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Review: Beauty & Sadness, by André Alexis

Beauty and Sadness, André Alexis explains in his introduction, "is a work of geography as much as it is one of 'criticism.'" But only, he adds, "if you accept that there are countries named Cocteau, Kawabata, Maupassant, and so on."

Later, in an essay on "lost-ness," he links travelling back to his native Trinidad with attempts to understand Leo Tolstoy and, elsewhere, juxtaposes the end of a love affair with his awareness of how profoundly Samuel Beckett has influenced him.

"And, feeling at home," he writes of Beckett's novels, "I read two thousand pages in a fortnight." This from a man who admits he "rarely feels at home in the world" and says of Canada, where he has lived since he was 4: "I am an immigrant."

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A deeply literary writer, the Toronto-based novelist, playwright and occasional radio host - his CBC music show Skylarking was a delight - is also an ambitious and self-aware one. His first collection of non-fiction defies categorization while remaining unified, both in its preoccupations and its tone. It is a daring book, original and unsettled, and it takes risks.

As the title suggests, Beauty and Sadness divides into two parts. Echoes offers fictional explorations of writers Alexis admires: Guy de Maupassant, Jean Cocteau, Henry James, Carlos Fuentes and Japanese short-story writer and novelist Yasunari Kawabata.

To bring a "different kind of attentiveness" to the process, he tells the same basic tale four different ways, hoping to capture the aesthetics of these artists - "what I remember of a fictional world I adore," as he writes of Kawabata. This involves "the willful rejection of my own sensibility," and he warns that the André Alexis in these stories "is not quite me."

Out of the exercise spring entertaining tales of the supernatural, often transposed from Europe and Japan to small-town Ontario. The Cocteau homage especially, concerning a blind poet who finds his muse in a tower inhabited by a phantom called "his Death," is vivid. It is also absurd and ironic, quite like the "other" Alexis fiction.

But then, as he grants, he chose to briefly inhabit these particular writers in part because "I have come to a time in my life where leave-taking, death, and change have begun to seriously impinge on my imagination."

That melancholy grows more pronounced in Part II, titled Reconciliations, though reconciliation is not what the reader takes from these affecting private forays into the intermingling of literature and life. At least the Tolstoy and Beckett pieces, which Alexis calls "travel essays" and feature some extraordinary writing about Trinidad, arrive at modest epiphanies.

The lengthy autobiographical Water, however, which concludes Beauty and Sadness, is stark. About a quarter of the text was excerpted in The Walrus this summer, and its frank, name-naming critique of the literary scene in English Canada has garnered strong reactions. "A sadness has dogged my time in Toronto," he says of the city where he has lived since 1989.

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Speaking of his "culture's slow agony," Alexis denounces the withering of newspaper book pages - including this one - and questions both the shallowness of much coverage of literature, and the triumph of opinion over insight or fair judgment. But he writes openly as well about his personal sorrows, including two romantic relationships with writers that ended, and says that: "I am fifty-two years old, unsure if I can go on writing as I have previously."

That remark is less a confession than a sign-posting, a reminder of the project that underlies all the literary homage and influence probing, even the name-naming, of Beauty and Sadness. In a footnote early in the collection, Alexis, who is black and has written with great nuance about race - including, it may be worth pointing out, in these same book pages - announces that he won't be addressing this aspect of his identity. "The subject of race and literature is too vast," he says, promising a second volume of essays on the matter.

But his racial identity aside, André Alexis is otherwise forcefully, subjectively present on every page of his collection. He is, in fact, meditating on the outlandish, high-stakes dare he had taken - betting his life on literature. It is a long shot, for sure.

The nature and thrust of own artistic sensibility, in short, is his ultimate subject, and everything argued and judged, confessed and regretted, in Beauty and Sadness is done in the service of charting the topography of the country named Alexis. It is a vast, fertile terrain, its landscapes varied and surprising, and well worth exploring alongside him.

Contributing reviewer Charles Foran's biography of Mordecai Richler, Mordecai: The Life and Times, appears next month.

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