Chang'd in outward lustre

The Rebel Angels
OOP), Penguin

A monk, a priest and a respected academic go in search of an unpublished manuscript by Rabelais, stolen from a billionaire art dealer (now deceased). The manuscript is the key to the future life of Maria Magdalena Theotoky, bringer of God to the world, and the three heroes are all Rebel Angels, bringing fire to the woman. Paracelsus makes occasional appearances, along with the magical healing powers of excrement and a gypsy sorceress who cures priceless violins with horse dung.

Fantasy? No. Robertson Davies has, by layering meaning and symbols on top of the otherwise mundane and self-absorbed world of Toronto academia, brought forth a violin from the dirt. Where fantasy imagines the perfect violin and falls short, Davies takes this smashing little instrument and makes it sing. He's not exactly in the league of Stradivari (for the duration of this novel at least), but still nonetheless a capable virtuoso, a Guarnieri: fine workmanship and enjoyable, intricate sounds lend a richness to a novel where very little happens and so much is reported.

The ineffectuality of the lead characters is striking: Maria and her two main Rebel Angels talk the talk, and make as if to push and act and do, but it is down to the mouthy, overliterate Parlabane to move the story to its crisis, and his decisions are themselves communicated by him to the rest of the world through a flurry of self-conflicting correspondence. These people's lives are still self- and book-absorbed; while the glittering world spins around them they sit poised at the centre of the dance. Through this conceit he builds up a more complex acadème than the usual stereotype of the ivory tower, before running it through with harsh realities that cure as much as kill.

Davies weaves an intellectual yarn: deep, but narrowed in vision to the confines of the university; convoluted, but ending up not far from its starting point; clever, but clever-clever. With all the action occurring off the pages, including the prologue that precipitates Maria's love for Hollier, what is left is nonetheless more exercise for the brain than you'd expect from something so rambly. But without some sort of bite it reads like a thriller without death, a love story without passion, or heaven without its angels.