THE WORLD OF Robertson Davies is akin to a Gothic Cathedral. Amid gargoyles, demons, angels, saints, monkish chants, exotic beasts, and arcane spells, Davies weaves his enchantments. With the Depford Trilogy under his belt and, more recently, The Rebel Angels to his credit, Davies has established himself not only as a major force in Canadian literature but as a truly talented if slightly cultish figure on the international literary scene.
Unfortunately his latest novel, What's Bred in the Bone, is a poorly cast spell. It is a sequel to Rebel Angels, but not one which requires that you read the first book. As usual Davies begins with a brilliant premise, intriguing characters and a philosophical question that is compelling. What was the spirit which motivated Francis Cornish, the eccentric but brilliant Canadian art critic and collector, to lead a life divorced from this hollow world? But as Davies weaves his spell one gets the feeling that he suddenly realizes that he has bitten off a bit more than he can chew in 430 pages and decides to hurry the tale to its end so he can start the third book of this trilogy.
Francis Cornish is another one of those great Davies characters, a child of the old world lost in the new. Cornish is dead before the book begins and his story is told by the Daimon Maimas and the Recording Angel, two medieval creatures who have overseen his life. Under their influence, Cornish has lead a decidedly bizarre existence. His parents essentially abandon him at the beginning of this century to be raised in a miniscule Canadian town by his Catholic great aunt who bootlegs Catholicism to him against the wishes of his resolutely Anglican father.
Cornish falls into the art world when he discovers a sketching primer in his aunt's library and then hones his skills by sketching in the mortuary. Eventually he ends up in England, gets slightly involved in the spy game and falls in love with his cousin who is really in love with a gambling revolutionary. She gets pregnant; he marries her; she abandons him and child; he meets his painting mentor who takes him to Germany to engage in an obscure and slightly unethical anti-Nazi plot; he makes his reputation as an art critic by revealing a forgery.
Yet he is caught in a trap. Cornish is a painter of the old world. The spirit that motivates him is meaningless in this world, so Cornish escapes by painting in the medieval style and becomes a forger in his own way.
Along the way Davies populates early 20th century Canada and England with characters that leap off the page and both fascinate with their oddity and inform with their basic humanity. There is the dwarf tailor in Cornish's small town, Blairlogie, who a group of town toughs humiliate one night. Despairing, he hangs himself. Cornish sketches him in the morgue and this dwarf eventually becomes the subject of one of Cornish's greatest paintings.
The plot, in true Davies style, is intricately drawn. If it follows slightly bizarre twists, then that only adds the spice to a fundamentally sincere tale of a man with talent who seems genuinely lost in a land that does not understand his skill. Cornish stays in England through World War II, working in the spy business, but eventually returns to Canada with a fortune in his pocket, a talent for spotting great art and a lonely heart.
AT THIS POINT Davies' story falls apart. Essentially Davies dumps poor Cornish back in Canada and treats us to a perfunctory conclusion. Cornish becomes an eccentric collector; Cornish makes a few friends; Cornish deeply hurts one of his dear friends who then kills himself; Cornish dies. They are all very unsatisfying, these brief sketches of the elder Cornish, and they lead us nowhere. The crescendo of the story, which amounts to one of Cornish's dear friends asking him for money to buy one of Cornish's own medieval-style masterpieces falls very flat.
This tale of the friend who wants to buy Cornish's fake fails because it is only sketchily drawn. Once Cornish returns to Canada, Davies seems to step back from him as his character. We no longer see Cornish; we just hear what has happened to him as if we were sitting in a drawing room listening to amusing anecdotes. The quality of Davies' characters has always lain in the intense feeling Davies has for them, as if they are a part of him and he their psychoanalyst. When Cornish refuses to give his friend the money to buy a Cornish fake, we only glimpse briefly at the turmoil Cornish feels.
One other aspect of Davies' novel falls flat. In The Rebel Angels Davies populates the novel with the unseen but mysterious forces of medieval angels. But in What's Bred in the Bone Davies brings them to life. The Daimon Maimas and the Recording Angel narrate the novel. This little conceit provides the structural premise of the book, and it wilts fast.
Let's explain. His conceit is to posit that Maimas and the Recording Angel have guided Cornish through his life in an effort to make him great. So when Cornish's nephew calls upon them in jest, they appear (not to the nephew of course, only to the reader) to tell the tale. Why does Davies do this? Well, it's kind of clever and amusing at first. And the use of these two characters could be forgiven if they weren't used in such an amateurish way. Throughout the novel they interrupt every once in a while to explain the most recent occurrence in the life of Francis Cornish. "If you wish to talk of Chance', said the Daimon Maimas. 'But you and I know how deceptive the concept of Chance--the wholly random, inexplicable happening--is as a final explanation of anything."
This is really too amateurish. These two creatures engage in rather uninspiring debates on chance and pity and forgery. It's rather a let down, for, if anything, Davies is a master in creating these philosophical debates. Davies is a rennaisance man whose erudition usually shines through his novels in an enchanting rather than imposing way. So it's a shame to see this talent wane in this novel. For in his other novels the magic of the devils and angels lives in the characters who understand and discuss their own magic. In separating the daimon and angel from Cornish through this conceit, he takes away the magic from Cornish and the humanity of the angels.