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

Academic stuff. Quite a different matter. Nobody expects a book of yours to sell widely. But this will be a sensation, and I am confident that if it is brought out in the right way, with the right sort of publicity, it will make a fortune.

Have you offered it to anybody in the States?

No. That will come later. I insist on Canadian publication first, because I want it read by those who are most involved before it reaches a wider public. Those who are most involved?

Certainly. It’s a roman à clef as well as a roman philosophique. There will be some red faces when it comes out, I can tell you.

Aren’t you worried about libel?

People won’t be in a hurry to claim that they are the originals of most of the characters. Other people will do that for them. And of course I’m not such a fool as to record and transcribe doings and conversations that are too easily identified. But they’ll know, don’t you worry. And in time everybody else will know, as well.

It’s a revenge novel, then?

Sim, you know me better than that! There’s nothing small about it. Not a revenge novel. Perhaps a justice novel.

Justice for you?

Justice for me.

I didn’t like the sound of it at all. But little by little, as he trusted me with wads of yellow paper on which were messy carbon copies of parts of the great work, I felt certain that the novel would never see publication. It was terrible.

Not terrible in the sense of being wholly incompetent or illiterate. Parlabane was far too able a man for that sort of amateurishness. It was simply unreadable. Ennui swept over me like the effect of a stupefying drug every time I tried to read some of it. It was a very intellectual novel, very complex in structure, with what seemed like armies of characters, all of whom were personifications of something Parlabane knew, or had heard about, and they said their say in chapter after chapter of leaden prose. One night I said something of the sort, as tact­fully as I knew how.

Parlabane laughed. Of course you can’t appreciate the sweep of it, because you haven’t seen it all, he said. The plan is there, but it reveals itself slowly. This isn’t a romance for holiday read­ing, you know. It’s a really great book, and I expect that when it has made its first mark, people will read and reread, and discover new depths every time. As they do with Joyce — though it’s my ideas that are complex, not my language. You are de­ceived by its first impression, which is that of a life-story — the intellectual pilgrimage of an uncommon and very rich mind, linked with a questing spirit. I can say this to you because you’re an old friend, and up to a point you comprehend my quality. Other readers will comprehend other things, and some will comprehend more. It’s a book in which really devoted and understanding readers will find themselves, and thus will find something of the essence of our times. The world is drawing near to the end of one of the Platonic Aeons — the Aeon of Pisces — and gigantic changes are in the air. This book is prob­ably the first of the great books of the New Aeon, the Aeon of Aquarius, and it foreshadows what lies in the future for mankind.

Aha. Yes, I see. Or rather, I haven’t seen. Frankly, it seemed to me to be about you and everybody you’ve locked horns with since your childhood.

Well, Sim, you know I don’t mean to be nasty, but I’m afraid that is a criticism of you, rather than of my book. You’re a man who uses a mirror to see if his tie is straight, not to look into his own eyes. You’re no worse than thousands of others will be, when first they read it. But you’re a nice old thing, so I’ll give you a few clues. Perhaps another drink, just to start me off. I wish you wouldn’t measure drinks with that little dinkus. I’ll pour my own.

Helping himself to what was really a tumbler of Scotch, with a little water on top for the sake of appearances, he launched into a description of his book, most of which I had heard before and all of which I was to hear several times again.

It’s extremely dense in texture, you see. A multiplicity of themes, interwoven and illuminating each other, and written so that every sentence contains a complex nexus of possible mean­ings, giving rise to a variety of possible interpretations. Meaning is packed within meaning, so that the whole thing unfolds like the many skins of an onion. The book moves forward in the ordinary literal or historical sense, but its real movement is dialectical and moral, and the conclusion is reached by the pressure of successive renunciations, discoveries of error, and what the careful reader discerns to be partial truths.

Tough stuff.

Not really. The simple reader can be quite happy with a literal interpretation. It will seem to be the biography of a rather foolish and peculiarly perverse young man, born to live in the Spirit, but determined to escape that fate or postpone it as long as possible because he wants to explore the ways of the world and its creatures. It will be quite realistic, you see, so that it may even appear to be a simple narrative. A fool could find it idle or even tedious, but he’ll press on because of the spicy parts.

That’s the literal aspect. But of course there is the allegorical aspect. The life of the principal character, a young academic, is the journey of a modern Everyman, on a Pilgrim’s Progress. The reader follows the movement of his soul from its infantile fantasies, through its adolescent preoccupation with the mechanical and physical aspects of experience, until he discovers logical principles, metaphysics, and particularly scepticism, until he is landed in the dilemmas of middle age — early middle age — and maturity, and finally to his recovery, through imagina­tion, of a unified view of life, of a synthesis of unconscious fantasy, scientific knowledge, moral mythology, and wisdom that meets in a religious reconciliation of the soul with reality through the acceptance of revealed truth.


Hold on a minute. That isn’t all. There’s the moral dimension of the book. It’s a treatise on folly, error, frustration, and ex­ploration of the blind alleys and false theories about life as currently propagated and ineffectually practised. The hero — a not-too-bright adventurer — is looking for the good life in which intellect is at harmony with emotion, intelligence integrated through recollected experience, sentiment tempered by fact, desire directed towards worldly objects and controlled by a sense of humour and proportion.

I’m glad to hear there is going to be some humour in it.

Oh, it’s all humour from start to finish. The deep, rumbling humour of the fulfilled spirit is at the heart of the book. Like Joyce, but not so confined by the old Jesuit boundaries.

That’ll be nice.

But the crown of the book is the anagogical level of meaning, suggesting the final revelation of the twofold nature of the world, the revelation of experience as the language of God and of life as the preliminary to a quest that cannot be described but only guessed at, because all things point beyond themselves to a glory which is greater than any of them. And thus the hero of the tale — because it is a tale to the simple, as I said — will be found to have been preoccupied all his life with the quest for the Father Image and the Mother Idol to replace the real parents who in real life were inadequate surrogates of the Creator. The quest is never completed, but the preoccupation with Image and Idol gradually gives way to the conviction of the reality of the Reality which lies behind the shadows which constitute the actual moment as it rushes by.

You’ve bitten off quite a substantial chunk.

Yes indeed. But I can chew it because I’ve lived it, you see. I gained my philosophy in youth, took it out into the world and tested it.

But Johnny, I hate to say this, but what you’ve allowed me to read doesn’t make me want to read more.

You haven’t seen the whole thing.

Has anyone?

Hollier has a complete typescript.

And what does he say?

I haven’t been able to tie him down to a real talk about it. He says he’s very busy, and I suppose he is, though I think reading this ought to come before the trivialities that eat up his time. I’m shameless, I know. But this is a great book, and sooner or later he is going to have to come to terms with it.

What have you done about publication?

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Categories: Davies, Robertson