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.
About the author
Russell Smith was born in Johannesburg, South Africa and grew up in Halifax, Canada. He studied French literature at Queen's, Poitiers and Paris (III). Since 1990 he has lived in Toronto, where he works as a freelance journalist. He has published articles in The Globe and Mail, Details, Travel and Leisure, Toronto Life, Flare, NOW and other journals, and short fiction and poetry in Queen's Quarterly, The Malahat Review, Quarry, the New Quarterly, Carousel, Kairos, Toronto Life and other journals. Russell appears frequently on television and radio as a cultural commentator. In 1995 he won a Gold Medal at the American City And Regional Magazine Awards. Russell Smith is the author of six works of fiction; his first novel, How Insensitive, was short-listed for the Smithbooks/Books In Canada First Novel Award, the Trillium Prize and the Governor General's Award for Fiction. In 2005 he was a juror for the Governor General's Award in Fiction (in English).
Excerpt: Muriella Pent (by (author) Russell Smith)
The flotsam of bottletops, glass shards, paper strands like seaweed
washed up on the curb, the receding waves of visitors flash
as whitecaps in the sun. And when the tide goes out
it leaves the concrete dusty. We scavenge what we can,
boys in ragged khaki shorts, looking out to sea.
This is a tide that burns and leaves
the taste of money in the mouth
and bananas in the sand.
A girl sits in shadow, sullen as heat. Her skin
is velvet dust. And although her mouth is tightly shut,
I know it hides a cave of wet, with hidden glints
of metal, flashing like traps. I know her salt already.
I will turn into an arrogant god, metamorphosed
into shepherd, warrior, whatever shape
is primed for rape
by respected purveyors of myth.
I will pay and take her. I will carry her away.
For Jupiter she would kick, shrink from the scratch
of feather and beak (how oily that down, up close!).
For Apollo she would shiver and freeze with fear,
wooden in retreat. For me she is merely cold, silent as a bruise.
A ground that many have trod becomes compact and hard.
We have known so many visitors here,
we exchange the roles of conqueror and slave
like blocks slid around a grimy board,
in the cafés of the port. It is my turn now.
(from “Island Eclogues XII”)
MESSAGE FROM THE CHAIR
It’s almost impossible for me to imagine that a full year has passed since last year’s spectacular and highly successful Trillium Ball. I can still remember the highlights of that night — the fabulous music from the Caramba Tango Ensemble, the stunning performance of an excerpt from the new ballet Rodeo by members of the National Ballet, the hilarious auctioneering style of our resident comedian, Marv Dunleavy (who also moonlights as the President of Dunleavy Goldfarb Investments). In that one night we raised, thanks to the generous donations of all of our corporate sponsors,* as well as by our generous Members, in excess of $300,000 for the Princess Alexandra Hospital Redevelopment Fund. Well, we have had no time for those memories to fade before getting right back into the swing of the preparations for this year’s Ball, and what a preparation it has been! I am pleased to announce that this year’s Ball is on an even grander scale than ever before, and promises to be even more dazzling and entertaining than last year’s — if that’s possible! We are proud to announce the participation, this year, of the Fur Board of Canada, who have donated seventeen luxurious coats for our silent auction, and the generous donations of six of the city’s top chefs (including Damian Buhr of Coterie, Kenneth Woo of Pearl, Bodo Kraftmeyer of Elements, and Ritchie LeBlanc, ex of Mirage) for our Trade Routes Food Stations, plus the usual fun-filled costume parade and steel-drumming by the Caribbean Cultural Society. I have nothing but awe and admiration for my fellow board members, and my vice-chairs Sandy Dunleavy, Gaye Northwood, and Sonia Gjurdeff, who have donated more of their time in putting this massive project together — along with the usual time-consuming obligations of family and demanding husbands! — than I would have thought humanly possible. I have had the honour of working with a board composed of the most dedicated and hard-working volunteers I have ever had the privilege to meet, and so it is with many thanks that I invite you to enjoy the fruits of their labours. This year’s proceeds will go the newly launched Lupus Research Centre of the Princess Alexandra Hospital, and it is an honour for all of us to be associated with this much-needed initiative. And finally I offer my thanks especially to those without whom none of this would occur: the generous patrons who have bought tables. Now sit back and enjoy a well-deserved evening of entertainment, and above all, have fun!
Chair, Organizing Committee
*a full list of corporate sponsors will be found on pages 3–5
Photo by Andy Nottingham, styling by Nadir Group. Mrs. Pent’s wardrobe courtesy of the St. Regis Room at the Bay.
A checkerboard of yellow light on the carpet. Her head is on its side. She can feel the pile making an imprint on her cheek: gentle bristles. She can’t at first make out why the light is so perfectly divided in squares. The windowpanes, their leaded squares. There is dust hanging in the shafts like a kind of mist. It is hardly moving, just hanging. From outside, the sound of a lawnmower, incongruous so late in the year. She stretches her hand out and strokes the pile. Her fingertips feel sensitive, as if she can distinguish the floral patterns on the rug by caressing it.
With her nose this close to the rug, she can for the first time discern its dusty smell. It is a bit barnyardy. The rug is wool, and very old, dyed, by no doubt dirty hands, with vegetable extracts. She imagines that it has been carried by a camel at one time. Perhaps this is what camels smelled like.
A sweet smell too, like burning sugar. Spilled brandy, soaked into the rug beside her. It is a little dizzying. It is like something rotten. And there is brandy on her chest: her nipples burn a little where he has dripped the brandy on them, then rubbed it in. Then he filled his mouth with brandy and sucked her nipple into it. “Oh,” she says, as if hurt. It is almost the same feeling: her chest has filled with air. She expels it. “Goodness.” She shivers, rolls over onto him, runs her hand over his chest and soft belly. It is flat, but soft. There is roughness only in the very centre of his chest, a sparse patch like dying grass, a memory of fur. Even this stubble is soft.
He is breathing steadily, not asleep. His eyes half open. She strokes his nipple, which makes him sigh. He smells damp. His skin is salt. She thinks she probably smells stronger than he does. She can smell herself. It is not just perspiration. She has not ever smelled herself like this, or at least can’t remember it.
Her belly is sticky. That is him. She is curious to smell it, but does not want to touch her finger to her nose in front of him. Not that he would be shocked (he seems shocked by nothing), but it would be admitting a naivety.
Her eyes travel the room. She begins to take in minor damage. A smashed vase, thankfully only glass, on the hardwood beside the writing desk, a great lake of water, also soaking into the rug. Yellow lily petals floating in it, soggy stems everywhere. His trousers, twisted inside out, a dam at the hardwood’s edge. An anemone of wet silk: her panties.
Perhaps the fetid water is contributing to the vegetal atmosphere. Red rose petals float too: where did they knock them from? A dark ceramic vase on the mantelpiece stands intact. It is patterned with apples and grapes, and sprouts drooping roses. Her head brushed against it as he pushed her up against the stone, her head stretched back, his lips on her neck, under the portrait of Arthur. She must have been spraying rose petals about with her hair. She reaches a hand behind her head and extracts a few more.
That’s where they started, and then she doesn’t remember hitting the glass vase on the writing desk. She remembers slippping in the water in her bare feet, though, as he pulled on her skirt, and him catching her, his hand tight in the small of her back.
“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.”
“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.”
“Deserves to stand as one of the strongest Canadian novels of the year”
“Irresistibly poignant…. Readers looking to spice up their book club will have plenty to talk about with Russell Smith’s latest, Muriella Pent. "
“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.”