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Beauty and Sadness

by André Alexis

People shouldn’t prejudge this brilliant book by novelist and playwright André Alexis on the basis of the long pre-publication­ excerpt – an indictment of Canadian book reviewing – that appeared last June in The Walrus magazine. The book spans and transcends numerous genres (fiction, memoir, essay, poetry, criticism). Even the footnotes are fascinating.

In language both coolly conversational and richly intellectual, Alexis, now in his fifties, writes about his past and present, personal as well as professional, in a self-critical tone that is quite wrenching even when he is being admittedly contradictory. Alexis emigrated from Trinidad with his family when he was four and grew up in Ottawa. Trinidad and immigration recur as subjects in this book, but his move to Toronto in 1987 to become a writer looms larger. By relocating, Alexis hoped “to add [his] voice to the voices of those who were writing the terrain, [his] country into existence.” Yet he feels that any novel that “could only be understood by Canadians would have military value – you read it to someone at a border and discover at once if he or she is Canadian – but little else, excluding as it does most of humanity from its audience.” But he quickly adds: “Or am I wrong here?”

We learn of his former relationship with the novelist Catherine Bush, which included a stay in Italy. Their time together “in Positano (reading Catherine’s novel or translating Italo Calvino’s Il visconte dimezzato together, word for word, the listener holding the dictionary while the reader sounded the words out) was the last time [he] was completely happy to be a writer.” Elsewhere he elaborates: “I was right to come to Toronto, in that I found the literary society and life I was looking for. I was wrong, in that I gradually discovered that the last thing I truly wanted is ‘literary society,’ in that the friendship of other writers can be a poisonous distraction.”

The overall tone is much less negative than this suggests. Despite his rants against the state of book culture (0ne of which contains a complimentary nod to the current reviewer), Alexis is foremost a critic of himself. He wonders what kind of writer he has become, and answers: “Clever, with too many ideas at times, lazy, far short of my own ideals, my literary language still unmastered.” Beauty and Sadness is, to say the least, a rebuttal of this conclusion.

The first half of the book contains a series of short fictions that tries to channel the essences of authors he admires, from Guy de Maupassant to Jean Cocteau to Samuel Beckett. The most remarkable of these is a novella that pays homage to both Henry James and Carlos Fuentes (and maybe, unwittingly, to Patricia Highsmith as well): the story of how a brush with the occult affects the life of an expat gigolo in France. It’s an accomplishment so astonishing it even manages to outshine the rest of this irresistible, one-of-a-kind work.