There are some writers I really, really dislike, and I don’t mean just Colleen McCullough whose ambition (and sales) far exceeded her talent, but writers of real ability who let me down. First of these is Clive James, a man of prodigious intellect who chose to be a clown, and if you’ve seen his old shows about Japanese ‘reality’ television, a not even very funny clown and probably a racist to boot. Next, and more relevantly is Peter Carey, a very good writer, maybe even the best Australian writer of his generation, who wanted to be a World writer and got lost. There are others, Geraldine Brooks first among them, but let’s leave it at that.*
There was a time when I was a Peter Carey fan, The Tax Inspector is a novel I still like, and not-then-ex-Mrs Legend spent a great deal of our housekeeping budget to buy me Oscar and Lucinda in hardback as soon as it came out, but Peter discovered Magic Realism, thought after the international success of O & L that he was the new Gabriel Garcia Marquez, moved to Manhattan to mix it with the big boys, and Booker prizes notwithstanding started to write
shit pretentious nonsense.
The Carey novels which are re-hashes of old stories – Jack Maggs, Ned Kelly, and in Parrot & Olivier, Alexis de Tocqueville – are not even good (ie. accurate) history, or illustrative of current situations, just stuff he’s made up and stuck on the bare bones of someone else’s story. I think Carey struggles to come up with plots, he certainly has difficulty fleshing out his characters, in developing protagonists the reader can identify with, and his women… they are very nearly non-existent. One reviewer wrote that each sentence is perfectly crafted, which is probably true, they just don’t make up a cohesive whole.
De Tocqueville (1805-1859) survived various iterations of French Revolution, Restoration and Napoleonism and in 1835 after touring the United States ostensibly to report on penal reform for the French government, came up with Democracy in America, a seminal study of American society and the evolution of democracy. Carey uses de Tocqueville as the basis for his Olivier character – Olivier de Garmont – the spoiled child of an aristocratic family, his grandfather beheaded in the Terror, his parents remote and preoccupied.
I had no doubt that something cruel and catastrophic had happened before I was even born, yet the comte and comtesse, my parents, would not tell me what it was. As a result my organ of curiosity was made irritable and I grew into the most restless and unhealthy creature imaginable – slight, pale, always climbing, prying into every drain and attic of the château de Barfleur.
Parrot is about 20 years older than Olivier, working class English, his father a journeyman printer who is hanged when Parrot is 12 for his part in forging French banknotes after which Parrot ends up in New South Wales, in a token nod to Carey’s origins, from whence he is ‘rescued’ by Tilbot, a one-armed, French Baron of no fortune, who seemingly lives on his connections to the surviving aristocracy.
The story is told in alternating sections by the two men, who describe over the course of the novel, both their times together and episodes from their childhoods. They are brought together by Tilbot who is a friend of Olivier’s mother. Olivier who has studied to be a lawyer is to be sent to America to report on prison systems. Parrot is to be his secretary and Tilbot’s informant.
We learn that Parrot is living in Paris with Mathilde, a painter, and that he has left behind in New South Wales a wife and son. Parrot persuades Tilbot to allow Mathilde and her mother to accompany him on the ship to New York. Carey enjoys himself describing the familiar streets of his new home town as muddy tracks, infested with pigs, the outer suburbs just paddocks dissected by lanes. Many of the characters too are larger than life, ‘Dickensian’ in many reviews, colourfully drawn but with little insight into their characters.
On board ship there had been much talk about the healthy breezes on Manhattan. They must have meant the wind blowing from the arses of New York pigs. Beekman Street stank like a shit heap, worse than the faubourg Saint-Antoine. We headed south, past Theatre Alley, into a smudgy charcoal sort of maze in which the high-haunched New York pigs mingled with New York clerks …
Mathilde and her painting are the focus of Parrot’s life in America, but Carey tends to describe scenes and events rather than people, and we learn little about her, though a lot about her painting. Olivier moves around New England, staying at the country homes of his various backers, marriage material for ambitious daughters eyeing a French title, until eventually he selects a bland, blonde girl and makes his awkward advances.
The strength of the novel is the tension between varying accounts of the same events by the two protagonists. The weakness of the novel, apart from its rambling plot, is that when the two are apart as they are for most of the second half, that tension is lost. Parrot & Olivier in America is not without its good points, but all the good writing in the world cannot make up for a disappointingly weak story.
Peter Carey, Parrot & Olivier in America, Hamish Hamilton, Australia, 2009. Audio version, Blackstone Audio, 2010, read by Humphrey Bower (17 1/2 hours)
The Guardian has a review by Ursula La Guin, so if you want a sensible, informed and literate opinion here’s the link.
*Kate W has suggested I make a list. I’m thinking about ‘Ten Writers I Really Dislike’, but I’d better offer at least partial justifications so it might take me a couple of weeks.