Antidotage

That is what I believe I have fallen into, scuffling through drawers and cupboards for efficient antidotes to the treacly bogus Christmas Slop that is now reaching my ankles.

Today’s pick: the Christmas Chapter from Robertson Davies’ The Rebel Angels, a novel of academic life in Toronto that is literally all about shit.

There was no need to tell [uncle] Yerko to guard his tongue. He returned from New York heavy with concealed money, but light of heart, for he had found a god to worship, and the name of the god was Bebby Jesus. A friend had taken him to the Metropolitan Museum where, in the medieval section, a Nativity Play was being performed in celebration of the coming of Christmas. The friend thought that Yerko might be pleased by the medieval music, played on authentic old viols and some instruments of which one resembled the cimbalom, the gypsy dulcimer Yerko played like a master. But Yerko’s incalculable fancy had settled upon the drama, the Annunciation, the Virgin Birth, the Adoration of the Shepherds, and the Journey of the Magi. In official matters, gypsies call themselves Catholics, but Yerko’s mind, uncluttered by education or conventional religion, was wide open to marvels: at the age of fifty-eight he was transfigured by his newly found belief in the Miraculous Child. Therefore he had purchased an elaborate creche of carved and painted wood, and as soon as he came home he set to work with his great skill as a woodworker and craftsman to make it the most splendid thing of its kind his imagination could conceive. Nor was it anything less than splendid, though a little gaudy and bedizened, in the Gypsy style.

And indeed the guests at the narrator’s family Christmas party — one a priest — are bowled over by the spectacle.

Darcourt had lots of social sense, and he knew that “Mr. Laoutaro” was all wrong. “May I call you Yerko?” he said, “and you must call me Simon. Did you make this superb tableau? My dear Yerko, this brings us very close together. It is by far the loveliest thing I have seen this Christmas.” He seemed to mean it. A taste for the Baroque I had not expected in a medieval scholar, I suppose.

“Dear Father Simon,” said Yerko, bowing again, “you make my heart very filled up. Is all for Bebby Jesus.” And he cast a swimming eye at the creche. “And this all for Bebby Jesus, too,” he said, gesturing at the dining table.

But, while the dinner goes well, the narrator’s mother — a restorer of violins who seasons her unstrung patients in cabinets filled with the best dried and sifted horse manure — blunders with a love potion and slips it to the priest instead of her daughter’s laggard (in her opinion) suitor. Yerko finds her out after the guests leave, and his thundering tips off the object of the maneuver:

I rushed into the room, seized Mamusia by the big gold rings in her ears, and tried to throw her on the floor. But she grabbed my hair, and we clung together, like two stags with locked horns, dragging at each other and screaming at the tops of our voices. It was in Romany that I abused Mamusia — remembering terrible words that I had forgotten I ever knew. We fell to the floor, and she thrust her face into mine and bit me very hard and painfully on the nose. I was trying, in all seriousness, to tear off her ears. more screams.

Yerko stood over us, shouting at the top of his voice. “Irreverent cunts!! What will Bebby Jesus think?”

I know no narrative which so captures the spirit of Christmas as I have witnessed it.

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9 thoughts on “Antidotage

    • I stumbled across it in a used-book shop knowing only the last book of the Deptford Trilogy, which I had in turn picked up at the same shop because it was about Manticores, or at least titled The Manticore, and having read The Worm Ouroboros I was possibly one of the few people to pass through that shop who had ever heard of a manticore so I had to… well, you see how it goes. Once I met Parlabane I was hooked. “Let it be stretched upon a steel frame…”

  1. I spent a decade reading and re-reading everything written by Davies that I could set my hands to. In our house he’s referred to as “St. Robertson”. Have you found the letters of Samuel Marchbanks?

    • Samuel Marchbanks is my role model. Pedalezza, O divine Pedalezza! I have a whole Robertson Davies shelf, including letters, essays, and his don’t drop it on your foot biography by Judith Grant (haven’t plowed through it all yet).

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