Friday, February 20, 2009

Biblioasis Renditions #4: Ray Smith's Century

Released late last month, Ray Smith's Century marks the fourth entry in our Biblioasis Renditions Reprint Series. I think this is a stunner of a novel, by far the best work Ray has done. But don't take my word for it: Charlie Foran thinks as highly of it, and penned an introduction to the book which states the case with more eloquence than I have at my disposal. If this doesn't convince you to pick up a copy of Century and give it a shot, then there simply isn't that much life left in you: my condolences.

An Introduction to Ray Smith's Century, by Charles Foran

As a novice reader in late 1970s Toronto, I struggled with many of the novels being heralded as evidence of the exciting new phenomenon known as ‘Canadian Literature.’ Two questions lingered in my mind about the anointed books. Why so formally and linguistically conservative, and why, why so glum? The qualities seemed connected. They seemed of a piece with stiff Canadian movies and unfunny CBC comedy shows. They seemed only too true to how people around me talked and thought. But I was just a teenager then, and shy. I held my critical tongue.

Likely I was simply reading the wrong novels. (Mordecai Richler was one roaring exception; I remember blushing in my suburban bedroom at rude Cocksure.) Whatever the reason, I came of age accepting that if I wanted my literature nervy and witty and willing to meditate on its own nature, I’d best look south to those restless Americans, such as Donald Barthelme and Thomas Pynchon, or across the ocean to language punks like Martin Amis and English-rattling post-colonials of the Salman Rushdie variety.

My views were pretty much set by 1986, when I first read Ray Smith’s Century. So great was the shock of it, I disbelieved my own eyes. I had to go find Smith’s earlier books, Lord Nelson Tavern and Cape Breton is the Thought Control Centre of Canada, to be convinced that here indeed was a local writer burdened by neither a plodding sense of the novel form nor the apparently unbearable heaviness of being Canadian. Better still, here was a maker of fictions content that his books abandon the pretence of verisimilitude for the dare of showing themselves to be, well, fictions; sly, purposeful arrangements of narratives into sequences that told many things – a ‘good story’ being just one.

Century is a collection of six such fictions, set mostly in Europe between the near arbitrary parameters of a hundred year span – 1893-1983. Connections between the tales are minimal – a filament tied together by the family of the character called Jane Seymour – and concerns remain embedded in the Proustian textures of the stories themselves. Matter of fact, the textures may be the meanings; Smith has too much respect for language, and too little patience with theme-speak, to insist any overarching concerns upon these smart, bright words. At moments, he might even be counting on musicality to serve as medium and message alike. Take the book’s opening line: “In the night, Heinrich Himmler came to her as she lay waiting for sleep.” In partner with its no less cadenced follow-up – “He came from behind, stepping slowly, carefully in the unfamiliar dark” -- the sentence sounds all sorts of resonances. Here is dark night, time of dreaming and nightmare, and here is menace both specific, in the spectre of a dead Nazi, and general, in the helplessness of sleep, where humans “lay waiting” for such visitations.

Does the reader need further direction into the tonal labyrinth of Century? Much will depend on the reader. The entire novel, or collection of linked stories, or sequence of fictions – call it what you like; naming a thing can often limit how it is viewed -- will sound similar high, pleasing, occasionally harsh notes. The closest Smith comes to announcing a theme comes, appropriately, in the final piece, ‘The Continental,’ a dazzling faux-homage to Henry James, via various prankster satirists. The louche American Kenniston Thorson’s exchanges on modernist art, aesthetics debated with luminaries Toulouse Lautrec and Frank Harris, echoes backwards into the book, suggesting the enshrinement of absurdity and instability into the 20th century consciousness from an early date. Conventional unities of theme and action will need be intimated once again from the prose itself. How else can Century end except with a further invocation of darkness gathering:

“Laughter spilled, trilled from Lulu’s red mouth, laughter like clinking crystal, laughter like cinder sparks whirling from her, brief in the winter night, like snowflakes whirling, filling the night, chill in the swirling dark all about, multitudinous, lost.

How else, too, can language behave, except to simultaneously sing, T.S. Eliot-like, of the looming catastrophe(s) while celebrating the wonder of its own lovely, largely innocent being. The ‘shock’ I felt on first reading Century was both aesthetic and moral. I had read books before whose formal virtuosity, quickened by charged prose, had set my heart racing. But never before had one of those writers been Canadian. Similarly, I had recently wrestled with a few giants of European modernism, Thomas Mann and Robert Musil among them, admiring their often colossal books for engaging with the volcanic, still unfolding century. Writing decades later, and doing so from the New World, Ray Smith wished to engage as well. Of course he couldn’t write as Mann or Musil had done. Of course he required a new form for New World meditations on, in effect, the Old World’s cataclysms. (Heinrich Himmler must travel to Montreal to unsettle this particular Jane Seymour.) The form would be post-modernist and would be meditated upon, or perhaps simply mediated, through music rather than through plot. This was language and structure as morality; this was serious literary craft.

Ray Smith was, and still is, an artist of great seriousness and, I sometimes think, greater sadness still. Nearly a quarter century after its publication – that word again! – Century continues to stand alone in Canadian Literature, apparently too singular, strange and unclassifiable. Out of this sad truth comes a happy one: the book remains to be discovered. Here it is.

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