Ray Smith Biography
Nationality: Canadian. Born: Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, 1941. Education: Dalhousie University, B.A. 1963. Military Service: Royal Canadian Air Force, 1959-64; became flying officer. Career: Systems analyst, Manufacturer's Life, Toronto, Ontario, 1963-64; full-time writer, 1964-70; instructor in English, Loyola College, Montreal, Quebec, 1970; instructor in English, Dawson College, Montreal, 1971—. Awards: New Press award for best short fiction, 1985.
Lord Nelson Tavern. Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1974.
A Night at the Opera. N.p., n.d.
The Man Who Loved Jane Austen. Erin, Ontario, Porcupine's Quill, 1999.
Cape Breton Is the Thought Control Centre of Canada. Toronto, Anansi Press, 1969.
Century. Toronto, Stoddart, 1986.
Lord Nelson Tavern (one-act play). Toronto, 1976.
Lord Nelson Tavern. Toronto, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1975.
Contributor, The New Romans, edited by Al Purdy. Hurtig, 1968.
Contributor, Sixteen by Twelve, edited by John Metcalf. New York, Ryerson, 1970.
Contributor, Great Canadian Short Stories, edited by Alec Lucas. New York, Dell, 1971.
Contributor, The Story So Far, edited by George Bowering. Toronto, Coach House, 1971.
Contributor, Seeing through Shuck, edited by Richard Kostelanetz. New York, Ballantine, 1972.
Contributor, The Narrative Voice, edited by John Metcalf. New York, Ryerson, 1972.
Contributor, Breakthrough Fictioneers, edited by Richard Kostelanetz. Something Else, 1973.
Contributor, Stories from Atlantic Canada, edited by Kent Thompson. Macmillan, 1973.
Contributor, Readings for Canadian Writing Students, edited by Bill Schermbrucker. Capilano College, 1976.
Contributor, East of Canada, edited by Ray Fraser. Breakwater, 1976.
Contributor, Here and Now: Best Canadian Stories, edited by John Metcalf and Blaise. Oberon, 1977.
Contributor, Fiction of Contemporary Canada, edited by George Bowering. Toronto, Coach House, 1980.
Contributor, The Cape Breton Collection, edited by Lesley Choyce. Pottersfield, 1984.
Contributor, The New Press Anthology: Best Canadian Short Fiction 1, edited by John Metcalf and Rooke. General, 1984.
Contributor, The New Press Anthology: Best Canadian Short Fiction 2, edited by John Metcalf and Rooke. General, 1985.
Contributor, The Montreal Storytellers: A Collection of Memoirs, Photographs, and Critical Essays, edited by J. R. Struthers. Vehicule, 1985.
The Montreal Storytellers: A Collection of Memoirs, Photographs, and Critical Essays, edited by J. R. Struthers, Vehicule, 1985.
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For more than three decades, Ray Smith has occupied a distinctive position on the margins of the Canadian literary scene. His work is characterized by an interest in experimentation, but there is no discernible pattern of development. Each of his books is markedly different from the others, and none fits comfortably into the standard academic overviews of Canadian literature.
His first book, Cape Breton Is the Thought Control Centre of Canada (short fiction), is one of the earliest Canadian examples of experimental writing in the international tradition. (Of American writers, perhaps Donald Barthelme provides the closest analogue.) The relentless, witty interrogation of short story form underscores a parallel skepticism about received truths in other areas of life.
Smith's first novel, Lord Nelson Tavern, focuses on a group of about ten characters, most of whom have known each other from their student days. The first of its seven sections depicts that period of their lives as being relatively ordinary, but as their life stories unfold, their individual narratives become increasingly bizarre and exotic. One, for example, becomes a famous poet who marries an Oscar-winning actress. Another—the least likely—becomes a major player in a world-class drug smuggling operation; eventually he is murdered in accordance with Hollywood convention. A third becomes an internationally acclaimed artist, a fourth a producer of pornographic films, and so on.
Smith does not attempt to make such lives seem believable. Instead his interest is in exploring the voices of his characters, both spoken and written. Much of the book is in dialogue, and there are many unusually long speeches; two of the sections are transcriptions of diaries. Though many of the episodes involve comic exaggeration, the novel does address serious thematic issues, especially the nature of love and art, and the factors that promote and destroy them. Taken as a whole (and despite the sometimes frivolous and cynical rhetoric), Lord Nelson Tavern professes an almost Romantic faith in the validity of romantic love and the power of art to redeem human experience.
Century is a collection of six stories set at various times between 1893 and 1983 and in various places, mostly European. Connections are drawn among some of the protagonists (usually participants in the world of diplomacy), but in other respects the book is a mirror image of its predecessor. Smith here is interested in verisimilitude, as the stories' settings are presented in full (and clearly well-researched) detail. Thematically, the volume makes no clear assertions, as it leads its reader to contemplate the complexity, chaos, and absurdity of twentieth-century life. Collective madness is set against the sanity and dignity of certain individuals, but the focus is on questioning rather than affirmation.
A Night at the Opera, Smith's second novel, also reflects his fascination with history, though here his stance is more straightforwardly satirical. The setting is the fictional south German city of Waltherrott. Three narratives are played off against each other: the late-twentieth-century identity quest of one Herr Einzelturm, the director of the local transit authority; the story of the struggle, in 1848, of Carl Maria von Stumpf to compose his opera Der Hosenkavalier, which purports to mythologize the city's early history; and a document written by a medieval priest named Adalbert describing first-hand the events that inspired the opera (which, by Einzelturm's time, has become a local classic).
The titles of both the opera and the novel itself (with its reference to the Marx Brothers) suggest something of the slapstick, parodic tone, as Smith examines the ways in which mythologies are created and propagated out of social and personal need, with little regard for historical truth. Beyond that, Smith assumes the traditional role of the satirist, ridiculing the manifestations of folly (especially lust, greed, and pride) that remain constant over the centuries. Some sympathy is generated for all three protagonists, each of whom is (comparatively) an innocent in a world of fools and knaves. Though its concept is intriguing, the novel's impact is dulled by the fact that the general targets of its satire have been hit so easily and often before. (The local, German targets are essentially parabolic, it is broadly hinted.) There is something labored about using such complex machinery to skewer bourgeois complacency yet again.
The Man Who Loved Jane Austen is very different in tone and style. Smith uses standard realism to deliver a narrative set in Montreal in the late 1990s, against the backdrop of ongoing debate about whether the province of Quebec should secede from the Canadian confederation. The protagonist, Frank Wilson, an English instructor at a community college, feels angered and threatened by the separatist movement (as do all of the novel's other characters who express themselves on the subject). But the primary focus is on Frank's effort to retain custody of his two young sons after his wife's death, in the face of determined attempts by his in-laws to take them away from him. The personal and political themes—potential breakup of a family and of a country—are clearly meant to resonate with each other.
Frank is a believable and sympathetic figure, and Smith—for the first time in his career—has painstakingly delineated the mundane details of a daily life that is supremely ordinary rather than exceptional in some way. But most of the secondary characters are simplistically drawn, especially the in-laws, whose status as caricature villains weakens the novel's texture. Nor is Quebec nationalism given credible representation; a reader unfamiliar with Quebec history might be puzzled that so many otherwise sane people could be attracted to a cause that any reasonable person (in the context of this novel) must conclude is self-evidently without merit.
Smith's career has been spectacularly atypical. His first two books, perhaps because of their self-conscious experimentation, attracted some academic attention in the decade or so after their publication, but the next three have been virtually ignored both by academe and by the broader audience for literary fiction. In part this may be the result of a collective judgment about the quality of the work. But it may also be that Smith's fiction simply diverges too dramatically from what the Canadian reading public is used to. And the only thing certain about Smith's next book is that it will be significantly different from anything he has written to date.
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