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

He didn’t bully Hollier. Nobody could have done that. Instead he worked on the loyalty men feel for old friends who are down on their luck, which I suppose has at least one of its roots in guilt. There but for the Grace of God. . .; that nonsense. He could whine ten dollars out of Hollier and within thirty seconds be in the outer room twisting another ten out of me. It was an astonish­ing performance.

His novel was to him what the Gryphius MSS were to Hollier. He lugged masses of typescript around in one of those strong plastic bags you get at supermarkets. There must have been at least a thousand pages of that typescript, for the bag was full even when Parlabane at last handed Hollier a wad which was, he said, almost a complete and perfect copy of the book. He hinted, but did not actually say, that a typist somewhere had the final version, and was making copies for publishers, and that what he still had in the bag was a collection of notes, drafts, and unsatisfactory passages.

Parlabane made rather a ceremony of handing over his type­script, but after he had gone, Hollier glanced at it, retreated in dismay, and asked me to read it for him and make a report, and perhaps to offer some criticism that he could pass on as his own. Whether Parlabane ever suspected this deceit I do not know, but I took care that he never found me grappling with his rat’s-nest of fiction.

Some typescripts are as hard to read as bad handwriting, and Parlabane’s was one of these. It was on that cheap yellow paper that does not stand up to correction in ink and pencil, to frequent crossings-out, and especially to that pawing a book undergoes when it is in the writing process. Parlabane’s novel, Be Not Another, was a limp, dog-eared mess, unpleasing to the touch, ringed by glasses and cups, and smelly from too much hand­ling by a man whose whole way of life was smelly.

I read it, though I had to flog myself to the work. It was about a young man who was studying philosophy at a university that was obviously ours, in a college that was obviously Spook. His parents were duds, unfit to have such a son. He had long philosophical pow-wows with his professors and friends, and these gurgled with such words as teleological and epistemological , and there was much extremely fine-honed stuff about scepticism and the whole of life being a can of worms. There was a best friend called Featherstone, who seemed to be Hollier; he was just bright enough to play straight man to the Hero, who of course was Parlabane himself. (He had no name and was referred to throughout as He and Him in italics.) There was a clown friend called Billy Duff, or Plum Duff, who never got any good lines; this was undoubtedly Darcourt. There were sexual scenes with girls who were too stupid to recognize what an intellectual bonanza He was, and they either refused to go to bed with Him, or did and failed to come up to expectation. Light dawned when He went to another university for advanced study and met young man who was like a Greek God — no, he did not deny himself that cliche — and with the G.G. He was fulfilled spiri­tually and physically.

He denied himself nothing. Everybody wrangled far too much and didn’t do nearly enough — even in the sexy parts. They weren’t much fun except with the G.G. and those encounters were described so rhapsodically that it was hard to figure out what was happening except in a general way, because they talked so learnedly about it.

I cannot pretend to be a critic of modern fiction; for the moment, Rabelais was in the front of my mind; but anyhow I question whether this thing of Parlabane’s was really a modern novel or perhaps a novel at all. It just seemed to be a discouragingly dull muddle, and so I told Hollier.

It’s his life, though not nearly so interesting as what he told me in The Rude Plenty; everything is seen from the inside, so microscopically that there’s no sense of narrative; it just belly-flops along, like a beached whale.

Doesn’t it come to anything at all?

Oh yes; after much struggle He finds God, who is the sole reality, and instead of scorning the world He learns to pity it.

Very decent of him. Plenty of caricatures of his contem­poraries, I suppose?

I wouldn’t recognize them.

Of course; before your time. But I dare say there are some recognizable people who wouldn’t be too happy to have their youthful exploits recalled.

There’s scandalous stuff, but it isn’t described with much selection or point.

I thought we would all be in it; he made enemies easily.

You don’t come off too badly, but he’s rather hard on Pro­fessor Darcourt; he’s the butt, who thinks he has found God, but of course it isn’t the real eighteen-karat philosopher’s God that He finds after his spiritual pilgrimage. Just a peanut God for tiny minds. But the queerest thing is that he hasn’t a scrap of humour in it. Parlabane’s a lively talker, but he seems to have no comic perception of himself.

Would you expect it? You, a scholar of Rabelais? What he has is wit, not humour, and wit alone never turns inwards. Wit is something you possess, but humour is something that possesses you. I’m not surprised that Darcourt and I appear in a poorish light. No such bitter judge of old friends as a brilliant failure.

He certainly seems to be a failure as a novelist — though I don’t set up to know.

You can’t make a novelist out of a philosopher. Ever read any of Bertrand Russell’s fiction?

There was never any question of Hollier’s reading the book himself. He was too much taken up with his rage against McVarish. It was in February he made me take him to visit Mamusia, and during that miserable hour I kept in the back­ground, terrified by what she was able to corkscrew out of him. It had never entered my mind that he would ask her for a curse. I suppose it is a measure of how stupid I am that I was able to read and write of such things in his company and under his direction, as part of the tissue of past life we were studying, but it never occurred to me that he might seize upon a portion of that bygone life — at least it seemed to me that it belonged to the past — as a way of revenging himself on his adversary. I had never admired Mamusia so much; her severity of calm, good sense made me proud of her. But Hollier was transformed. Whose was the Wild Mind now?

From that day onward he never mentioned the matter to me.

Not so Mamusia. You were angry about my little plan at Christmas, she said, but you see how well everything is turning out. Poor Hollier is a madman. He will be in deep trouble. No husband for you, my girl. It was the hand of Fate that directed the cup of coffee to the priest Darcourt. Have you heard any­thing from him yet?


Had I heard anything from the priest Darcourt? It was easy for Mamusia to talk about Fate as if she were Fate’s accomplice and instrument; beyond a doubt she believed in the power of her nasty philtre, made of ground appleseed and my menstrual blood, because its action was as much taken for granted by her as were the principles of scientific method by Ozy Froats. But for me to admit that there could be any direct relationship be­tween what she had done and the attitude towards me that I now detected in Simon Darcourt would mean a rejection of the modern world and either the acceptance of coincidence as a fac­tor in daily life — a notion for which I harboured a thoroughly modern scorn — or else an admission that some things happened that ran on separate but parallel tracks, and occasionally flashed by one another with blazes of confusing light, like trains passing one another in the night. There was a stylish word for this: synchronicity. But I did not want to think about that: I was a pupil of Hollier’s and I wanted to examine the things that be­longed to Mamusia’s world as matter to be studied, but not beliefs to be accepted and lived. So I tried not to pay too much attention to Simon Darcourt, so far as being his pupil and the necessities of common civility allowed.

This would have been easier if I had not been troubled by disloyal thoughts about Hollier. I still loved him, or cherished feeling for him which I called love because there seemed to be no other appropriate name. Now and then, in the talks I had with him about my work, he said something that was so illuminating that I was confirmed in my conviction that he was a great teacher, an inspirer, an opener of new paths. But his obsession with the Gryphius MSS and the things he said about them and about Urquhart McVarish seemed to come from another man; an obsessed, silly, vain man. I had put out of my head all hope that he would spare any loving thoughts for me, and though I pretended I was ready to play the role of Patient Griselda and put up with anything for the greater glory of Hollier, another girl inside me was coming to the conclusion that my love for him was a great mistake, that nothing would come of it, and that I had better get over it and move on to something else, and of this practical femininity I was foolishly ashamed. But could I love Cain Raised?

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Categories: Davies, Robertson