The Rebel Angels. The Cornish Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

Is this an introduction to the story of your life?

Just about anything leads to the story of my life. Well, here goes: I was born of well-off but honest parents in this city of Toronto, forty-five heavily packed years ago. Your historical sense fills in what is necessary: the war-clouds gathering, Hitler bestrides the narrow world like a Colossus and as usual none of the politicians know a bastard when they see one; war, and fear clutches the heart as Mother Britain fights bravely and alone (though of course the French and several other nations don’t quite agree). The US stumbles in, late and loud. At last, victory and a new world rises somewhat shakily on the ruins of the old. Russia, once a wartime chum, resumes its status as a peacetime bum. During all this uproar I went to school, and quite a good school it was, because not only did I learn a few things and acquire an early taste for philosophy, but I met some very glitter­ing and rich boys, like David Staunton, and some brilliantly clever boys, like your present boss Clement Hollier. We were friends and contemporaries — he’s a few months my senior; he thought I was cleverer than I was, because I was a fast talker and could put all my goods in the shop-window, but I knew that he was really the clever one, though he had great trouble putting words together. He stood by me through a very rough time, and I’m grateful. Then I went to the University and swept through the heavens of Spook like a comet, and was such a fool that I had the gall to feel sorry and a little contemptuous of Clem, who had to work hard for a few not very glittering honours.

I gloried in the freedom of the University. Of course I had no idea what a university is: it’s not a river to be fished, it’s an ocean in which the young should bathe, and give themselves up to the tides and the currents. But I was a fisherman, and a successful one. Clem was becoming a strong ocean swimmer, though I couldn’t see that. But this is too solemn, and here come the shrimps.

Shrimps remind me, for some reason, of my early sexual adventures. I was an innocent youth, and for reasons that you can guess by looking at my ruined face I never dared approach girls. But a successful young man is catnip to a certain sort of older woman, and I was taken up by Elsie Whistlecraft.

You’ve heard of Ogden Whistlecraft? Now acclaimed as a major Canadian poet? In those days he was what was called a New Voice, and also a junior professor at this University. Elsie, who had a lot of energy and no shame, was building his career at a great rate, but she still had time for amorous adventure, which she thought becoming to a poet’s wife. So one night when Oggie was out reading his poetry somewhere, she seduced me.

It was not a success, from Elsie’s point of view, because the orgasm for women was just coming into general popularity then, and she didn’t have one. The reason was that she had forgotten to lock up the dog, a big creature called Mat, and Mat found the whole business exciting and interesting, and barked loudly. Trying to shut Mat up took Elsie’s mind off her main concern, and at a critical moment Mat nosed me coldly in the rump, and I was too quick for Elsie. I laughed so hard that she became furious and refused to give it another try. We managed things better during the next few weeks, but I never forgot Mat, and took the whole affair in a spirit Elsie didn’t like. Adultery, she felt, ought to be excused and sanctified by overwhelming passion, but Mat had learned to associate me with interesting doings, and even when he was tied up outside he barked loudly all the time I was in the house.

The affair gave me confidence, however, and it was balm to my spirit to have cuckolded a poet. Altogether I didn’t fare badly during my university years, but I never did what is called falling in love.

That came later, when I went to Princeton to do graduate work, and there I fell in love with a young man — fell fathom­lessly and totally in love, and it was a thing of great beauty. The only thing of great beauty, I should say, in my story.

I hadn’t had much emotional growth before that. The old university tale, to which you alluded puritanically last time we were here — the over-developed mind and the under-developed heart. I thought I had emotional breadth, because I’d looked for it in art — music, chiefly. Of course art isn’t emotion; it’s evoca­tion and distillation of emotion one has known. But if you’re clever it’s awfully easy to fake emotion and deceive yourself, because what art gives is so much like the real thing. This affair was a revolution of the spirit, and like so many revolutions it left in its wake a series of provisional governments which, one after another, proved incapable of ruling. And like many revolutions, what followed was worse than what went before.

Don’t expect details. He grew tired of me, and that was that. Happens in love-affairs of all kinds, and if death is any worse, God is a cruel master.

Here’s the omelette. More Orvieto? I will. I need sustaining during our next big instalment.

This was a descent into Hell. I’m not being melodramatic; just wait and see. I came back here, and got a job teaching philosophy — which has always been quite a good trade and keeps bread in your mouth — and Spook was happy to reclaim one of its bright boys. Not so happy when they could no longer blind themselves to the fact that I was leading some of their students into what they had to regard as evil courses of life. Kids are awful squealers, you know; you seduce them and they like that, but they also like confessing and bleating about it. And I wasn’t a very nice fellow, I suppose; I used to laugh at them when they had qualms of conscience.

So Spook threw me out, and I got a couple of jobs teaching out West, where the same thing happened, rather quicker. This was before the Dawn of Permissiveness, you must remember.

I managed to get a job in the States, just as the first rosy gleam of Permissiveness appeared on the horizon. By this time I was in rather a bad way, because rough fun with kids didn’t erase the memory of what had happened with Henry, and I was pretty heavily on the booze. A drunk, though I didn’t see it quite in those terms. And booze wasn’t a complete answer, so it being the mode of the day, I had a go at drugs, and they were fine. Really fine. I saw myself as a free soul and a great enlightener of the young. . . Maria, that ring on your finger twinkles most fascinatingly every time you lift your fork to your mouth. Isn’t that rather a big diamond for a girl who entertains her friends at The Rude Plenty?

Just costume jewellery, I said, and took it off and tucked it into my handbag. I was stupid to wear it, but I had put it on for McVarish’s cocktail party the day before and had worn it to dinner with Arthur Cornish, who took me out afterwards. I liked it, and absent-mindedly put it on today, breaking my rule never to wear that sort of thing at the University.

Liar. That’s a very good rock.

Let’s go on with your story. I’m spellbound.

As if by the Ancient Mariner? ‘He listens as a three-years child, The Mariner hath his will.’ Well, not to drag things out, the Mariner was shipped back to Canada by the F.B.I, because of a little trouble at my American university, and the next thing the Mariner knew he was in a Foundation in British Columbia, where some earnest and skilled people were working to get him off the drugs and the drink. Do you know how that’s done? They just take the drugs away from you and for a while you have a thorough foretaste of Hell, and you sweat and rave and roll around and then you feel as I imagine the very old feel, if they’re unlucky. Then, for the drink, they fill you full of a special drug and let you have a drink when you feel like one, only you don’t feel like one because the drug makes the effect of the booze so awful that you can’t face even a glass of sherry. The drug is called, or used to be called when I took it, Antabuse. Get the featherlight pun? Antibooze! God, the humour of the medical world! Then, when you’re cleared out physically, and in terrible shape mentally, they set to work to put you on your intellectual feet again. For me that was worst of all — Ah, thank God for spaghetti! And Chianti — no, no, not to worry, Maria, I’m not slipping back into addiction, as they so unpleasantly call it. Just a mild binge with a friend. I can control it, never you fear.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson