The Lyre of Orpheus

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

The Lyre of Orpheus is the final installment of what might become known as Robertson Davies’ Cornish Trilogy, a masterly series of interlocking narrations examining the correspondences between life and art. The central figure in the trilogy, central as exemplar of Davies’ concerns (Darcourt is his key commentator), is Francis Cornish—a mysterious figure whose life as an artist and government agent is detailed in What’s Bred in the Bone (1985), though much of it is summarized here and newly understood. Simon Darcourt’s task is to uncover the secrets of that life and to shape them into a book. He has the support and encouragement of the Cornish Foundation, on whose board he sits. The foundation, under the direction of Arthur Cornish, was established by Francis Cornish’s will to further humane studies and artistic enterprises.

In The Lyre of Orpheus, that charge has led the foundation to supporting the researches and creative efforts of a perverse graduate student, Hulda Schnakenburg, who has been given the opportunity to complete an unfinished opera sketched by the Romantic composer, critic, and author E. T. A. Hoffmann. Not only will the foundation support this research, it will fund a production of the completed opera. Hoffmann’s unfinished business comes to employ the talents of a great number of people in a collaboration that fulfills, in various measures, both the living and the dead In this way, the interaction of past and present—one of Davies’ recurrent concerns—is given a vivid and plausible present action.

The opera—Arthur of Britain; or, the Magnanimous Cuckold—receives its broad story line from the Welshman, Geraint Powell, who is a skilled, ambitious, dedicated artist of the theater. Powell assembles the cast and the other theater professionals who will execute the production. He is just as much a producer as director, even though it is the Cornish Foundation, through Arthur’s risk-taking generosity, that puts up the cash. Arthur heads the round table of the foundation, with his beautiful wife at his side. And Arthur is betrayed by his trusted Geraint—cuckolded just as King Arthur was by Lancelot and Guenevere. The irony of this situation is not lost on the characters themselves. As life imitates art, life also pays the price for it.

As the story of the opera’s completion and movement toward production unfolds, relationships develop that bring about transformations. Most significant among these is the transformation of Hulda Schnakenburg under the tutelage and enchantment of Dr. Gunilla Dahl-Soot (who will conduct the opera at its premiere). Not only does this accomplished woman inspire and discipline Hulda’s genius, but she also brings her a long way toward social refinement, articulateness, and bodily awareness. Their homosexual embrace seems part of an emotional formula—a sorcerer’s magic well-practiced by Dahl- Soot.

Inside of the opera story is the smaller one of Simon Darcourt’s search into missing years in the life of Francis Cornish—the ultimate inspirer of the present doings. Darcourt’s dedication to his task, and his willingness to take risks for the sake of realizing his own destiny, leads him to steal drawings which not only establish the identity of a major Cornish painting but also reveal that a supposed Renaissance painting used in a cosmetics ad is in fact a Cornish rendering of the young Princess Amalie, the firm’s director. Darcourt uses his leverage with this woman to extort more of the hidden facts of Francis’ life. The major painting in question, owned by the princess and previously thought to be the work of an unknown Renaissance master; demonstrates Francis Cornish’s accomplishment and—to Darcourt at least—reveals his inner autobiography. In this case, present occasions restructure the past.

Darcourt’s other mission, of providing a libretto for the opera, succeeds when he adapts lines from the Arthurian writings of Sir Walter Scott (Hoffmann’s contemporary). Once again, the past provides a key to a present problem; once again, the past is put to a new use.

Just as Arthur Cornish proves to be the magnanimous cuckold, so others are glimpsed in mythic illumination. For Davies, we are all time travelers enacting—with greater or lesser...

(The entire section is 1770 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

The Christian Century. CVI, February 1, 1989, p.43.

London Review of Books. X, November 10, 1988, p.19.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 29, 1989, p.2.

The New Republic. CC, April 24, 1989, p.38.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVI, April 13, 1989, p.35.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, January 8, 1989, p.7.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIV, October 14, 1988, p.48.

Time. CXXXII, December 26, 1988, p.77.

The Times Literary Supplement. September 23, 1988, p.1040.

The Washington Post Book World. XVIII, December 18, 1988, p.3.