EARLY IN Robertson Davies' new novel, one of the two narrators--a scholar-priest-- begins his first seminar of the college term with a motto from St. Augustine, a motto which he hopes will guide a good term's work: "Conversations and jokes together, mutual rendering of good services, the reading together of sweetly phrased books, the sharing of nonsense and mutual attentions." Such an amiable hope might also appear to stand as motto for the entire novel. For any novel by Robertson Davies is to a now unusual extent a didactic transaction-- stuffed with genial lectures, occasional sermons, perpetually solicitous of the reader's pleasure and consent, and all bumped along at a seldom-flagging clip. But even an admirer of his early novels (such a masterpiece as A Mixture of Frailties) who has not taken the dark Jungian voyage of his recently completed Deptford trilogy will begin, early in The Rebel Angels, to suspect complex ulterior designs--both upon the reader and experience itself.
The plot--which culminates in outlandish sexual theatrics, murder, and suicide--works itself out almost exclusively in two colleges of a large Canadian university and in a bizarre gypsy household in the same city. A beautiful graduate student, Maria Magdalena Theotoky, age 23, half-gypsy, is enamored of her middle- aged professor, an academic capable of passion only for his work. She is loved by another of her teachers, a mid-fortyish Anglican priest, who alternates with her as one of the two narrators of the story. To the right and left of these three central figures loom Maria's unreconstructed gypsy mother, a brilliant lapsed monk, a secretly deranged Renaissance historian, and a humorless scientist involved in a pioneering study of human excrement.
The cast is presented exclusively, as I've said, through the eyes and voices of Maria and Simon Darcourt, the priest. They are both intelligent, even warm and generous in their humanity; but they do limit our ability to question the lives and motives of the other characters. In such a complex story, the limitation finally seems a constriction. And the most damaging constriction is that, because he has metamorphosed into his narrators, we cannot really question the omniscient author--to what extent do his narrators justly represent the realities with which they're confronted, to what extent are they reliable guides to Davies' own vision of the meaning of the outlandish action? Maria, for instance, sees both her beloved professor and Darcourt, who loves her, as "rebel angels"--Promethean figures who have descended from heaven to teach the sons and daughters of men the useful secrets of heaven. Darcourt sees Maria as his "Sophia," that divine female embodiment of wisdom with whom the masculine God created nature. Since the two, hopelessly mismatched in age and desire, are unable to unite for the purposes of further creation--and since Maria's own desire, her frigid professor, is beyond salvation--she unites at the end with a minor character, charming in his shrewdness but obscure in promise and meaning.
In short, what seems to me the big difficulty of the novel is that it smacks strongly, from the beginning, of allegory. The major characters are initially recognizable types--the beautiful aspirant, the obsessed cold intellect, the kind but fumbling soul, the chronic earth-mother. Then as the strands of shabby action twine and knot, the types--all intelligently and often elegantly displayed--seem to acquire, for Davies, emblematic significances of the kind which his long-standing fascination with Jungian psychology has led his readers to expect. My own feeling, however, is that--confined as we are to the views of Maria and Darcourt--only an adept at both the systems of Jung and the prior novels of Davies could hope to extract the full intention of The Rebel Angels.
Elsewhere, Robertson Davies has said, "The theme which lies at the root of all my novels . . . is the isolation of the human spirit." And beneath the brittle comic glaze of academic folly and virtue, one does taste the bitterness of rampant ego, human denial, the perversion of bounteous nature. As with all good comedians, his last word is grim--or somber, at least. His various seekers--for wisdom, virtue, temporal delight--seek on alone, with only dim sparks of light from one another. Even the grand and funny gypsy wedding at the end is witnessed by solitaries, none of whom can wish the young couple fervent union. That old and simple comment is amply and admirably made by the story with its generally light touch (only occasionally ponderous in Davies' own intermittently professorial manner--he has just retired after more than 20 years of university teaching).
What remains troubling and unresolved is the steady hint that larger mysteries are enacting their will behind the frail scrims of human whimsy; the archetypes grind in their own mills, slowly. I can relish the moments of Davies' old wit--"he was wearing a cassock, or a monkish robe that had just that hint of fancy dress about it that marked it as Anglican rather than Roman" or "there have been moments when I have wondered if St. Francis were not just the tiniest bit off his nut." But without a firm hand to guide me through the extravagantly odd cast (who seem more like escapees from an abandoned Iris Murdoch novel than anything from earlier Davies) and without a key to the arcana implied in the murky substrata, I finish the novel with a sense of hunger --not the beamish repletion which has followed past work by this undoubted North American master. It's his seventieth year; may it grant him time and health to write a plainer book, pointed more clearly for our pleasure and use.