Friday, April 8, 2011

The Rebel Angels, by Robertson Davies

I love Robertson Davies' books; The Rebel Angels was the fourth of his novels that I've read.  If I had no access to Google and simply tried to imagine what the author looked like, I'd have conjured up this very portrait.  His appearance and prose style suggest the late 19th century, but Davies died in 1995.  I don't mean to suggest that his writing is stuffy or stodgy -- it's stylish in a timeless, classic sense, the literary equivalent of a classic Jaguar sports car.  It's not modern, but it has plenty of zip and panache.

The Rebel Angels (published in 1981) came down in a collection of e-books titled "Anthony Burgess' 99 Best Novels".  Burgess wrote The Clockwork Orange and The Malaya Trilogy, both of which I've been meaning to read.  In fact, I've been meaning to read a lot of the 99 titles on his list, but grabbed at the Davies novel first.

It's a story set in a Toronto university, and the story is a university of itself: religion, philosophy, art, literature, science -- the full curriculum.  It's got the dynamics of academia vs. the rest of the world, including politicians with narrow-ish ideas on how education funding should be spent.  It's got the dynamics within the university: humanities vs. science faculties bickering over sherry, pilfered manuscripts, sex scandals cloaked in philosophical debates and clerical garb.  It's even got gypsies, yes, authentic Romany, who study a couple of the professors who are professing to study them.

One of the narrators is a brilliant graduate student, Maria, the daughter of a Polish engineer father and a gypsy mother.  Maria strives for balance between life with her unorthodox mother and life in academia.  She immerses herself in Rabelais.  I like this observation very much:
Rabelais was gloriously learned because learning amused him, and so far as I am concerned that is learning's best justification. Not the only one, but the best.  
Maria's gypsy mother has her own deep, ancient philosophy, which is not always as divergent from that of the academics as they might like to believe.  She observes one professor expressing a deep hatred for another and remarks upon the damage his hatred will wreak, mostly upon himself, whether or not he acts upon it:
Evil isn't what one does, it's something one is is that infects everything one does.    
(This reminded me of the question Patrick Bateman asked himself at the end of American Psycho:  "Is evil something that you are? Or something that you do?")

The hated man is Professor Urquhart McVarish, unaffectionately referred to as Urky.  Urky irks nearly everyone on campus:
In a university you cannot get rid of a tenured professor without an unholy row, and though academics  love bickering, they hate rows. It was widely agreed that the only way to get rid of Urky would be to murder him, and though the Dean may have toyed with that idea, he did not want to be caught. Anyhow, Urky was not a bad scholar. It was simply that he was intolerable, and for some reason that is never accepted as an excuse for getting rid of anybody.  
While the professors (one of whom is an Anglican priest and another a defrocked monk) indulge in learned bickering about Christianity, Yerko, Maria's gypsy uncle, goes to New York City in December and falls in love with "the Bebby Jesus".  Upon his return to Toronto, he builds a creche with all the human figures decked out in gypsy finery.  The two professors who come to the house for a holiday dinner listen to Yerko's enthusiastic piety, relating (as best he can in his halting English) the whole Nativity story, including the arrival of the Magi:
"No, it is in the story. I saw it in New York. The kings say, 'We bring you Gold, Frank Innocence, and Mirth.'" 
"Sancta simplictas," said Darcourt, raising his eyes... 

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