I read Ray Smith’s Century (1986) for Canada Reads Independently, but I’m going to draw from previous Canada Reads’ Un-Independently lists for these comparisons: Century is like Aquin’s Next Episode, like Cohen’s Beautiful Losers.
You see what I mean? Nah, even for those who recognize the point I’m trying to make, the comparisons are still kinda meaningless because, yes, Next Episode went on to win in its year whereas Beautiful Losers was, yes, ultimately a Canada Reads loser.
Still, I found them very challenging reads, all three: that they have in common.
But even though I struggled with it, Century could very well steal the Canada Reads Independently show.
Ray Smith’s novel obviously has some passionate proponents in BlogLand. It really did not touch me as a reader, but neither Aquin’s novel nor Cohen’s novel touched me, and I can still appreciate their “importance” in the world of letters, and quite likely Century is, like these other works, a remarkable book, an “important” book. Quite likely someone else can explain it all to me.
And, okay, I admit that I started to read Century with the idea that it was unconventional, so maybe I was predisposed to struggle with it. That’s possible, but it’s not all Sandra Brown and Richard North Patterson in my bookbag, and I still had a hard time with Ray Smith’s novel: so if this event is designed to encourage a large number of people to read a particular book and share that experience, I’m not sure this one commands the widest reading audience.
Although, actually, knowing that Ray Smith’s novel was somewhat experimental did make me a more determined reader. I knew that I could get snarled herein, so I set aside a day to read Century in one go, and read the bulk of it aloud so that I couldn’t unwittingly slip into skimming, urged by increasing confusion.
I know all my reader’s tricks but wanted to outsmart myself: I really wanted to like this book. Which isn’t to say that I disliked it: I can see that it’s well-written and carefully constructed, but I think I’ve missed a lot of what I was meant to notice, and that’s an uncomfortable feeling.
Except, if that’s the intention, perhaps discomfort is all well and good. Maybe I’m simply intended to ask a series of questions as a reader including, at the most basic level, what makes a novel; if so, this read was a phenomenal success because I was left feeling that I had a lot of questions.
But I really have the feeling that I was meant to have some answers too, to have been a smarter reader; that’s a whole different kind of uncomfortable, feeling that there’s something quite clever in front of you, but something that you are only equipped to glimpse, not fully recognize.
If you want to know what I mean, or more evidence of just how un-clever I am, click the continue link and I’ll explain using a passage plucked from two-thirds of the way through Century:
“‘I don’t know about the jaded readers of Paris,’ she replied, ‘but it seems to me a writer should only describe what he has seen. He should look long and hard at the things that please him and write about them exactly as they are.’
‘And what of things that don’t please him?’
‘He should look even longer and harder at them,’ she giggled.”
The only reason that I recognized this as a quotation from Colette is that I happened to have recently come across this in an old notebook of mine: “Look for a long time at what pleases you, and longer still at what pains you.” I set Century aside and leafed through my notebook and made the connection, Gabrielle = Colette. Cool, hunh?
Okay, maybe I should have recognized Henri Gauthier-Villars (yes, he was real) even before this passage in the novel and perhaps I should have known Colette’s full name (Sidonie-Gabrielle Collette) and recognized something was afoot sooner, but no matter, it was still fun. I mean, there is a fictional version of a real person mulling over the concept that would, years later, coalesce into a statement recorded in a book of epigrams, in a novel about a Jane Seymour who doesn’t exist either.
But I so nearly missed this connection, this revelation that there were more layers in this novel than I’d thought. And, there’s this Reader’s Rub: the illumination was accompanied by the realization that I had not spotted any other connections like this throughout the first two-thirds of the book and, so, the odds of my spotting another in the remaining third were slim.
I’m willing to bet that, had I spotted them, my travels through Century, backwards in time and forward through those 160 pages, would have felt more rewarding. But as it is, it seems possible that Ray Smith is brilliant and probable that I am not, which doesn’t make for a fun reading experience.
But while that bruises my reader’s ego, all is not lost: I could, with the aid of an annotated edition, achieve a prompted cleverness. And, to pull a couple more Canada Reads comparisons into the mix: Century is also like Jacques Poulin’s Volkswagen Blues, like Frank Parker Day’s Rockbound. I hadn’t heard of either of those writers either, just as I hadn’t heard of Ray Smith. And then all that changed: these writers claimed a spot in my bookbag for the first time.
I don’t regret that for a minute. And if this were <Insert-Favoured-Post-Secondary-School-Institution-of-Learning> Reads, rather than Canada Reads Indie, Century might even get my vote.
Regardless, I did miss that sensation of discovery with the Canada Reads selections for 2010; Canada Reads Independently did bring one new author into my bookbag, so thank the bookish deities that there are publishers like Biblioasis around to bring works like Ray Smith’s to the attention of clever and not-so-clever readers alike.
Remember: Freedom to Read Week!
“Injure me, betray me, but only make me sure of the love, for all day and all night,
away from him and with him, everywhere and always, that is my gravity, and the apples
(which ben ripe in my gardayne) fall only towards that.” (89)
Quote from Elizabeth Smart’s once-banned book,
By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945)