When my first novel was accepted for publication and I answered the inevitable question of "Where?" with "Cormorant Books," most people would blink a couple times, stare back at me a good bit, scratch their heads, and then, almost apologetically, manage, "Cormorant.Cormorant.I think I've heard of them." But then when I added, "They published Nino Ricci's first book, Lives of the Saints," all ambiguity would quickly disappear. "Oh, Cormorant. I have heard of them." Fame by association, perhaps? Not quite.
While Lives of the Saints went on to win the Bressani Prize, the Smithbooks/Books in Canada First Novel Award, the Governor General's Award for fiction, was translated into seven different languages, and sold over seventy thousand copies, most first literary novels are considered a success if they sell two thousand copies and get a few reviews in the right places (never mind whether they're good or bad reviews, just as long as they get talked about). Needless to say, Lives of the Saints was a phenomenal success for any work of serious literature, let alone a first novel. And while Cormorant Books, under the stewardship of Jan Geddes, has continued along its own path, bringing to the public's attention first novels and collections of short fiction that the bigger houses are less and less willing to take a chance on, Ricci has continued on his. In the seven years since the appearance of Lives of the Saints he has published In a Glass House (1993), and, just this fall, the third and concluding volume of his trilogy, Where She Has Gone, both from McClelland & Stewart. Now, with the appearance of this last novel, something like an appraisal can be made, not only of the story Ricci has to tell of Vittorio Innocente and his family, but also-and perhaps more importantly-of Ricci's development as a writer.
It's always a little puzzling to try and understand how a work of genuine literature manages to catch the public's fancy and sell in legion with the latest crime/horror/romance schlock that routinely clogs up the best-seller lists. The case of Lives of the Saints is less mysterious. Ricci is meticulous in his use of language in the novel; the images and impressions told from Vittorio Innocente's youthful perspective are so vivid, so precise, that Lives of the Saints becomes almost a miniature Madame Bovary in its le mot juste exactitude. The book tells the quite simple but intriguing story of Vittorio, his mother, and the enigmatic blue-eyed stranger who helps to tear apart Vittorio's family, makes them virtual outcasts in their small Italian village, and eventually forces them to leave Valle del Sole and emigrate to Canada.
Too often, story or plot is dismissed by so-called "serious" artists and critics as contrived or even manipulative. (Let it be known that if one more academic reductionist or literary journalist complains to me about the "Tyranny of the Author", I disclaim all responsibility for the very real tyranny I am likely to demonstrate upon his or her person). The fact remains that many readers, even those like myself who believe that the language used to tell a story is just as important as the story it tells, nonetheless cling to the perhaps outdated but still powerful human desire for structure and some sort of narrative movement. Three thousand years later, Aristotle's call for a beginning, middle, and end still rings true.
Of course, taken to its furthest extreme, where plot is valued as almost the only virtue and language is relegated to a mere means by which we find out if the butler really did do it, "literature" turns into mere "fiction" and there remains no real reason to re-read the work: we read the book; we find out what happened; we sell the thing to the second-hand bookstore. In literature, however, what got us from Point A to Point B allows us to re-experience as readers again and again the simple joy of making that progress. In literature, getting there is half (and sometimes more than half) the fun. But if Lives of the Saints manages, as few novels ever do, to expertly balance this mix of linguistic artfulness and sustained story, In a Glass House, if even more powerful in its language, suffers from a lack of narrative structure.
At times, Vittorio's observations of his new Canadian home are so startlingly poignant that the effect is almost hallucinatory. More than once, memories, impressions, and emotions of childhood long buried and thought forgotten burst into the reader's consciousness due to Ricci's masterly craftsmanship. Describing the bus ride to and from school, Ricci so acutely evokes the class misfit, George, and Vittorio's adolescent feelings toward him, that one becomes convinced afterward that George went to one's own school and that this, embarrassing but true, was exactly how one felt.
"I didn't want to be like him, didn't want other people to think I was like him; but whenever I was forced to sit beside him I'd feel a kind of rage build in me at his stupidity and strangeness. When other kids had to sit with him they'd call attention to themselves by making fun of him or by touching other people in the seats around them to pass on his germs. But I couldn't do these things, didn't have the right feeling inside to do them, and I knew my failure made me seem more like George to the others, even made me, in a way, more despicable than he was."
But for all its linguistic facility, In a Glass House reads more like a memoir than a novel; or, if a novel, a novel told in the form of a memoir, much like Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. (Perhaps not so coincidentally, the epigraph to Lives of the Saints comes from Proust's mammoth six volumes of reflections.) In fact, both the strengths and weaknesses of Ricci's prose style closely mirror those of Proust's. Both are meticulous in their use of language, every word being carefully chosen for its precise effect and absolutely necessary placement. It is an irony of his genius that although Remembrance of Things Past runs over 2,200 pages in the English translation, it is difficult to find one superfluous word among them (and the same can be said of the nearly thousand pages that make up Ricci's trilogy).
At the same time, the seemingly endless self-analysis that both authors' protagonists are given to is, at times, overwhelming in its solipsistic repetitiveness. The reader of Proust and In a Glass House can be excused if, at times, a kind of cerebral claustrophobia occasionally overcomes the sheer joy of each author's stylings, making one wish for something besides the first-person protagonist's troubled soul as an organizing narrative device. Vittorio is a complex, oftentimes remarkably astute observer of himself and those around him, but something more tactile than his observations about himself, his family, and the small southwestern Ontario town they live in would have made this second volume of Ricci's trilogy more than what it ends up being: a sometimes brilliant but just as often frustratingly hyper-selfconscious reading experience.
Which leads us to Where She Has Gone. Lives of the Saints concludes with Vittorio's mother's death during childbirth on the ship to Canada and the birth of his illegitimate sister, Rita. In a Glass House, lacking as it does any strong plot or structure, ruminates upon many persons and ideas but-especially towards the end-is much given over to Vittorio's growing obsession with his sister, who, by time she is seven or eight years old, has moved in with a neighbouring family because of Vittorio's father's quiet resentment of her and his own physical attack upon her. Where She Has Gone picks up this obsession and, indeed, is almost entirely given over to it.
Vittorio (now Victor, an adult) and Rita are reunited in Toronto where both are university students and where each attempts in his or her own awkward way to discover in the other the sibling that circumstance never really allowed her or him to be. Adding to this awkwardness, or perhaps underlying it, is the sexual tension that exists between the two, especially on the part of Victor, who becomes physically ill over the thought he might lose Rita, dreams about her constantly, and pursues her across the ocean on her summer holiday to Europe. Here, he and Rita rendezvous in Valle de Sole, the birthplace (or rather place of conception) of each of them, bringing the trilogy full circle. But they do not reach the understanding they both crave: of who they are in themselves and to each other.
More unified than In a Glass House because of Victor's single-minded fixation upon his sister, Where She Has Gone again demonstrates Ricci's considerable gifts as a conjurer of mood and place (the evocation of Toronto through the seasons is the best I've ever read anywhere) but still doesn't manage to strike that difficult balance between style and story so artfully achieved in Lives of the Saints. The focus Victor's obsession with Rita provides to the novel is, in the end, compromised by the sort of unremitting self-examination that so characterized In a Glass House.
Victor is often dropping off to sleep in the novel; this device with the sequencing of scenes gets repetitive. A problem with the form of a work of art usually indicates where a problem with content lies. In the realm of heavily symbolic dreams Victor can most effectively do all that he really seems to want to do in the novel: ruminate on Rita. Their actual conversations are usually banal-filled, it's true, with the sort of difficulty of expression that is faithful to their alienation from each other, but still, their dialogue is not very satisfying dramatically, since they usually reveal little about who they are or why they are both confused and unhappy with their lives.
In an appreciative but uncommonly perceptive review of another bestseller of literary value, one critic warned that while Jack Kerouac's On the Road was undoubtedly the work of a fresh new voice, a genuine talent, and while the novel itself was distinguished, the road Kerouac travelled in the book could only be travelled once. One can't help but wonder if one of the sources for the well-written but ultimately flawed novels that followed Lives of the Saints is that the story of Vittorio Innocente only needed to be told once, and that Nino Ricci's enormous talents might have been better employed on entirely different themes, people, places. No matter; what we have is one outstanding novel and two others that so amply demonstrate the author's tremendous talents that we would be foolish as readers not to follow him down whatever road he next chooses to travel.
Ray Robertson is the author of Home Movies (Cormorant).