Ray Smith’s melancholy century

July 3, 2009 by · 3 Comments 

centuryIt’s hard to know where to begin a discussion of Century, Ray Smith’s corrosive 1986 novel, which was reprinted in 2008 as part of Biblioasis’s Renditions series. The book was first unleashed on an unsuspecting readership following a 15-year silence from the author. Smith’s first novel, Lord Nelson Tavern, appeared in 1974, five years after his debut, the story collection Cape Breton Is the Thought-Control Centre of Canada (1969), a technically difficult volume that has been characterized variously as “postmodern” and “experimental.” Smith himself has professed that following Cape Breton, he wanted to make his books more accessible to a general audience.

Century‘s accessibility to a reading public weaned on the novels of Jane Urquhart and M.G. Vassanji may not be entirely evident. As a writer, Smith has always been more concerned with language and technique than with the niceties of plot, setting, or chronology, and this is certainly true of Century, whose time frame shuttles backward and forward, ultimately encompassing a little less than the titular hundred years; rather, it spans the neatly anagrammatic period between 1893 and 1983. Even the book’s generic classification is dubious: Smith calls it his best work “as a novelist,” but Century‘s six parts discard most of the conventions typical of chapters in a novel and more closely resemble self-contained stories. Indeed, in his preface to the Biblioasis edition, Charles Foran tries out various labels – “novel, or collection of linked stories, or sequence of fictions” – before finally deeming the book “unclassifiable.” The closest description Foran can muster is to call the work a “tonal labyrinth.”

Century‘s first section, “Family,” is composed of four parts loosely linked by characters related to one another via birth or marriage; the second section, “The Continental,” follows the American Kenniston Thorson as he travels through Europe, eventually alighting in Germany during the interwar period. The New World traveller in Old World Europe was a favourite of Henry James, but Smith is not at all interested in the master’s brand of psychological realism. Instead of abandoning the postmodern roots he laid down in his debut, in Century Smith actively underscores the fictiveness of his narrative right from the get-go. The book’s opening line – “In the night, Heinrich Himmler came to her as she lay waiting for sleep” – is tinged with a kind of morbid Gothicism, which becomes yet more fanciful and creepy when it is made apparent that the events being narrated occur in the spring of 1976, and the figure of Himmler is actually a spectral apparition that exists on the border between nightmare and waking.

The woman who is haunted by the ghost of the dead Nazi is named Jane Seymour, and her story is related in the first person by a novelist who has not published a book in ten years. He begins writing Jane’s story on a Friday in 1983 and, he says, “story it is, fiction.” The insistence on fiction qua fiction is typical of the postmodernist, but Smith adds layers of ambiguity to this account. “Although there never was a Jane Seymour,” the novelist tells us, “there was a young woman in a bar.” This young woman, we are told, travelled to Barbados over Christmas, and while she was there she killed herself. The novelist appropriates the suicide for the fictional Jane (which is, after all, what novelists do), but this incident also has echoes in a later story, “The Garden of the Hesperides.” In that story, the male narrator recalls his daughter, Jane, who committed suicide while the family was travelling in Barbados. The memory of his daughter’s suicide prompts another, earlier memory, in which little Jane approaches her father in his garden and demands, “Daddy, Daddy, tell me a story!”

This business of making stories is central to one of Smith’s pervasive thematic concerns in Century: the responsibility of art to rescue morality from a debased world. And make no mistake: the world of Century is debased. (“Do I then blame myself?” thinks the father about his daughter’s suicide, “Or this murderous century?”) Debased, and shot through with darkness. The book begins with the ghostly Himmler advancing upon Jane through “the unfamiliar dark,” and ends with “chill in the swirling dark all about.” This is the world as it is rendered throughout the book: cold and frightening, full of rape and murder and betrayal, all of it consigned to a vale of darkness. It is art, Smith suggests, that is able to wrest meaning from the darkness of modern life, but only if it is able to get beneath the surface of human existence. This idea is clarified late in the novel by Toulouse Lautrec, who drinks with the American Kenniston in a Parisian dancehall:

There is at the centre of painting an apparent paradox: painting is an art which takes surfaces for its immediate subject and uses surfaces for its medium. But the only art worth the fleas on a streetwalker’s crotch is art which deals with essences. In some cases it is the essence of generality, in others the essence of a particularity, but always it is essences. How this paradox is to be explained is the central question of all aesthetic theory in regard to painting; and how it is to be solved in practice is the central problem for all painters.

Extrapolating from painting to the written word, Century argues for solving the problem of surface vs. essence by dispensing with the recognizable elements of naturalism and retreating – if that is even the proper word – into a realm of pure language, of texture and technique. If there is a proper metaphor for what Smith’s sentences accomplish it has less to do with the visual arts than with music. The various pieces in Century, with their echoes and reverberations, their layers of images and ideas, resemble the prose equivalent of a symphony. It is appropriate to call the book a novel, because its effect is cumulative: the various parts (movements) are ultimately in the service of a single aesthetic purpose. The book has internal integrity: the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts in isolation.

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.

Surely?

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.

THIS POST CONTAINS MATERIAL THAT HAS BEEN CORRECTED: Ray Smith’s first novel, Lord Nelson Tavern, appeared in 1974, not 1976 as originally written. TSR regrets the error. (Thanks, Mark.)

Comments

3 Responses to “Ray Smith’s melancholy century”
  1. Ray Smith says:

    I should have made it more explicit — Kenniston and Lulu have a daughter, Gwen, (brought up in Jane Austen’s Hampshire) who marries Canadian Bill Seymour; the have two children, Ian and Jane.
    Thanks for the perceptive and appreciative reading.
    Ray

  2. Mark says:

    Insightful review, Steven – especially the part about classical music overtones in Smith’s work. This is clearly evident in Century, but also in Lord Nelson Tavern (published in 1974, I think, not 1976), which has the same sort of “compiled fiction” approach, akin to movements in a symphony. When Ray Smith was interviewed by David Arnason and Wayne Tefs at the University of Manitoba in 1975, he spoke extensively about the influences of music, classical and otherwise, on his work. It’s sort of fitting, I think, that Smith originally comes from Mabou, Cape Breton – a hotbed of musical talent on the East Coast.

    I think the reason Smith’s early work continues to resonate with me is because he seems to reject both the staid traditions of realism *as well as* the tomfoolery of postmodernism. I mean, that is his greatest feat. There is a great playfulness to his work, but even the most tripped-out stories in Thought Control have a inner logic and coherence to them, grounded very much in the need to tell a good story. Smith is not interested in writing straightforward narratives, but nor is he interested in writing (as he put it) “an unreadable experiment”. Century (and to a much greater extent, Lord Nelson Tavern) achieves this weirdly sublime middle ground that makes it and his other early work worth dipping into again and again.

  3. August says:

    I went out and bought Century today, on the strength of this article. That makes six books I’ve bought this month as a result of reading things on blogs (four of the others were by Nicholson Baker, and this sixth was by Tamas Dobozy). It would have been more, if they’d had more than just Century in stock.