Monday, July 06, 2009

Century: sui generis

Over at Beattie's Shakespherian Rag, Steven Beattie takes a look at Ray Smith's Century, the fourth title in our Renditions Reprint series, and one of my favourite novels, bar none. For those of you who won't follow the link, here's his conclusion:

If Smith’s novel has been unfairly ignored in the pantheon of important Canadian literature, it might be because of its unfamiliarity, but it might equally have to do with the pervading sadness of its vision. The novelist in the opening story finds a kind of salvation in his writing, but the father who is his doppelgänger later on comes to a much more contingent conclusion:

These little trips will help me to bear what I know is coming, but the real solace will be my imaginary garden. Surely the green of it will comfort me when the jumbo jet next disgorges me, and again I will gaze upon the running sores, the twisted limbs, the clutching brown hands, surely cool breezes from it will restore my soul when next I walk into the lazy, swirling colour, the drifting red dust, the blinding light, the hot, sweet breath of Africa.


The forlorn tentativeness of that last one-word interrogative suggests that perhaps even the imagination, which is the wellspring of all art, is insufficient to counter the corruption of modernity – an unsettling thought in a novel whose last word is “lost.”

Still, the experience of reading Century is bracing, even 23 years after it was first published. Its pervasive sense of melancholy in the face of a fallen world may even carry greater impact in our post-9/11 society. In any event, it remains sui generis: a strange, searing work by one of our finest literary practitioners.

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