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5.0 out of 5 starsEven without the trilogy, an excellent book
Reviewed in Canada on June 26, 2000
I didn't realize this was the middle book of the Cornish trilogy and read it first. I haven't read the other two yet, but I have to say that this book is excellent and one of the most entertaining books I have read this year. This book chronicles the odd adventures of Francis Cornish in a sweeping story which moves from Canada to Europe. Francis Cornish is just enough unlucky that you sympathize with his trials and tribulations, but his fantastic artistic skills and his many riches make him someone the reader might envy and not understand. Davies is an expert at telling this sort of life story, and I think this one is even more enjoyable than Fifth Business. He has a sense of what it is like to have characters at the hands of fate; in this novel, the daimons quite literally command and shape Francis's destiny. Reading this book definitely wanted to make me read the rest of the trilogy.
I didn't know of Davies' history - except that he went to UCC and Queens and UofT - and that he was a wonderful storyteller. What's Bred in the Bone tells the story of Francis Cornish, beginning with his birth and childhood in Blairlogie. As I read on, I soon realized that Blairlogie was in fact Renfrew Ontario, my hometown... I didn't know how he had been able to describe my hometown so well, but I was knew it was Renfrew - physically, historically, economically and personally. I later learned that Davies had been able to draw such a devastatingly clear, ironic and satirical portrait of Renfrew, because he too grew up there. He attended the same public school as me (although we had proper plumbing by the time I went there) and attended the same church. The story is populated with Renfrew names... Cornish was the Anglican Minister, Froats - the Monument Maker - and so on. It is a wonderful story - and all the more so because Renfrew continues with much the same social system, which includes an annual "Lumber Baron Days," while ignoring the wonderful love letter from a homegrown son. Too Rich!
5.0 out of 5 starsOne of the best novels ever written in any language.
Reviewed in Canada on October 14, 2001
Davies always anchors his world in the primal instincts, the truths of human nature. You are never quite prepared for the surprising complexity of his characters or the fate that awaits them. The realistic evolution of Francis from troubled boyhood to artistic savant is really a modern version of David Copperfield, except the female characters are more fully dimensioned than Dickens could ever manage. And there is nothing of Dicken's stuffiness here. This is great literature with a Monty Python flair. No matter how you slice it a convincing argument can be made that during the last ten years of his life Davies was the greatest living novelist writing in English.
Back in 1985 I was discussing Tolkein with a friend of mine. She said, "Oh, you like dwarves? Well, I've got a book with a dwarf in it." Handed this book, I became, in less than an hour, a confirmed Robertson Davies fan. Here is a sense of history, of art, of magic, and of human peculiarities, lovingly portrayed. Davies is an artist with words; his powers of observation are impeccable; his interest in the world unbounded. I cannot say what the book is ABOUT, because that would detract from it. Suffice it to say that this is one of the finest works in the English Language, no matter what the Modern Library list had to say.
This is the first book by Davies I ever read, and it remains my favourite. As I found out later, it is the centrepiece of what came to be known as the Cornish trilogy. It is the story of Francis Cornish, a talented artist from provincial Canada who is recruited into the British secret service and participates in a major art forging operation intended to thwart the nazis. In the course of the process he finds and loses the love of his life, paints a medieval tryptich depicting the Marriage at Canaan that is also a representation of the major figures in his life (all of them very colourful), unmasks another forger after the war and ultimately has to give up his career as a "medieval painter" when his masterpiece is purchased by a Canadian museum on the assumption that it is genuine. Cornish's life is narrated by his daimon, a sort of "biographical angel", and has many more twists and turns than I can possibly describe here. The book is full of Davies' urbane wit and Jungian wisdom. It tails off a bit towards the end, but that is compensated in the "sequel" about his nephew Arthur and his patronage of the arts, "The Lyre of Orpheus". Highly recommended, but I suggest you start with the first part of this trilogy, "The Rebel Angels". Newcomers, beware: Davies' fiction is highly addictive.
5.0 out of 5 starsGood read, good service but.........
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on June 12, 2015
A great read - will get his other books when I have finished this. Also a good service although annoyingly, I wasn't able to cancel my mistakenly duplicated order which I attempted to do within seconds. I was told I could return the second copy but it would have been more trouble than it was worth as I was just about to go on holiday.
3.0 out of 5 starsThe book arrived very quickly Good!, but
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on May 4, 2016
The book arrived very quickly Good!, but, although there were indeed no pages ripped or missing, the book is in very poor condition. I will lend it out when I've finished it and I won't worry about its return.
4.0 out of 5 starsInteresting Formation but Strange Fruition
Reviewed in the United States on July 14, 2011
Robertson Davies published this middle volume of his "Cornish Trilogy" in 1985. Six years earlier, Sir Anthony Blunt, Britain's leading art historian (and briefly one of my own professors), had been exposed as a Soviet spy. I very much suspect that the surprising conjunction of clandestine operative and connoisseur was in Davies' mind when he planned this book. It is the fictional life story of Francis Cornish, maverick member of a Canadian banking family, who has recently died in possession of large art collection, a great deal of money, and a general air of mystery. Framed by brief comments from his guiding angel, the book tells of his growing up in a Canadian lumber town, his developing interest in art, his somewhat secretive work as an art restorer, and his long association with what is always referred to as "the profession" -- the British intelligence apparatus.
It must be thirty years since I last read a Robertson Davies book. I had forgotten his curiously dated air, like a nineteenth-century novelist (Trollope perhaps) writing in the twentieth, full of detail and with ample diversions. But that is soon forgotten in an entertaining and often racy Bildungsroman, taking Francis from remote Blairlogie to boarding school and college in Toronto, and thence to Oxford. By the time he graduates, we are on page 284 of a 436-page novel, or exactly two-thirds of the way through. Hence the strange title, from an old proverb: "What's bred in the bone will not out of the flesh" -- the implication being that you cannot understand a person until you know his formation. And indeed even for the next 80 pages, Francis is still pursuing an apprenticeship, this time to a brilliant but tyrannical restorer named Tancredo Saraceni, who is restoring (or repainting) renaissance pictures in a baronial Schloss in Germany as part of a scheme to defraud the Third Reich.
But Francis' formation is not followed by an equivalent fruition; his life-story as an adult is less interesting than when he was growing up. The story attenuates as the various themes of his youth are pulled together philosophically, in the iconography of pictures he paints in imitation of the old masters, and the interleaving of elements of the Grail legend with his own life. This is clearly a preoccupation of the author's; the third novel in the trilogy,
THE LYRE OF ORPHEUS
, though about music rather than painting, is also concerned with retouching old art works and replaying the Arthurian legend. Perhaps it is what Davies fans expect, but for me it merely replaced human interest with philosophical game-playing. The author certainly knows his stuff, whether it is the pigments, supports, and media of the old masters here, or the process of putting together an opera in THE LYRE OF ORPHEUS. Yet just having come from reading a totally convincing novel about a painter,
MY NAME IS ASHER LEV
by Chaim Potok, I found I simply could not believe in Francis' artistic ability in this book, any more that I could believe the composer in the other. There is certainly an intellectual fascination, but not so much as in Michael Frayn's
, about a possibly forged Bruegel. Thirty years ago, Robertson Davies was all the rage; he remains interesting today, but would he still be rated among the top Canadian authors?
5.0 out of 5 starsHow a neglected child grows up to be an art forger
Reviewed in the United States on May 2, 2015
This is the most charming and memorable book I have read all year. When I raved about it to those I thought would enjoy it, they all had read it and recalled it as one of their favorites. I have no doubt Donna Tartt read this and borrowed the idea of the education of the art forger for her huge success "The Goldfinch." This one is set 60 or 70 years earlier in Canada, but the character is every bit as fascinating, and the writing is far more elegant
4.0 out of 5 starsIntriguing exploration of the notion of Free Will
Reviewed in the United States on May 17, 2001
Robertson Davies spins a marvelous tale about the fine connections between seemingly inconsequential choices. Through a dynamic character study of the protagonist, Francis Cornish, Davies draws thoughtful conclusions about the tension between nature and nurture. Davies employs the fanciful device of angels known as daimons who cast obstacles and options in young Francis' path. Francis' decisions plague and guide him through a fascinating life lived in Canada, Austria and England. With careful attention paid to the details of religion and art and their intersections in society, Davies produces a magnificent work of literary greatness.
A must read for people who appreciate Robertson Davies. Davies' command of language and interesting ideas makes you feel that almost every sentence is work of art! I also strongly recommend his novel Fifth Business.