Monday, June 16, 2014

Filth therapy

This book, Robertson Davies' The Rebel Angels, ended up in my ears (after being checked out and residing on the home bookshelf waiting to be listened to for about a year) because a patron recommended it (the book, not the audiobook).  I'd read a Davies book a long, long time ago ... wasn't impressed enough to read another ... but thought it worth trying again because, well, I guess because he's a famous literary figure and I should read something he wrote. My initial impression was correct. I don't need to read him any more. I kind of felt like I needed a bath after reading this.

It's an academic story, which could spell doom before I even crack the spine. (It's also, as I try to gather my thoughts for a synopsis, quite complicated.) A wealthy art collector and benefactor of the College of St. John and the Holy Ghost (known as "Spook" by its denizens) has died leaving a complicated will and three executors: Clement Hollier, Urquhart (Urky) McVarish, and Simon Darcourt. There's also a nephew who will inherit whatever the three Spook professors decide isn't suitable for the college. And each professor will be able to select something from the benefactor's collection to own personally. Hollier is handsome but scatterbrained (but has his eye on a manuscript from Rabelais from the estate that could prove academically groundbreaking), McVarish is grasping and nasty, and Darcourt, a priest and medievalist, occupies the sane-ish middle ground. Add a brilliant young graduate student, Maria Theotoky -- who pines for Hollier's attention and is loved (perhaps as a result of her "gypsy" mother's misdirected love potion) by Darcourt. McVarish just makes rude, sexual comments to her.

There's also a defrocked monk utterly down on his luck, but happy to sponge off his former colleagues while he completes his tell-all novel and a scientist studying human excrement to see if it can predict character traits. This latter individual used to be the college's football star and his name is Ozias Froats. (I think this is supposed to be funny.)

Oy! There's a lot of talking about intellectual topics way over my head -- Paracelsus, Rabelais (my only knowledge of this guy comes from The Music Man), those Miltonian rebel angels and John Aubrey's Brief Lives. McVarish is believed to have stolen the manuscript and is killed by another character who then commits suicide. Much is made of Maria's sexy intelligence and her gypsy heritage. It's a complete load of Ozy Froat's poop. It's a book that made me feel like the author's sole purpose was to show how much smarter he is. Arrogant SOB.

The story has an alternating narrative: Maria Theotoky tells the "Rebel Angels" (all those professors panting after her?), and Simon Darcourt the "Brief Lives" (his attempt to create Aubrey-like sketches of his own colleagues). Unfortunately, there is just one narrator and he does those awful femmy, breathy women's voices for half the novel. The book was published in 1981 and the audiobook in 1997 and it seems to me to be one of the last of the "old-fashioned" audiobooks: One guy reading the whole thing in kind of an actorly, resonant, generic English accent. Frederick Davidson (aka David Case) does OK with the Darcourt narrative -- with a sightly nasal, slightly gravelly, slightly patronizing delivery. His characters are only slightly differentiated, so when those academics start talking to each other, it's pretty hard to track who is speaking. I've already dissed his female voices, but the whole gypsy mother character is a bit of an embarrassment (except that Davies' creation of this character is already an embarrassment).

Davidson also doesn't finish pronouncing some of the words, i.e., "avoidan-." And there's all sorts of audible mouth noises and page turnings.  The audiobook just has this last-century feel, when "books on tape" were the stepchildren of literature, and audiobook narrators had to have several personas in order to work in different genres. On the other hand, I'm not sure that a different (and more than one) narrator could redeem this book (for me).

In addition to visiting my 100-year-old godfather last week, I had a mini-reunion with some college friends in a little Canadian town called Niagara-on-the-Lake. Which brings me to college/academic novels. I'd probably enjoy an academic novel that takes place at a women's college in the 1970s, so it's likely not the genre that I don't like, but would prefer to read one that portrays my experiences. How parochial (sigh).

[Davies is thought to have modeled Spook after the University of Toronto's Trinity College, where he taught for many years. The gothic tower symbolizes the campus (and was featured on the cover of the first edition of The Rebel Angels). This photograph was taken by Wachowich and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Rebel Angels by Robertson Davies
Narrated by Frederick Davidson
Blackstone Audio, 1997.  11:52

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