian, the Footnotes of a Ph.D., the Low Grades of a Freshman, the Anxieties of an Untenured Professer?

But The Rebel Angels is not just a satire of university life, it is also a morality play. The title refers to angels tossed out of heaven, not all of them "sore-headed egotists like Lucifer. Instead they gave mankind another push up the ladder, they came to earth and taught tongues, and healing and laws and hygiene..."

The profs at the College of St. John and the Holy Ghost are rebel angels, flawed but well-intentioned. They are also medievalists, either by training (Hollier, Darcourt, McVarish, Parlabane and Maria) or in spirit (Froats). Maria's mother is a gypsy who's practically living in the Middle Ages; she gives tarot readings and knows how to cast a curse and prepare a love philtre.

Parlabane is the villain of the piece, "as slippery-tongued, as entertaining, and sometimes as frightening as the Devil himself." He is also one of Davies's most engaging creations.

The urbane prose is a pleasure to read, and the humour has a superb Rabelaisian flavour.

"Roberta, have I ever shown you my penis-bone?"

Professor Burns, a zoologist, did not turn a hair. "Have you truly got one? I know they used to be common, but it's ages since I saw one."

Urky detached an object with a gold handle from his watch-chain and handed it to her. "Eighteenth century; very fine."

"Oh, what a beauty. Look, Professor Lamotte, it's the penis-bone of a raccoon; very popular as toothpicks in an earlier day. And tailors used them for ripping out basting. Very nice, Urky. But I'll bet you haven't got a kangaroo-scrotum tobacco pouch; my brother sent me one from Australia."

Professor Lamotte regarded the penis-bone with distaste. "Don't you find it disagreeable?" he said.

"I don't pick my teeth with it," said Urky, "I just show it to ladies on social occasions."

"You astonish me," said Lamotte.

The Rebel Angels is the first book in the Cornish Trilogy. The second is What's Bred in the Bone, the third The Lyre of Oprheus.