The Lyre of Orpheus, Robertson Davies. New York: Penguin Books, 1988.
Summary: The project of a gifted but difficult graduate student to realize an unfinished opera of E. T. A. Hoffman uncovers darker and hidden aspects in a number of the central characters who join in undertaking the project.
“The lyre of Orpheus opens the door of the underworld.” -E. T. A. Hoffmann
E. T. A. Hoffmann was one of the major authors in the 19th century Romantic movement. He was something of a polymath who also wrote libretti to a number of operas, and composed Undine and other musical pieces. His greatest claim to musical fame probably was that three of his stories inspired Jacques Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann. He died in 1822 at the age of 46, a victim of alcoholism and syphillis.
In this novel, the third in Davies’ Cornish Trilogy (but can be read on its own), a difficult but talented graduate student, Hulda Schnakenburg (“Schnak”) has proposed as her doctoral project to complete an unfinished opera by Hoffmann, Arthur of Britain or The Magnanimous Cuckold. The Cornish Foundation, established by a bequest of Francis Cornish have been approached with a request to fund what sounds like a long shot. But Arthur Cornish, perhaps already showing symptoms of the mumps which will render him sterile, forcefully persuades his fellow trustees, Maria (his gypsy wife), Simon Darcourt, a priest turned scholar and friend and biographer of Francis, Clem Hollier, an owlish scholar, and Geraint Powell, a charming actor friend, to proceed.
In deciding to make this music, the characters embark on a course that opens the door to “the underworld” of their own lives, facing them with choices of how they will proceed. For “Schnak” this comes in the form of the woman who becomes her advisor, Dr. Gunilla Dahl-Soot. Through both her musical mentoring, and a love affair between these women, “Schnak” comes out of the protective shell she developed to cope with a rigid religious upbringing and some abusive encounters with boyish men, to come into her own as a composer and a woman.
Others in the Cornish Foundation face underworlds of their own. When life imitates art and Maria conceives a child through a strange one night fling with actor-friend Powell, Arthur must decide how he will respond to his own cuckolding. Will he be “magnanimous” as well. Maria, the daughter of gypsies must decide between simply keeping up appearances as the wealthy wife of author, or assert the “Rabelasian” within her, to also be the daughter of her mother who lives in the basement “underworld” of her building.
Simon, the priest friend and “fixer” is perhaps the most interesting character. He is writing a biography of Francis Cornish, one with a big blank space in the middle of it. Along the way, he must decide whether the opportunity to gain this information (and as it turns out, the critical insight into his friend and a major art find) warrants theft and some devious maneuvering.
He is also the main librettist for the opera and here as well, he somewhat deviously “borrows” much of his work from a nineteenth century author. He must decide whether he will be the relatively colorless, competent and understanding friend, or at times act “the fool.” Simon is disillusioned as a priest, but his keen sense of the human condition makes him the ideal narrator of this tale, seeing as he does, both his own, and other characters’ “underworlds,” and sometimes helping them see those “underworlds” for themselves.
There are several “breaks” in Simon’s narrative when “ETAH in Limbo” speaks. This is the ghost of Hoffmann from the underworld, reflecting on his life, and the progress of the realization of his unfinished project. It is a curious device, that Davies uses, I think, to give us insight into Hoffmann, into private lives of the characters, including the love-making between Dahl-Soot and Schnak, and as well as what Hoffman thinks of the work he never finished.
All this happens as the project moves forward from composition to staging of the actual opera. Along the way, we get an inside glimpse of an opera production–staging, singers, director, costumers, the composer and librettists, and the most overlooked of all, the benefactors, who discover the painful realities of having lots of money to give away. Davies’ experience as a scholar at the University of Toronto also comes through in the scenes where “Schnak” comes up for her doctoral defense and he portrays a truly believable episode of the kind of academic hazing these rites of academic passage involve.
Robertson Davies was one of Canada’s best know novelists of the 20th century, passing away in 1995. Reading this work takes us into the Canadian artistic circles of Toronto and Stratford with which he was obviously well acquainted. There is a combination of humor and deep psychological insight in his writing. His plot moves forward as much in the development of his characters and their relations as in the action of the story, leaving us alternately to delight and to muse as Davies plays with a lyre of words to open doors into the underworlds of our lives.