Picks and Pans Review: The Lyre of Orpheus

by Robertson Davies

As a satire of the pomposities and superficialities of academic life, this novel doesn’t begin to seriously threaten Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire or Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim. Davies, for one thing, is not nasty enough. He is content to tweak the faculty of the unnamed Canadian university that is his focus: “Important rule of professorcraft: Never show resentment at a student insult—wait and get them later.” He never really skewers anyone, though, restraining himself to only a mild, supercilious form of lampooning. That leaves a light, banter-toned story that is hardly profound yet is not without its engaging moments. While this is the concluding part of a trilogy that began with The Rebel Angels and What’s Bred in the Bone, it stands on its own. The plot revolves around a modern production of the opera Arthur of Britain, or the Magnanimous Cuckold, based on the musical sketches of 19th-century composer E.T.A. Hoffmann. The libretto is by this novel’s main character, Simon Darcourt, an Anglican priest-professor of Greek-semiprofessional confidant. (He is also in the process of writing a biography of Francis Cornish, the spy-artist-philanthropist protagonist of What’s Bred in the Bone.) The tale of King Arthur’s heartbreaking betrayal by his wife Guinevere and friend Lancelot—and the stubborn durability of Arthur’s love for both of them—is echoed in a strange triangle involving the opera’s director and the wealthy Arthur and Maria Cornish, whose foundation is financing the production. Davies also weaves in a subtheme involving Kater Murr, a cat in a story written by Hoffmann; everyone in this novel weighs his own ambitions against the complacency of Kater Murr, whose philosophy was, “Can anything be cosier than having a nice, secure place in the world?” All this peregrination makes the book seem longer than necessary. Davies stops every so often to recap the action, too, and there are a few sections where Hoffmann’s spirit, trapped in limbo because he left Arthur unfinished, comments on the proceedings. The events, which unfurl with curiously restrained emotion, seem uniformly frivolous. Davies is most resourceful when it comes to inventing characters, however; a notable example is the visiting professor Dr. Gunilla Dahl-Soot, who combines talents for music, lesbian seduction, alcohol consumption and repartee. Davies also has a way with an epigram: “A lot of love is misery; bad weather punctuated by occasional flashes of sunlight.” There is plenty of that kind of wit and sense of language to carry this novel along. Reading it nonetheless remains like eating a bowl of hard candies: it’s a frequently tasty experience that leaves a feeling of something less than real, long-lasting satisfaction. (Viking, $19.95)


In the rarefied world of French haute couture, Yves Saint Laurent has had an extraordinarily long reign. Fashion writers fawn over him, wealthy women pay thousands of dollars for his creations, even those usually not associated with high fashion know who he is. A recent show of his designs perfectly captured the aura he tries to generate. It was held in Leningrad in the gilt and rococo throne room of the Hermitage, the former Winter Palace of the Russian czars. Saint Laurent is nothing if not image-obsessed, and this glossy, outrageously expensive tome strives to reinforce the myth of the great designer. Think of it as an ad you have to pay dearly to read. The book is an uncritical retrospective of the work that has made Saint Laurent famous—his tuxedos for women, “pop art” dresses of the late ’60s, safari shirts and lavish Ballets Russes costumes—seen through the lenses of such photographers as Helmut Newton, Francesco Scavullo, Lord Snowdon, Bruce Weber and David Seidner. The volume also serves as a history of fashion photography since the ’50s. There are some memorable images. In a 1965 photograph by Fouli Elia, a model is swaddled like a Russian doll in a white crocheted wedding dress festooned with satin bows. All that peeps out of this unwieldy cocoon is hands, face and feet. In a 1965 photo, Jean Shrimpton, wearing a set of furry upper eyelashes, poses haughtily in a Mondrian-inspired dress. Looking suitably dazed, Penelope Tree half leaps through the air in a black see-through blouse and Bermuda shorts. In a Newton portrait, a sulky creature in a low-cut, lace-up bodice palpates her own ripe breasts like someone checking on the state of grapefruit at the market. There are also more than a few glimpses of the designer’s studied narcissism. Launching his new perfume for men in 1971, for example, Saint Laurent posed nude—he kept his eye glasses on—sitting on a pile of black leather pillows. “He wanted to shock,” says photographer Jeanloup Sieff. At times the exalted tone of the captions knocks things past the bounds of the ludicrous. We are asked to believe, for instance, that Snowdon “immortalized Yves Saint Laurent as a romantic seducer” in his 1977 portrait of the designer half embracing actress Dayle Haddon, who’s wearing a lavish, glittering Ballets Russes gown. (For many years, Saint Laurent has lived with his business partner, Pierre Bergé.) Also, the book is most poorly served by novelist Marguerite Duras’ introduction. In what amounts to a grotesque self-parody, she apes her normal intense, poetic style, writing of Saint Laurent: “He is childlike. He is tall. Alto. A man from Oran with white skin.” For those who can make their way past the considerable excesses, there is something irresistible about Saint Laurent’s dream world. All these beautiful women in their even more beautiful dresses suggest a daydream wrenched into a strange reality, what adults have instead of fairy tales. (Knopf, $100)

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