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  • Written by Russell Smith
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  • Muriella Pent
  • Written by Russell Smith
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Muriella Pent

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On Sale: November 05, 2010
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-0-385-67419-5
Published by : Anchor Canada Doubleday CAN Titles
Muriella Pent Cover

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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.


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.

Marcus Royston
(from “Island Eclogues XII”)


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!

Muriella Pent
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.

From the Hardcover edition.
Russell Smith|Author Q&A

About Russell Smith

Russell Smith - Muriella Pent

Photo © Christa Conway, S. Benjamin

Russell Smith was born in South Africa and raised in Halifax, the son of a university professor and a teacher. He began his career as a writer in Toronto after studying at universities in France and Canada.

His first novel, How Insensitive, was published in 1994 and nominated for the Governor General's Award, the Trillium Award, and the Chapters/Books In Canada First Novel Award, and became a bestseller in Canada. He is also the author of the novel Noise, the award winning story collection Young Men, and an illustrated adult fable, The Princess and the Whiskheads.

A popular and controversial weekly columnist with The Globe and Mail, Russell Smith’s articles on a variety of subjects have appeared in The New York Review of Books, Details, Travel and Leisure, Toronto Life, EnRoute, Toro and elsewhere.

Russell Smith lives in Toronto.

Author Q&A

What were the particular pleasures and challenges of writing Muriella Pent?
This book was more difficult to write than my previous books were, because the characters were more diverse, and different from me. It is also the first book I have written with multiple narrative points of view — usually I just choose one anti-hero protagonist (usually some sad-sack guy not unlike me) and stick to his point of view throughout.

The biggest challenge was writing a character of mixed race. I am about as white a guy as was ever created, and have no experience of racism or poverty. I was very nervous about attempting to understand an experience different from my own. I was particularly nervous about being accused of racism — in the creation of racist clichés — or of simple inaccuracy when it came to describing a childhood in the Caribbean or the mentality of an educated Caribbean man. For this I drew on my memories of childhood in South Africa, a place viciously marked by colonialism, and on my sense of being a foreigner in Canada when I arrived here as a child. I also drew on my reading of post-colonial literature (particularly of V.S. Naipaul and of Derek Walcott) to understand Marcus’s classical education and the conflicts that it might have caused in his psyche.

I was similarly challenged in writing Muriella, who is not only of a different age but of a different gender from me. I was nervous about the reaction of women to this character.

But I was a little bored with writing about characters who were very much like me. I think it’s important to try to progress with every book, to try something new. Fiction is after all about imagining that which one has not lived.

And yet, in all fiction, the characters can only be the sum of what the author has researched and what the author can imagine. In the imagining part, the author must consistently refer to one touchstone of reference, which is what he or she has experienced. In other words, one can only understand what one understands oneself. This doesn’t mean what one has lived oneself. Understanding relies on imagination.

I know that I am making a circular argument here. This is difficult terrain. Bear with me.

I suppose what I am trying to say is that imagination engenders compassion. And that all invented characters reflect to some extent the personality of the author — in other words, all the characters are to some extent me. Marcus is me, Muriella is me, Brian (perhaps more than any of the other characters) is me, even Julia is me. (I once lived in the area she is living in, and used those memories to describe her surroundings and the feelings of isolation she has there.) Even Dominic, the unscrupulous gossip columnist, is partly me.

The book is a collage of different voices: along with scenes and dialogue, there are diary entries, letters, newspaper articles, e-mails and much else. How did you come to find this form the best one for the novel?
I chose this form partly to provide some variety for the reader, and partly as a way of introducing expository or background information which might have seemed heavy-handed had it been forced into the narrative. Diary entries, for example, are a sort of cheater’s way of presenting a lot of information about characters’ background and motivation. (A lot of creative writing teachers warn against using diary entries for this very reason.) Emails and letters are a quick way of showing what kinds of disputes are going on without narrating long scenes.

I also was attracted to this format because it represents the way we live now: our daily lives are made up of various interpolated texts — voices, emails, newspapers, letters, snippets on the radio. That’s how most of us perceive the world.

What inspired you to write this book? How do you see Muriella Pent relating to the rest of your work to date?
I don’t know where any of my ideas come from. Muriella came to me as a person — mostly just as a name and an image — while I was on a bus stuck in snow on Bathurst Street. I have no idea why. Then I went home and spent the next few weeks making notes on her personality. I have had her in my mind for some years — I introduced her in my 1999 collection of stories, Young Men. (Dominic the journalist is attracted to her there, as well.)

Muriella Pent is more ambitious in theme and in treatment than are any of my previous books. But it exists in the same fictitious universe — the same fictitious Toronto. And it returns to the same themes and kinds of events which have always preoccupied me: the social lives of the privileged and of artists, the competitive striving of those involved in the media and in the arts... it’s still basically comic satire.

Which authors have been your greatest literary influences, both generally, and in particular on the writing of this book?
My biggest influences in terms of style are probably Ernest Hemingway, Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis. Waugh and Amis are also big influences in terms of setting and subject matter. So is F. Scott Fitzgerald, who likes to write about attractive and somewhat silly people.

I was also influenced by the great French 19th century authors, Balzac and Zola, for their interest in journalistic detail and in creating highly textured settings. They both are preoccupied with social class and its aesthetic indicators, as am I.

The last question is usually, “Are there any tips you would give a book club to better navigate their discussion of your book?” Would your advice be similar to Marcus’s admonitions to Muriella’s book club?
My first piece of advice would be to try to talk about the literary style as well as about what happens in the book. That is, try to notice the author’s technique: does he or she explain what is in the character’s minds, or observe them from the outside? Does the dialogue sound like real speech? Are the descriptive passages straightforward or poetic — that is, does the language call attention to itself? And does the structure hold any surprises — does the author keep secrets from the reader? Where is the author’s own voice discernable? This kind of dissection of literary tricks gets one closer to the kind of analysis that academics do, which can be really stimulating. Get under the hood, take a look at the pipes and cogs, take the whole thing apart. You’ll see how it runs.

And yes, I would concur with Marcus that it is important not to confuse character with author, and that it’s important not to expect a likable book to have a likable protagonist. Unlikable protagonists often make great books.



“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.”
Ottawa Citizen

“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.”
National Post

“Deserves to stand as one of the strongest Canadian novels of the year”
Edmonton Journal

“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.”
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Do you think Muriella Pent is the right title for this novel? What about if it had been called Marcus Royston, or Stilwoode Park?

2. Who is your favourite minor character in Muriella Pent? Why?

3. For this book, critics have compared Russell Smith to writers as diverse as Evelyn Waugh, D.H. Lawrence, Mordecai Richler and Margaret Atwood. Which other novels would you compare Muriella Pent with? Do you think any of them had a particular influence on the author?

4. Did any of Muriella Pent make you laugh out loud? What is the effect of humour in the book?

5. Do you agree with Marcus that art’s real force is as an exploration of the “dark things that motivate us”? Is Muriella Pent an instance of this, or does it have its own social "message"?

6. Discuss either race / political correctness / the proper role of art / the legacy of empire in Muriella Pent.

7. Marcus Royston made no move. "It’s wonderful that this is a Canadian, if you don’t mind my saying colonial, copy of a movement that was long dead in Britain and which was itself a copy of some mythical medieval past." He chuckled some more. "So when you say authentic you mean an authentic copy of a copy."

Discuss Marcus Royston’s reactions to Canada, a place he also describes as "a country without a style."

8. What are your criticisms of Muriella Pent?

9. If you have read any of Russell Smith’s other books, how do you compare Muriella Pent to them? (Did you recognize any characters from other books making cameo appearances here?)

10. What do you think of the ending of Muriella Pent?

  • Muriella Pent by Russell Smith
  • April 12, 2005
  • Fiction
  • Anchor Canada
  • $13.50
  • 9780385259798

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