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Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars
The Lyre of Orpheus (Cornish Trilogy)
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on August 22, 2010
This book was purchased as a replacement for one lost by me from a little library in New Brunswick Canada.

This 1988 novel is last of Davies "Cornish Trilogy." The first is "Rebel Angels", 1981, and second "What's Bred in the Bone."(1985) In the story, the executors of the will of Francis Cornish (hero of "What's Bred in the Bone) are now the heads of the "Cornish Foundation." Brilliant Robertson Davies in this work, has the executors decide to stage an unfinished opera by E.T.A. Hoffman, (at Stratford, Ontario.) They hire a young composer to complete the opera. Dark humor figures as the ghost of Hoffman is part of the effort. Production of the opera is a structural element that parallels the story.

Davies is probably best known for his "Fifth Business" part of the Depford Trilogy", He has an elegant, voice reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh. It is a layered, complex read, requiring focus, and time. His work is enchanting.
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on October 7, 2014
Love Roberson Davies, as always. Book arrived in great shape, lovingly packaged from the seller.
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on October 22, 2014
A fun comedy with nearly meta-fictional qualities given off-stage comments by E. T. A. Hoffman, the historical romantic fiction writer whose fragmentary studies for his planned opera offer the subject matter and the spine for this novel. If you’re new to Davies, go back and read The Rebel Angels, as that novel contains almost all the same characters as this one. Davies is good at inserting oddball characters who move his plot along—in The Rebel Angels, it was Parlabane, a renegade homosexual monk and murderer—and in this novel we have young Schnakenburg who is finishing her dissertation in musical orchestration, plus her erstwhile mentor Dr. Gunilla Dahl-Soot. The two of them become lovers, and their love seems to prompt Schnak toward working wonders with the bare outlines of the Hoffmann opera, entitled Arthur of Britain, the Magnanimous Cuckold. Some fun and some not-so fun plot twists make this novel a treat.
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on May 20, 2011
This set of three novels more closely resembles a triptych than the usual sort of trilogy. The first published volume, _The Rebel Angels,_ and this one are the side panels while the middle volume, _What's Bred in the Bone,_ forms the middle panel. That middle book tells in detail of the multifaceted life of Francis Cornish, while the first and third volumes are both set after his death and deal with the effects Francis's life has had on his friends and colleagues.

The first volume also had as one of its major foci the art of writing -- specifically, Maria's study of Rabelais and John Parlebane's unreadable autobiography. The second volume dealt largely with the art of painting and how Francis Cornish became an Old Master (sort of). This one is about the art of music in the form of opera. Arthur Cornish is Francis's nephew, a very wealthy and very successful businessman (his "art" is money), and chairman of the foundation established with the money Francis left. He's a good man and he yearns to be an intellectual (like his wife) and an artist. But that just isn't in him so he'll settle for being a patron of the arts, a moneyman who enables art to happen. The university that is home to Maria and Father Simon Darcourt and Clement Hollier (the regular characters throughout the trilogy) also has a music school, which includes Miss Hulda Schnakenburg (henceforth "Schnak"), talented musician -- possibly even a genius -- who wants to earn her doctorate in music by completing an opera by the early 19th century Romantic, E.T.A. Hoffmann. And the new fourth member of the foundation's board of directors, Geraint Powell, an actor/musician of some note, and who wants to remake himself as a director, thinks it would be marvelous if the Cornish Foundation were to underwrite the actual staging and performance of the completed opera: "Arthur of Britain, or The Magnanimous Cuckold." When the work and its sponsor have the same name -- and when the author is Robertson Davies -- you can guess at what's coming.

Davies is a master of sardonic wit, as in the professor of comparative literature who "had the steely core of the woman who has scrambled up the academic ladder to a full professorship." He also has a way of pointing out the obvious: "That man knows every trick in the book to make people feel rotten who don't share his attitude toward life. It's an underdog's revenge. You are not supposed to kick the underdog, but it's perfectly okay for the underdog to bite you." In this case, the underdog is a religious fundamentalist zealot -- what Father Darcourt calls "the Friends of the Minimum. In the great electoral contest of life he is running for martyr." Boy, I can think of a lot of people to whom I could apply that razor-sharp judgment. But perhaps the best bit of all is this: "What is a Philistine? Oh, some of them are very nice people. They are the salt of the earth -- but not its pepper. A Philistine is someone who is content to live in a wholly unexplored world."

Davies is a first-class comic writer and it's impossible to read this book without grinning at almost every page. He also writes at many levels in many voices and it (like all his other works) will be most rewarding to the reader who has a wide and deep background. I'm sure many younger, less experienced readers are going to miss many of the jokes and allusions. But for the rest of us, Davies is pure gold.
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on January 29, 2010
Robertson Davies' last major novel trilogy, "Cornish", concludes with this book, which is in many respects my favourite of the set. "The Rebel Angels" introduced us to the characters who inhabit the world of the College of St John and the Holy Ghost (a thinly-disguised version of Trinity College at Toronto); "What's Bred in the Bone" went back in time to give us the life story of Frank Cornish, the man whose death drove the plot of the first novel. Now in "Lyre" the strands of both novels come together, and Davies, having previously indulged his love of Rabelais, theology, and Medieval art, now takes us into the machinations of opera. Plot details discussed herein.

Much as "The World of Wonders" concluded "The Deptford Trilogy" by bringing back the first book's narrator, Dunstan Ramsay, so this third book in the trilogy sees the return of Simon Darcourt as focal character, though only partially, as Davies here indulges more in omniscient third-person narration than in the past. This includes segments narrated by the deceased poet and musician E. T. A Hoffmann from Limbo, the place for deceased artists who never achieved their potential (Hoffmann's parts introduce a surreal element akin to the commentating angels from "What's Bred in the Bone"). But rescue may be at hand for Hoffmann, as the messy graduate student Hulda Schnakenburg proposes to finish his last opera, "Arthur of Britain", using notes left behind. The attempt to stage this opera drives the plot and, as in other Davies novels, the mythic meta-echoes of Arthurian story reflect and influence the lives of the characters.

Without having read Davies, many might assume that his novels would stuffy, 19th century affairs, but this work, especially, defies that idea. Davies depicts some fairly frank sexuality, largely of a homosexual nature here, with the arrival of the splendidly-named Dr. Gunnila Dahl-Soot, a Nordic music instructor called in to assist. The modern day Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot triangle is rather odd, though; you would think Arthur and Maria would be a bit more put off by Geraint and his motivation. But, whatever, it's all archetypal. Davies was always fascinated with opera, and yearned to write one himself, something eventually realized, though he did not live to see it performed. Here he gives us an intriguing depiction of the art as it exists today and existed in the early 19th century in Britain and Germany, before Wagner.

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on September 7, 2000
The Lyre of Orpheus continues the story of the characters introduced in The Rebel Angels -- Maria and Arthur Cornish, Simon Darcourt, Clement Hollier, etc. I read the Cornish Trilogy straight through, and while I very much enjoyed it, I thought Davies ran out of gas somewhere in the Lyre of Orpheus. What I liked so much about the first two books was Davies' delving into the personalities of the characters; What's Bred in the Bone deals more with Francis Cornish, but goes very deeply into the forces that shaped his life. Davies has great insight into human nature. In The Lyre of Orpheus, the characters' motivations are not well explored. For example, we learn that a character's wife has an affair that results in pregnancy, and that the man, with apparently little ado, not only forgives his wife and treats her with undiminished devotion, but also continues to regard her lover as the dear friend he had been. Well, that's great, but uncommon, and Davies makes no attempt to explain this astounding level of generosity other than to analogize it to the Arthurian legend (but that was a legend). Similarly, we learn that Simon Darcourt has taken something of a new path in his life, but for motivation we are told little more than that, after taking a walk in woods, he has decided to view his life differently. Instead of helping us to relate to these characters, Davies spends a great deal of time educating us about how to produce an opera, evidently a great love of his. Opera fans will find this great fun, but it doesn't make for a great story. Finally, the analogizing to Arthurian legend of the characters' lives that permeates the entire work as a leitmotif becomes increasingly heavyhanded as time wears on, almost to the point of self-parody. In short, it's an entertaining read, but not up to the level of the first two parts of the trilogy.
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on February 25, 2008
This is the third book in a trilogy. I hadn't read the first two, which in one way was an advantage: there is a certain amount of background material provided which would no doubt be dull for someone already familiar with it. At the same time, while I found many of the secondary characters nicely developed and interesting, I was left cold by two of the main characters, Arthur and Maria, and perhaps they would have meant more to me had I read the whole trilogy. The gypsy angle seemed forced and would better have been edited out.

In any event, the major reason for reading this novel is the sparkling conversation, whether it be about the personal, or about painting and especially opera; aesthetics, criticism, music, theater, myth, current and historical perspectives and stagecraft are all discussed in a fun manner, and all are germane to the plot. The novel is truly an intellectual romp.
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on October 27, 2003
The Lyre of Orpheus is the concluding novel in Robertson Davies's Cornish Trilogy, and it stands as a strong work within the context of that collection. Like The Rebel Angels (the first book), The Lyre of Orpheus is very much dependent upon the two other books and does not do well as a stand-alone.
In many ways, The Lyre of Orpheus was surprising to this reader. Its plot revolves around an Arthurian quest (loosely) to put on a production of a long-dead composer whose opera had fallen short of completion at the time of his death in the early 19th century. The task was to write an opera that was sufficiently of his spirit, so as to be called his, and then produce it according to the conventions of the theatre of the day. Honestly, I would be hard-pressed to think of a plot that would be less likely to rouse my interest, personally (my apologies to all those truly devoted to early 19th century opera!). Having invested myself in the first two books of the trilogy, however, I resigned myself to the task of reading this last installment (lest I have to chastise myself in future years for having gone so far and then turned back). The `round table' of this tale was, for me, the most tedious of experiences (except when a drunken, rude Scandinavian music scholar provided me with some humour to console my page-turning drudgery). Indeed, the book often wanders with Davies's own apparent unclear quest to find his way from one cover to the next. BUT - all of that said, I found myself falling in love with this book, the more I read of it.
Robertson Davies has (though he is gone, he is not really) a delightful gift of making us find joy in the chatter and company of our own lives. This book, perhaps more than many of his creation, takes us through a luxurious indulgence in the meanderings of days strung together whose meaning can only be guessed, or retroactively assigned. The `round table,' though often a great annoyance to this reader, began to feel as beloved (and despised) as the Thanksgiving table filled with family and friends. The treasure of this book is to be found in the characters, not in the plot (which is a mere backdrop - and excuse for the story - just as the libretto is an excuse for the opera's music (according to Davies)).
I give high marks to this book. I expected not to like it; but I did. Very much so, in fact. I commend it to your reading.
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on July 9, 1999
After having read The Rebel Angels and What's Bred In The Bone, and enjoying both of them immensely, I was terribly disappointed in this final book in what finally wound up being the Cornish Trilogy. The pomposity that Davies had always managed to keep in check before finally runs riot, as his barely diguised contempt for his readers' intelligence is clearly displayed.
Watch all the characters that you had grown to know and love from the earlier two novels degenerate into mere caricatures. Be angry at the editor who convinced Davies to churn out a third book about these people, so that the publisher could market the group as a TRILOGY. Be sorry you wasted the money and the time on this book.
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on October 1, 1997
The final part of the Cornish Trilogy. This is the story of an opera. Boring? Never. An unfinished opera by E.T.A. Hoffman is to be completed by an unlovable music student as a part of a bequest from a charitable foundation. From the beginning Davies' coruscating prose enchants and, as the twin plots begin to unfold, the richly eccentric characters begin to draw the reader in. Davies has a way of tying the most obscure facts together and making his huge knowledge accessible through humour and his immensely gifted, exhilarating, writing. If you have never read Robertson Davies you should start now. Start with The Lyre of Orpheus if you like, it is a superb book in it's own right, but it is a part of the outstanding "Cornish Trilogy" so you may prefer to begin with The Rebel Angels, the first in the trilogy. Personally, though, I would buy the trilogy right now.
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