#4 – Century, by Ray Smith

The wonderful Dr. Sarah Tolmie, whom I’ve mentioned at least once before on this blog, was a professor of mine at the University of Waterloo—my Honours Essay supervisor, in fact (what we at UW referred to as the “Undergraduate Thesis”). In addition to teaching me a great deal about my field, she directed me toward the work of Iris Murdoch, and later, an obscure little novel called Lord Nelson Tavern. She recommended it to me while I was spending a summer alone in Sudbury. My girlfriend was up North working, while I had just moved into a new apartment, and didn’t even have a telephone or Internet connection yet. I was, however, making effective use of the Sudbury Public Library. Lord Nelson Tavern, as it turns out, was by Canadian author Ray Smith, and though I promptly forgot both his name and the title of his book, I never forgot the experience of reading it. It was strange, difficult—I’m not sure I understood a single word of it—but it was also amazing. The kind of reading experience I look for over and over again. And then in July, I read this post by Mr. Beattie, and it all came rushing back to me. I’m not sure why I put off reading Century for so long, but Kerry Clare’s Canada Reads: Independently has given me the opportunity to correct the error.

Century, though labeled a novel, is six not-quite self-contained fictions that trace the family of Jane Seymour, the subject of the first piece, from 1983 to 1893. The first four are grouped together as “Family,” and the last two as “The Continental.” Though never explicitly stated, I think that Kenniston Thorson, the American who is the subject of both Continental pieces and Connie (aka Lulu, likely also Constance) from “Red Banner, Black Boots” are Jane’s maternal grandparents. Smith arranges the six fictions in more or less reverse chronological order, and as a result there are moments, or aspects of a character’s personality, that seem to echo back through time. The second piece opens like so:

Ian knew he was perhaps sentimental, even silly, but he was moved by the landscape and the air in it. I live in the world and this is the world, he thought, as he broke down out of the clouds into the clean air and floated to a stop in the powder snow just below the avalanche platform. This Austrian valley stretching off to the left and right was deep – he could not see the valley floor from here – and steep-walled, the sides dark with rock faces and precarious evergreens picked out by the snow: a dramatic and gloomy scene. But what moved him most was the mist clinging to the mountains across and below, the mist woven through the trees, seeming still.

A hundred pages later and nearly a hundred years earlier Kenniston Thorson is riding in a cab on his way back to his Paris residence when he remembers how,

once, while he was trekking a deep, forested valley in the Vorarlberg, a song had come down to him from the craggy heights, the song of an unseen girl far above had come coiling down through the trees and filled the valley and filled his soul with its clear liquid innocence.

It’s not an exact corollary (though “the Vorarlberg” is in Austria), but Century deliberately resists such obvious framing. The novel spans ninety years, not one hundred, and while Gwen has inherited both her parents’ sexual appetites (and, particularly, her father’s quest for love), it’s Jane who most resembles Connie, her nervous energy, her life invaded by the dead of a generation past, dipping her big toe into philosophy but also clearly capable of so much more. Likewise, it’s Jane’s father who most resembles the sophisticated but restless Thorson, even though they are the only two main characters not related by blood.

Much, perhaps too much, has been made about how difficult Century is to talk about. It’s true, but what I wound up inferring from the reviews and blog posts is that it was also a difficult book to read, and it isn’t, at least not on the surface. It isn’t Ulysses or Sexing the Cherry or Empire of the Senseless, or even Gravity’s Rainbow. I found that I had to pay close attention to Smith’s prose, but as well as being beautiful, it was also surprisingly charming and straightforward. What makes Century difficult to talk about is its structure, the complex relationships between characters, events, and images. It’s one of the saddest, most lovely things I’ve ever read, but to explain why, I think it would be better, and perhaps even more efficient, to just hand you a copy of the novel rather than to try and say anything about it.

Somewhat surprisingly, I’d come across some of Century before. As soon as I encountered the Venetian masks in “Serenissima” I knew I’d already read that section, and I scoured my bookshelf and magazine rack. The culprit (somewhat unsurprisingly) turned out to be the Salon des Refusés issue of Canadian Notes & Queries (issue #74, well worth reading if you can manage to track down a copy, though bits of it—”Serinissima” included—are available online). I can’t overstress this point: Century is one of the finest, most beautiful books I have ever read, regardless of the author’s nationality. I don’t feel the need to qualify this as a great “Canadian” book. It’s just a spectacular fucking book. I will be shocked if I read anything better this year. You are doing yourself a disservice if you don’t read this book, and I’m very glad that Biblioasis has included it in their Renditions series. (As an interesting aside, the cover art for this edition is a detail from “Saint-Sauveur Watercolour I” by painter Ken Tolmie, who just happens to be the father of Dr. Sarah Tolmie, who first introduced me to Ray Smith’s work.)

Century was my fifth selection for the Third Canadian Book Challenge, and my first selection for Kerry Clare’s Canada Reads: Independently. Next is Fall On Your Knees, by Anne-Marie MacDonald.


Writer. Editor. Critic.

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