The marvelous quote above is from Canadian author, playwright, critic, journalist, & professor Robertson Davies, one of my all-time favorite authors. I first became acquainted with Davies’ work in the 80’s when a friend presented me with a copy of The Lyre of Orpheus. I was in my late teens at the time, had done a bit of theater & opera, & was considering becoming an English professor, so naturally I found Davies’ tale about a wealthy, philanthropic couple, a group of academics, & assorted musical types immensely appealing. The novel centers around this seemingly disparate cast of characters’ attempt to finish an incomplete opera by E.T.A. Hoffman, & to mount a production of same. Hoffman’s spirit, confined to limbo since his earthly work was left undone, observes & comments on the 20th-century characters’ actions.
Davies was born in Renfrew, Ontario, the son of Senator William Rupert Davies, who was also a newspaperman. He was educated in both Canada & England, but spent most of his adult life in Canada, including a lengthy stint as Master of Massey College, a graduate college at The University of Toronto. To call him “prolific” would be a huge understatement; he wrote 11 novels, 15 plays, 3 opera libretti, & countless scholarly & critical works. Truly a man of the world, Davies may have been most at home in academia & the arts, but he knew a great deal about many other subjects, including religion, Romany culture, & sideshows; all are combined to great effect in his writing.
In the fall of 1993, a couple of months after I arrived at WBJC, I called Jonathan at the station on one of my days off (at the time, that would have meant a Thursday or Friday) with a work-related question. I asked how his day was going, to which he replied that he was getting ready to interview an author named Robertson Davies – had I heard of him? Needless to say, I finished the phone call, got dressed, & drove to WBJC as fast as I could. My favorite living writer was going to be at our studios, & I had a chance of meeting him! Mr. Davies was 80 years old at the time, & as the above picture (taken in 1994 by Alex Waterhouse-Hayward) suggests, he looked rather like Johannes Brahms. He was well-dressed, in a suit that seemed old-fashioned, yet not so much “retro” as existing out of time, like Davies himself. His manner was quiet, but friendly, & he couldn’t have been more gracious to a young, star-struck fan.
Over the past year, I’ve re-read two of the books in Davies’ Cornish Trilogy – The Lyre of Orpheus & The Rebel Angels. They are the third & first books in the series, & while it may have been better for me to read them in order, one of the great things about Davies’ trilogies is that each novel stands up very well on its own. I can honestly say that I’ve enjoyed both books every bit as much as I did over two decades ago – probably more, given that I have more life experience & am familiar with many of the plays, operas, etc. referred to in Davies’ writing. I may not have become an English professor, but I have spent my entire adult life surrounded by artists & academics. I’ve even met a few sideshow performers. Actually, many of my friends & colleagues could have stepped right out of one of Davies’ novels.
Robertson Davies passed away on December 2, 1995, at age 82. I’m planning to re-read all of his other novels before the “noon” of my life is over, & may well pick them up again in the “moonlight”, if not before.
Which author’s (or authors’) works have stood the test of time for you?Tags:Alex Waterhouse-Hayward, Canada, Cornish Trilogy, England, Robertson Davies, The Lyre of Orpheus, The Rebel Angels, theater, Toronto