The Man Who Hated Emily Bronte

by Ray Smith
ISBN: 0889842450

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A Review of: The Man Who Hated Emily Brontd
by Steven W. Beattie

Anyone who has ever experienced the near-orgasmic gustatory sensations on offer at Schwartz's delicatessen on Montreal's Boul. Saint-Laurent will instantly recognize the essential truth of a statement that author Ray Smith places in the mouth of one of his characters toward the end of his latest novel, The Man Who Hated Emily Bront: "Smoked meat has the mysterious quality that if it leaves the island of Montreal it ceases to be smoked meat." Likewise, the "tasteless doughy doughnut-shaped things" that masquerade as bagels outside the borders of Montreal-and which are often marketed by disingenuous Toronto shop owners as authentic "Montreal-style" bagels-seem to have a qualitative difference if they are consumed fresh from the oven at the St-Viateur Bagel Shop.
It is not surprising, then, that food is a recurring motif throughout The Man Who Hated Emily Bront, a means of characterizing not just Montreal, but the whole of Quebec: "Eat it, savour it, as it is set before you. That's how to take Quebec." In Smith's hands, Montreal is a highly sensuous place, fairly bursting with aromas and tastes and sights to delight and provoke the senses. In the novel, the city is lively, electric, it crackles.
Like Joyce's Dublin or Jonathan Lethem's Brooklyn, the Montreal setting of The Man Who Hated Emily Bront is integral to the workings of the novel as a whole. The characters and incidents in the novel are so inextricably bound to their Montreal locales that it is virtually impossible to conceive of this story taking place anywhere else-Toronto, say, or London. This is a novel that is steeped in a highly specific, almost palpable sense of place.
The Montreal of Smith's novel is as significant a character as any of the bumbling, befuddled, and bizarre academics that people it and, as with his human characters, the author presents the city-and the province in which it resides-with all of its foibles and contradictions intact. Despite being a place brimming with life, Quebec is also a province where the government is always "in the van of the latest progressive ideas-of twenty years ago," and where "[n]othing, absolutely nothing is too kooky."
One of the pleasures of The Man Who Hated Emily Bront involves accompanying Smith's protagonist, Will Franklyn-who, like his creator, is a transplanted Nova Scotian-as he attempts to acclimatize himself to his new surroundings. At the urging of Gudrun Sigurdardttir, an eccentric and accident-prone Icelandic seeress (a vlva in Icelandic-a word whose close aural resemblance to a particular part of the female anatomy is fodder for many quips and double entendres throughout the novel), Franklyn applies for a job in the English department at a Montreal junior college. Against his expectations, he lands the job, and embarks on a journey through a looking-glass world where "Things are seldom what they seem, / Skim milk masquerades as cream."
The lyric from Gilbert and Sullivan is illustrative of one of Smith's chief concerns within the novel: the difference between appearance and reality. Practically every character in the book has a secret, from Heidi Felsen, Will's flamboyant landlady and the head of his department at the college, to Harrison Morgan, the eccentric professor with whom Will shares an office, to Margaret Taylor, a colleague on whom Will develops a romantic crush. The gulf between the public masks that these characters don for the outside world and the private realities of their individual lives becomes for Smith a kind of funhouse mirror distorting and refracting the topsy-turvy nature of the society and the milieu in which they operate.
Notwithstanding the downbeat and brooding quality of his previous novel, The Man Who Loved Jane Austen, Smith is essentially a comic novelist, and he is at his sharpest when he adopts the mode of the satirist. The sections of the book dealing with the college faculty, in which the author lampoons notions such as "object-oriented course structures" (which, amongst other things, try to advance the thesis that Irving Layton and Leonard Cohen-"the most priapic poets in Canadian literature"-are actually gay), recall the academic novels of Kingsley Amis and David Lodge. And the depiction of Marie-Claire, the French-Canadian "Ministre de la matrimonie et patrimonie sublime de la nation" is reminiscent of Mordecai Richler at his most trenchant.
Smith is less successful, however, when he trades the satirist's scalpel for the farceur's broadsword, which he does with distressing frequency. This is most evident with Gudrun the vlva, who spills coffee, overturns carafes of water, trips, stumbles, bangs into things, and generally leaves chaos in her wake. Gudrun is not so much a character as a collection of pratfalls; this type of physical humour exists on the level of the Three Stooges, and perhaps it is unfair of me to criticize Smith for employing it, simply because it is not to my taste. Humour is by nature hugely subjective-what one person finds uproariously funny, another will find crushingly dull. For someone who enjoys the Three Stooges, Gudrun's shenanigans might prove hysterical: I don't, and they didn't.
Fortunately, Smith provides us with the first-person narrator, Will Franklyn, as a means of anchoring his story. Whenever his materials seem on the verge of spinning out of control, Will's narrative voice manages to drag them back, albeit in many cases kicking and screaming. That Will is an outsider is essential to Smith's method in the novel; he is like Alice travelling down the rabbit-hole and emerging in a wonderland known as Montreal. Will's oft-repeated question throughout the novel-What now?-testifies to his puzzled astonishment at the bizarre characters and situations with which he is continuously confronted.
Yet, as with most travellers through strange lands, there is also a sense of wonder, of newness, of joy in discovery. "[Y]ou're young," Heidi tells Will, "for your generation, it's a new world." The new world in which Will finds himself is one of vibrant passion and startling contradiction. The fact that Smith sets the expressionistic climax to his novel not in Montreal, but in Reykjavk, is indicative of the possibility that Montreal's inherent contradictions may indeed be unresolvable-Smith's characters have to leave in order to find some resolution to their stories.
But the reference in the last line of the novel to the "unquiet earth" of Iceland should perhaps serve as a caution to readers about how to take the final scene. Without giving too much away, I think it is safe to suggest that the resolution the characters find in Iceland is at best imperfect. The contradictions that Smith's characters embody-which mirror the seemingly irreconcilable two solitudes of Quebec-are precisely the things that give them life, that fuel their passion, their exuberance, and their admittedly idiosyncratic joie de vivre. Trying to reconcile these contradictions is foolish in the extreme, Smith seems to be suggesting, because, in addition to being potentially impossible to achieve, eliminating them also results in the destruction of that which is most essential, most fascinating, and most enthusiastically alive.

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