Synopses & Reviews
Russell Smiths 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 Smiths claim to be one of Canadas 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: its 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. Andrews. 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 committees invitation, with a little quiet help from Canadas ministry of External Affairs, Marcus comes to Toronto on a literary residency, to live in a basement apartment in Muriellas 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 Muriellas genteel book club alike: identity politics isnt everything, art isnt activism, and a novel shouldnt be read to uncover the authors social "message."
"It is not about providing positive influence, or solving the problems of poverty. Its 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. Its 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 Muriellas 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 novels 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 Muriellas 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.
About the Author
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, How Insensitive, was published in 1994 and nominated for the Governor General's Award, the Trillium Award, and the Chapters/Books In Canada First Novel Award, and became a bestseller in Canada. He is also the author of the novel Noise, the award winning story collection Young Men, and an illustrated adult fable, The Princess and the Whiskheads.
A popular and controversial weekly columnist with The Globe and Mail, Russell Smiths articles on a variety of subjects have appeared in The New York Review of Books, Details, Travel and Leisure, Toronto Life, EnRoute, Toro and elsewhere. He is currently working on Russell Smith's Style, a sociological guide to men's clothing, to be published by McClelland and Stewart in the fall of 2005.
Russell Smith lives in Toronto.
Reading Group Guide
1. Do you think Muriella Pent
is the right title for this novel? What about if it had been called Marcus Royston
, or Stilwoode Park
2. Who is your favourite minor character in Muriella Pent? Why?
3. For this book, critics have compared Russell Smith to writers as diverse as Evelyn Waugh, D.H. Lawrence, Mordecai Richler and Margaret Atwood. Which other novels would you compare Muriella Pent with? Do you think any of them had a particular influence on the author?
4. Did any of Muriella Pent make you laugh out loud? What is the effect of humour in the book?
5. Do you agree with Marcus that arts real force is as an exploration of the “dark things that motivate us”? Is Muriella Pent an instance of this, or does it have its own social "message"?
6. Discuss either race / political correctness / the proper role of art / the legacy of empire in Muriella Pent.
7. Marcus Royston made no move. "Its wonderful that this is a Canadian, if you dont mind my saying colonial, copy of a movement that was long dead in Britain and which was itself a copy of some mythical medieval past." He chuckled some more. "So when you say authentic you mean an authentic copy of a copy."
Discuss Marcus Roystons reactions to Canada, a place he also describes as "a country without a style."
8. What are your criticisms of Muriella Pent?
9. If you have read any of Russell Smiths other books, how do you compare Muriella Pent to them? (Did you recognize any characters from other books making cameo appearances here?)
10. What do you think of the ending of Muriella Pent?
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.