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Apr 12, 2005
| ISBN 9780385259798
Nov 05, 2010
| ISBN 9780385674195
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Apr 12, 2005 | ISBN 9780385259798
Nov 05, 2010 | ISBN 9780385674195
Russell Smith’s highly praised new novel features some typically caustic satire, alongside a deep and melancholy awareness of the force of desire in our lives. The combination of wit and perception in Muriella Pent — and its brilliant dialogue, beautiful descriptive prose, assured handling of racial politics, and exact observation of modern types — underlines Russell Smith’s claim to be one of Canada’s subtlest, sharpest writers.The book begins with a poem by Marcus Royston (from his "Island Eclogues") and a fundraising message from Muriella Pent; then, in the first scene, still before chapter one, these two very different writers have a revealing post-coital conversation. The combination of texts and action, the pointed and moving dialogue, and the ineradicable presence of sex tell us a lot about how Muriella Pent will go on: it’s precise and original even before really beginning.In the first two chapters the principal characters are introduced more fully. Marcus Royston, a successful poet twenty years ago, is now jaded, boozy, and slightly seedy, and finding himself increasingly superannuated on the Caribbean island of St. Andrew’s. Muriella Pent, in the Arts and Crafts oasis of Stilwoode Park in Toronto, is widowed, free, sometimes unhappy, and perhaps a little uncontrolled. Phone conversations introduce us to her younger friend Julia Sternberg and to Brian Sillwell, a student who volunteers alongside Muriella on the very PC City Arts Board Action Council (Literature Committee).At this committee’s invitation, with a little quiet help from Canada’s ministry of External Affairs, Marcus comes to Toronto on a literary residency, to live in a basement apartment in Muriella’s large house. From his arrival he is a disruptive presence: he instantly flirts with his hostess (and most everyone else), drinks too much, and is constitutionally unable to use the buzzword-heavy language of victimhood, appropriation, and community spoken in the Toronto arts world. As he tells the shocked literature committee, alternative journalists, a meeting of librarians and Muriella’s genteel book club alike: identity politics isn’t everything, art isn’t activism, and a novel shouldn’t be read to uncover the author’s social "message.""It is not about providing positive influence, or solving the problems of poverty. It’s about the things, all dark things that…" He drained his cup. "All the dark things that motivate us." He stared straight in the eyes of the beautiful young girl and said, "Sex. It’s about sex. Largely. And corruption and decadence. And all the terrible, terrible things we think."Muriella, Brian, and Julia — that "beautiful young girl" — are unsettled, and inspired.Perhaps the disastrous and chaotic party held in his honour at Muriella’s house best illustrates the disruptive effect Marcus has on the lives around him, when the explosive power of desire crosses boundaries of age, gender and race. But Marcus is not simply a maverick: he is honest, pained, doubly in exile from a home he is ambivalent about, in sight of old age, and genuinely moved by his connection to Muriella and Julia.The novel’s collage of diary entries, e-mails, letters and newspaper articles gives us unusual insight into the characters’ needs and weaknesses as they are profoundly affected by crashing into each other. With Marcus and Muriella’s involvement, Brian and Julia develop from wary adolescents into people capable of meaningful action; it is Muriella herself, however, who seems to change the most.But Muriella Pent works on a wider canvas; for all its psychological acuity it is profoundly, perhaps even primarily, a novel of place. Toronto is a vivid presence, from the roti shops on St. Clair West to historic sites like Fort York, from its earnest, grasping artists to the cosseted, pseudonymous enclave of Stilwoode Park.As satire and social observation, as an exploration of what art should be and do, as a study of sex as a prime mover in the messy triumphs of our lives, Muriella Pent is unmatched.
Russell Smith’s highly praised new novel features some typically caustic satire, alongside a deep and melancholy awareness of the force of desire in our lives. The combination of wit and perception in Muriella Pent—and its brilliant dialogue, beautiful descriptive prose, assured handling of racial politics, and exact observation of modern types—underlines Russell Smith’s claim to be one of Canada’s subtlest, sharpest writers.The book begins with a poem by Marcus Royston (from his “Island Eclogues”) and a fundraising message from Muriella Pent; then, in the first scene, still before chapter one, these two very different writers have a revealing post-coital conversation. The combination of texts and action, the pointed and moving dialogue, and the ineradicable presence of sex tell us a lot about how Muriella Pent will go on: it’s precise and original even before really beginning.As satire and social observation, as an exploration of what art should be and do, as a study of sex as a prime mover in the messy triumphs of our lives, Muriella Pent is unmatched.
Russell Smith was born in South Africa and raised in Halifax, the son of a university professor and a teacher. He began his career as a writer in Toronto after studying at universities in France and Canada. His first novel,… More about Russell Smith
“Smith writes some of the most luminous prose in Canadian fiction. . . . He mines and refines the best of what has come before on the way to making it his own. Also, Smith is entirely credible when writing female characters. . . . One catches quiet echoes of Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf.”—The Gazette (Montreal)“[Marcus] Royston is one of the most convincing characters I’ve come across in Canadian fiction. . . . Interspersed with the biting wit is an almost elegiac quality to the writing.”—The Globe and Mail“This is a valuable addition to the Canadian canon, rivaling the early work of another skilled satirist of the urbane and urban, Mordecai Richler.”—Ottawa Citizen“The best Canadian novel published in 2004 was Muriella Pent…. Russell Smith is one of the best stylists of my generation. His prose is exact, surprising, and written by a man with a fine ear.”—Andre Alexis, author of Childhood, in The Globe and Mail“The heart of the novel beats in time with D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller and all the writers before and after them who, when you sweat their books down to the essentials, say simply that sex is an artery of life. Muriella Pent plays out on a bigger canvas than Smith has worked on before. It’s the work of a good novelist who wants to be a better novelist. And has become one. There’s a gifted and sensually alert writer at the wheel here.”—National Post“Deserves to stand as one of the strongest Canadian novels of the year”—Edmonton Journal“Irresistibly poignant…. Readers looking to spice up their book club will have plenty to talk about with Russell Smith’s latest, Muriella Pent. "—Flare“Read any page of Muriella Pent at random and it will become immediately obvious that you’re in the presence of a talented writer. . . . The really exciting aspect of Muriella Pent is the masterful way Smith presents his two central characters.”—The Record (Kitchener-Waterloo)“We need writers like Smith to remind us of the grim truth of this strange country…. It’s a funny, poignant, ambitious, and highly entertaining book and the boldest work yet in Smith’s bleak oeuvre.”—Books in Canada“[Russell Smith is] something of a literary heir to Margaret Atwood”—The Toronto Star“A novel of manners about ambitious young downtowners of an artistic bent, Muriella Pent is adroit and amusing. And in its depiction of one exceptional character, Caribbean poet Marcus Royston, it is very good indeed.”—Maclean’s
What were the particular pleasures and challenges of writing Muriella Pent?This book was more difficult to write than my previous books were, because the characters were more diverse, and different from me. It is also the first book I have written with multiple narrative points of view — usually I just choose one anti-hero protagonist (usually some sad-sack guy not unlike me) and stick to his point of view throughout.The biggest challenge was writing a character of mixed race. I am about as white a guy as was ever created, and have no experience of racism or poverty. I was very nervous about attempting to understand an experience different from my own. I was particularly nervous about being accused of racism — in the creation of racist clichés — or of simple inaccuracy when it came to describing a childhood in the Caribbean or the mentality of an educated Caribbean man. For this I drew on my memories of childhood in South Africa, a place viciously marked by colonialism, and on my sense of being a foreigner in Canada when I arrived here as a child. I also drew on my reading of post-colonial literature (particularly of V.S. Naipaul and of Derek Walcott) to understand Marcus’s classical education and the conflicts that it might have caused in his psyche.I was similarly challenged in writing Muriella, who is not only of a different age but of a different gender from me. I was nervous about the reaction of women to this character.But I was a little bored with writing about characters who were very much like me. I think it’s important to try to progress with every book, to try something new. Fiction is after all about imagining that which one has not lived.And yet, in all fiction, the characters can only be the sum of what the author has researched and what the author can imagine. In the imagining part, the author must consistently refer to one touchstone of reference, which is what he or she has experienced. In other words, one can only understand what one understands oneself. This doesn’t mean what one has lived oneself. Understanding relies on imagination.I know that I am making a circular argument here. This is difficult terrain. Bear with me.I suppose what I am trying to say is that imagination engenders compassion. And that all invented characters reflect to some extent the personality of the author — in other words, all the characters are to some extent me. Marcus is me, Muriella is me, Brian (perhaps more than any of the other characters) is me, even Julia is me. (I once lived in the area she is living in, and used those memories to describe her surroundings and the feelings of isolation she has there.) Even Dominic, the unscrupulous gossip columnist, is partly me.The book is a collage of different voices: along with scenes and dialogue, there are diary entries, letters, newspaper articles, e-mails and much else. How did you come to find this form the best one for the novel?I chose this form partly to provide some variety for the reader, and partly as a way of introducing expository or background information which might have seemed heavy-handed had it been forced into the narrative. Diary entries, for example, are a sort of cheater’s way of presenting a lot of information about characters’ background and motivation. (A lot of creative writing teachers warn against using diary entries for this very reason.) Emails and letters are a quick way of showing what kinds of disputes are going on without narrating long scenes.I also was attracted to this format because it represents the way we live now: our daily lives are made up of various interpolated texts — voices, emails, newspapers, letters, snippets on the radio. That’s how most of us perceive the world.What inspired you to write this book? How do you see Muriella Pent relating to the rest of your work to date?I don’t know where any of my ideas come from. Muriella came to me as a person — mostly just as a name and an image — while I was on a bus stuck in snow on Bathurst Street. I have no idea why. Then I went home and spent the next few weeks making notes on her personality. I have had her in my mind for some years — I introduced her in my 1999 collection of stories, Young Men. (Dominic the journalist is attracted to her there, as well.)Muriella Pent is more ambitious in theme and in treatment than are any of my previous books. But it exists in the same fictitious universe — the same fictitious Toronto. And it returns to the same themes and kinds of events which have always preoccupied me: the social lives of the privileged and of artists, the competitive striving of those involved in the media and in the arts… it’s still basically comic satire.Which authors have been your greatest literary influences, both generally, and in particular on the writing of this book?My biggest influences in terms of style are probably Ernest Hemingway, Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis. Waugh and Amis are also big influences in terms of setting and subject matter. So is F. Scott Fitzgerald, who likes to write about attractive and somewhat silly people.I was also influenced by the great French 19th century authors, Balzac and Zola, for their interest in journalistic detail and in creating highly textured settings. They both are preoccupied with social class and its aesthetic indicators, as am I. The last question is usually, “Are there any tips you would give a book club to better navigate their discussion of your book?” Would your advice be similar to Marcus’s admonitions to Muriella’s book club?My first piece of advice would be to try to talk about the literary style as well as about what happens in the book. That is, try to notice the author’s technique: does he or she explain what is in the character’s minds, or observe them from the outside? Does the dialogue sound like real speech? Are the descriptive passages straightforward or poetic — that is, does the language call attention to itself? And does the structure hold any surprises — does the author keep secrets from the reader? Where is the author’s own voice discernable? This kind of dissection of literary tricks gets one closer to the kind of analysis that academics do, which can be really stimulating. Get under the hood, take a look at the pipes and cogs, take the whole thing apart. You’ll see how it runs.And yes, I would concur with Marcus that it is important not to confuse character with author, and that it’s important not to expect a likable book to have a likable protagonist. Unlikable protagonists often make great books.
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