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

I’ve written a careful description of the book — the plan, the themes, the depths of meaning — and sent it to all the principal publishers. I’ve sent a sample chapter to each one, because I don’t want them to see the whole thing until I know how serious they are and what sort of deal they are prepared to make.

Any bites?

One editor asked me to have lunch with him, but at the last moment his secretary called to say that he couldn’t make it. Another one called to ask if there were what he called ‘explicit’ scenes in it.

Ah, the old buggery bit. Very fashionable now.

Of course there’s a good deal of that in it, but unless it’s taken as an integral part of the book it’s likely to be mistaken for pornography. The book is frank — much franker than any­thing else I’ve seen — but not pornographic. I mean, it wouldn’t excite anybody.

How can you tell?

Well — perhaps it might. But I want the reader to experience as far as possible everything that is experienced by the hero, and that includes the ecstasy of love as well as the disgust and filthiness of sex.

You won’t get far with modern readers by telling them that sex is filthy. Sex is very fashionable at present. Not just necessary, or pleasurable, or natural, but fashionable, which is quite a different thing.

Middle-class fucking. My jail-buggery isn’t like that at all. The one is Colonel Sanders’ finger-lickin’ chicken, and the other is fighting for a scrap of garbage in Belsen.

That might sell very well.

Don’t be a crass fool, Sim. This is a great book, and although I expect it to sell widely and become a classic, I’m not writing nastiness for the bourgeois market.

A classic. As I looked at him, so unkempt and messy in the ruin of a once-good suit of my own, I wondered if he could truly have written a classic novel. How would I know? Identify­ing classics of literature is not my job and I have the usual guilt that is imposed on all of us by the knowledge that in the past people have refused to recognize classics, and have afterwards looked like fools because of it. One has a certain reluctance to believe that anybody one knows, and particularly anybody look­ing such a failure and crook as Parlabane, is the author of some­thing significant. Anyhow, he hadn’t permitted me to read the whole thing, so obviously he thought me unworthy, a sadly limited creature not up to comprehending its quality. The burden of declaring his book a great one had not been laid on me. But I was curious. As custodian of The New Aubrey it was up to me to find out if I could, and record genius if genius came into my ken.

Identifying classics may be considered outside my capacity, but several fund-granting bodies are prepared to take my word about the abilities of students who want money to continue their studies, and after Parlabane had left I settled to the job of filling in several of the forms such bodies provide for the people they call referees, and the students refer to as ‘resource persons . So I turned off whatever part of me was Parlabane’s confidant, and the part which was the compiler of The New Aubrey, and the part — the demanding, aching part — that yearned for Maria-Sophia, and set to work on a pile of such forms, all of which had been brought to me at the last moment by anxious but ill-organized students, all of which had to be sent to the grantors immediately, and upon which it was apparently my task to affix the necessary postage; the students had not done so.

Outside my window lay the quadrangle of Ploughwright and although it was still too early to be called Spring, the fountains which never quite froze were making gentle music below their crowns of ice. How peaceful it looked, even at this ruinous time of the year. ‘A garden enclosed is my sister; my spouse, a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.’ How I loved her! Was it not strange that a man of my age should feel it so painfully? Get to work, Simon. Work, supposed anodyne of all pain.

As I bent over my desk, my mood sank towards misanthropy. What would happen, I wondered, if I filled out these forms honestly? First: Say how long you have known the applicant. There were few whom I could claim to know at all, in any serious sense of the word, for I saw them only in seminars. In what capacity do you know him/her? As a teacher; why else would I be filling in this form? Of the students you have known in this way, would you rank the applicant in the first five per cent — ten per cent — twenty-five per cent? Well, my dear grantor, it depends on your standards; most of them are all right, in a general way. Aha, but here we get down to cases; Make any personal comment you consider relevant. This is where a referee or resource person is expected to pour on the oil. But I am sick of lying.

So, after an hour and half of soul-searching, I found that I had said of one young fellow, He is a good-natured slob, and there is no particular harm in him, but he simply doesn’t know what work means. Of another: Treacherous; never turn your back on him. Of a third: Is living on a woman who thinks he is a genius; perhaps any grant you give him ought to be based on her earning capacity; she is quite a good stenographer, with a B.A. of her own, but she is plain and I suspect that once he has his doctorate he will discover that his affections lie elsewhere. This is a common pattern, and probably doesn’t concern you, but it grieves me. Of a young woman: Her mind is as flat as Holland — the salt-marshes, not the tulip fields — stretching towards the horizon in all directions and covered by a leaden sky. But unquestionably she will make a Ph.D. — of a kind.

Having completed this Slaughter of the Innocents — innocent in their belief that I would do anything I could to get them money — I hastily closed the envelopes, lest some weak remorse overtake me. What will the Canada Council make of that, I won­dered, and was cheered by the hope that I had caused that body a lot of puzzlement and confusion. Tohubohu and brouhaha, as Maria loved to say. Ah, Maria!

Next day at lunch in the Hall of Spook I saw Hollier sitting alone at a table which is used for the overflow from the principal dons’ table, and I joined him.

About this book of Parlabane’s, I said; is it really something extraordinary?

I’ve no idea. I haven’t time to read it. I’ve given it to Maria to read. She’ll tell me.

Given it to Maria! Won’t he be furious?

I don’t know and I don’t much care. I think she has a right to read it, if she wants to; she seems to be putting up the money to have it professionally typed.

He’s touched me substantially for money to have that done.

Are you surprised? He touches everybody. I’m sick of his cadging.

Has she said anything?

She hasn’t got far with it. Has to read it on the QT because he’s always bouncing in and out of my rooms. But I’ve seen her puzzling over it, and she sighs a lot.

That’s what it made me do.

But a few days later the situation was reversed, for Hollier joined me at lunch.

I met Carpenter the other day; the publisher, you know. He has Parlabane’s book, or part of it, and I asked him what he thought.

And –?

He hasn’t read it. Publishers have no time to read books, as I suppose you know. He handed it on to a professional reader and appraiser. The report, based on a description and a sample chapter, isn’t encouraging.


Carpenter says they get two or three such books every year — long, wandering, many-layered things with an elaborate struc­ture, and a heavy freight of philosophy, but really self-justifying autobiographies. He’s sending it back.

Parlabane will be disappointed.

Perhaps not. Carpenter says he always sends a personal letter to ease the blow, suggesting that the book be sent to somebody else, who does more in that line. You know: the old down-ready-pass.

Has Maria got on any farther with it?

She’s beavering away at it. Chiefly because of the title, I think.

I didn’t know it had a title.

Yes indeed, and just as tricky as the rest of the thing. It’s called Be Not Another.

Hm. I’m not sure that I would snatch for a book called Be Not Another. Why does Maria like it?

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Categories: Davies, Robertson