Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Lyre of Orpheus

This is the concluding novel in the Cornish trilogy.

Leapfrogging the middle book are several characters from The Rebel Angels, the most important being Simon Darcourt, and Arthur and Maria Cornish.  The latter bankroll an unfinished opera by E.T.A. Hoffmann -- Arthur of Britain, or the Magnanimous Cuckold -- and soon find the Arthurian legend reflected in their own lives.

Darcourt is the narrative glue that unites two plot lines. He writes the opera's libretto, and solves certain mysteries surrounding Francis Cornish (Arthur's uncle and the central figure in the middle book, What's Bred in the Bone).

A pair of characters new to the trilogy are doctoral student Hulda Schnakenburg, who is completing the music, and the composer-in-residence, Gunilla Dahl-Soot. Once their work is done and Darcourt's libretto completed, the opera company is assembled and preparations made for opening night.

Throughout it all Davies' comic touch is as sure as ever, especially in portraying the foibles and peccadilloes of actors, students, and professors. However, the portrayal of Arthurian archetypes is not entirely convincing, and the book gets a bit windy in spots, though Davies' prose is never less than urbane, his erudition never forced or heavy-handed.

With no engaging villain (as with Parlabane in Angels), Dahl-Soot is a welcome eccentric, as are Maria's mother (she gives another Tarot reading) and uncle Yerko (he puts together a claque for opening night). There is an especially fine scene involving drunken academics, but the real treat of the novel is the exhilarating account of opening night.


One of the things I admire about Davies is his wonderful use of names. In Lyre he has to populate an entire opera company, a formidable task in itself. Some favourites:

Ogden Whistlecraft - poet
Mervyn Gwilt - lawyer
Dulcy Ringgold - costume designer
Gwen Larking - stage manager
Nutcombe Puckler - "Sir Dagonet"
Clara Intrepidi - "Morgan Le Fay"
Oliver Twentyman - "Merlin"
Ulick Carman - herald
Eden Wigglesworth - attendant
Dicky Plaunt - head carpenter
Otto Klafsky - concert-master
Claude Applegarth - New York critic

A minor character named Wally Crottel makes a brief appearance. His name harkens back to a monologue on excrement in Angels -- "the crotels of a hare." As the name suggests, he's a bit of a shit.


"Lies keep the teeth white."

"You don't smell bad, for a man."

"A horse is always a sure card in an opera."

"...we shall add a little salt to the dreary porridge of our lives."

"That's what I like about you Canadians," said the doctor; "you are so ready to admit fault."

"Is there something ambiguous about Knockers?" said Hollier. "I'm sorry. I'm not very well up on the latest indecencies."

NY Times review