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Books Ray Smith, 77, was an unconventional author who challenged literary conventions

Ray Smith.

Burt Covit/Handout

Author Ray Smith, who died last month at the age of 77, began his career writing in an avant-garde style that some readers considered brilliant and others found unfathomable. His highly experimental early work was not always received kindly, or even understood. As his career progressed, he won some accolades, although he spent little time basking in the limelight of great Canadian literature.

In his first book, the 1969 short story collection Cape Breton is the Thought Control Centre of Canada, Mr. Smith challenged literary conventions by doing away with traditional plot structures and character development. The stories are compilations of narrative fragments. In a self-referential passage of the book, Mr. Smith called his approach “compiled fiction.”

A Globe and Mail review of “Smith’s prose patchwork piece” panned the book, calling it “literary anarchy,” but the reviewer admitted that Mr. Smith’s talent was undeniable.

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Five years later, when Mr. Smith published Lord Nelson Tavern, Globe and Mail literary editor William French took a far more favourable view. He declared, “Smith writes cunningly and with great verve.” He compared Mr. Smith’s writing to mirrors: “The carnival kind that distort reality, eliminating the boundary between the real and the imagined.”

John Metcalf, a fellow novelist, essayist, editor, critic and friend, places Mr. Smith in the same elevated league as American writers Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon. “Ray was part of an international movement,” Mr. Metcalf said. “In a Canadian context, he was like a monolith that stood above the plains. He was one of the first seeking to say things in a new way that was not the traditional realistic narrative we were used to. He was not Agatha Christie.”

Explaining one story from Cape Breton is the Thought Control Centre of Canada, Mr. Smith wrote: “It is about italics, capital letters, parentheses, the semi-colon, a floating point of view, non sequiturs, over-plotting, flat characters, spy thrillers, high-rise apartments, lingerie, short stories, overstatement, understatement, dropped endings, and plum cordial.”

Mr. Smith eventually shifted to a more accessible and entertaining writing style. A subsequent farcical novel, The Flush of Victory: Jack Bottomly Among the Virgins featured a protagonist named Major Jack (Bummo) Bottomly, who enabled Mr. Smith to poke fun at the Canadian military. By skewering bureaucracy, Mr. Smith proved he could be both astute and funny. He once described a fictional spring fashion show as having “all the sprightly charm of a pre-war tractor.”

Mr. Metcalf said his friend had a following, particularly among writers, although university professors rarely included Mr Smith’s books in their English literature courses. “Their sympathies didn’t lie with the unconventional, which Ray certainly was.”

Never keen on self-promotion and increasingly reclusive in later life, Mr Smith simply dropped from public view. His work, however, gained new audiences beginning in 2007 with re-releases from publishing house Biblioasis.

“We sell small but steady amounts every year” publisher Dan Wells said. “Ray Smith was incredibly playful, funny, sardonic and very aware of what he was attempting to achieve. Those early novels from the story collection on, I think they remain among the most important works to be published in this country.”

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James Raymond Smith was born on Dec. 12, 1941 in Inverness, N.S. He was the first of three boys born to Fred and Jean (née MacMillan) Smith. Fred Smith turned to banking after flying dangerous missions as a pilot during the Second World War, but he kept up his commercial pilot’s licence and flew for the rest of his life.

Ray’s education began at the age of 5 in Mabou, Cape Breton, at a school near the Red Shoe, a pub once owned by his grandfather. In adulthood, Mr. Smith, who was twice divorced, liked to frequent the pub with his two grown sons.

His postsecondary education began in Halifax at Dalhousie University, where he earned a bachelor of arts with honours in English, and years later he received a Master of Fine Arts degree from Montreal’s Concordia University. His first serious attempt at writing began during a trip to Spain in 1964. He graduated from poetry to short stories to novels, but being a slow writer, and aware of the financial challenges of writing for a living, he supported himself by teaching at Dawson College in Montreal from 1971 until his retirement in 2007. During this period, he also spent a year, from 1986 to 1987, as writer in residence at the University of Alberta, followed by a Scottish/Canadian Fellowship that allowed him to live in Edinburgh for a year and give readings throughout the country, before returning to the classroom at Dawson.

Writer Mordecai Richler once advised Mr. Smith to get out of teaching because it would “eat him up.” He ignored the advice. “Mordecai could make a decent living as a freelance writer but I write slowly. I follow my own interests and I knew that working as a freelancer wasn’t for me so I stuck with teaching,” Mr. Smith said in an interview he gave to Cape Breton’s Inverness Oran newspaper.

In the early 1970s, with his first book gaining recognition, Mr. Smith was included as one of the Montreal Story Tellers, a reading group assembled by Mr. Metcalf. The five-writer gathering included Clark Blaise, Hugh Hood and Raymond Fraser. Their mission was to make high-school students aware of contemporary Canadian prose and show that that there was more to literature than Shakespeare. During this heady time, Mr. Smith became a founding member of the Writer’s Union of Canada, mingling with literary luminaries of the day, including Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence and Mavis Gallant. His stories were also included in several anthologies.

In 1992, Mr. Smith’s satirical work A Night at the Opera won the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction from the Quebec Society for the Promotion of English-Language Literature (QSPELL). His body of work also includes The Man Who Loved Jane Austen, a story of love and betrayal set in Montreal; The Man Who Hated Emily Brontë, a satire on life in Quebec; and Century, a novel published in 1986 that explored the merits and horrors of modern life. He considered Century to be his best work.

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“It got some pretty solid reviews,” he wrote in a Biblioasis press release, “but as a novelist in Canada it’s not uncommon for your works to be received with a stony silence. I once asked Farley Mowat why he wore a kilt and his answer was ‘Have you ever tried to get any attention in this country?’ But if I had to do it all over again I don’t think I’d do it any differently.”

After his long career in teaching, Mr. Smith retired in Mabou, where he enjoyed gardening, reading and baseball. He continued writing in an office he set up in his longtime family home.

Mr. Smith died on June 20 at Inverness Memorial Hospital, not far from his home. His health had been in decline for some time. He leaves his sons, Nicholas and Alexander, and brothers, Gerry and Dave.

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