13 September 2010
Olivier 2, Parrot 2…
…by which I mean, just over a quarter of the way through the novel, that we’ve heard from them twice each. The first time each of them tells his story, we get the early years. The second time, they’re adults – and Parrot is keen to remind us that he’s a lot older than ‘Monsieur Migraine’, over 50 by the time he meets the (I think) 20-something Olivier. From the start, in one way at least, we’re in familiar narrative territory for Carey: we have characters giving very particular versions of themselves. And now, before they’ve even met properly they’re giving us versions of each other.
Carey did something similar in Theft, his last novel but one. The novel after that, His Illegal Self, doesn’t have first-person narrators – but it does alternate between the two very different points of view of characters thrown together by circumstances. It’s starting to seem that this parallax view is what Carey does. However. In the two earlier novels the action takes place in the late 20th Century and there’s a degree of closeness between the characters before they start. (In Theft, they’re brothers.) In this novel, mainly set in the early 19th Century, the two narrators are from different generations, different classes, different countries. And it takes a quarter of the novel, and the most picaresque of plotting, for Carey to force them up against one another. They don’t like it.
The young Olivier is a child in post-Revolutionary France. He’s the son of aristocrats of the old school who live in a kind of fantasy of pre-Terror certainties and never fled even when family members were executed. Olivier’s certainties are even more entrenched than those of his parents, and in the first chapter we think it’s because he’s still only a child. Wrong. By the time he’s in his mid-20s he’s just as sure of his position at the top of a very ancient tree of privilege – and that everybody else is is only there to look after him.
But, the childhood chapter. He’s a kind of sensualist: his asthma and myopia bring the focus on to whatever is up close: smells, pain, the feel of his mother’s body. Carey doesn’t lay the Oedipal theme on too thickly, but Olivier idolises her. And he’s her only child, the favourite by right – to go along with all the other rights he takes for granted. But… there are harsh surprises for him, usually taking a resolutely physical form. His first awareness of the dark recent past, aged six (I think), is his discovery of near-mummified pigeons saved by his mother in a kind of symbolic memorial to all the unjust, arbitrary deaths during the Terror. The first one he discovers is full of ants, which swarm over him and bite him – the symbolism doesn’t seem so clunky in the actual reading – and it’s wrapped in an image whose obscenity makes him vomit: the guillotining of Louis XVI.
Everything he learns about the Revolution strikes him as simply wrong. As a child he’s revolted by what he learns of the Sans-Culottes’ activities, and derides the memory of his grandfather for his failure to stand up to the commoners who weren’t deferential enough. This is all fairly excusable in a child, although he’s punished for his disrespect and even appears to recognise the limits to his understanding. But he seems just as bad as an adult. 20 years later, he still sees democracy as a kind of obscenity, is congenitally incapable of recognising the rights of any class other than his own. It’s one of his selling-points as a character.
I’ll hurry this up. As children, both he and Parrot are knocked about by historical events. They’re on the edges, but the effects seem big enough to them: Olivier’s arrival in a smashed-up Paris during a brief restoration of the monarchy, Parrot’s witnessing of a government raid on the Catholic printing-house (literally a house) that specialises in forged currency and other documents. All around them history is taking place on a grand scale, and they have no more idea of what’s going on than most of Carey’s readers. Including me.
I should talk about Parrot, so called not merely because it rhymes with his surname, Larrit, but because he’s an excellent mimic. And he can rustle up a likeness of any animal or person with nothing but a discarded piece of chalk or a burnt stick. It’s as though Carey has designed the most opposite possible childhood to Olivier’s. Parrot has no memory of his mother. He and his father are itinerant, living on their wits and off the land, scraping a living through whatever skills they can muster. His father is feckless and resourceful at the same time, knows how to catch animals and tickle trout, and Parrot idolises him. When they happen upon the ‘printery’, his father asks no questions, simply accepts jobs for both of them. When the place goes up in smoke – the boy witnesses the forgers, until then secreted away in priest-holes, in flames on the burning roof – it’s only Parrot who escapes the government agents.
He’s a different kind of sensualist from Olivier. For him it isn’t taste and smell, it’s sight and sounds. He describes a scene as though looking at an imaginary picture of it, as though reality is only a half-way stage to a finished product. It turns out he isn’t as skilled an artist as he and his father thought – one of the forgers holds out no hope for him – but he has a connoisseur’s eye. It makes his chapters intensely visual.
But I’m not telling you the plot. In each of their second sections, they are adults living in Paris. Olivier, as a result of accidents of birth and an arrogant carelessness, is in an increasingly difficult position. There are spies, and he is known to have extremist royalist views when they are no longer the flavour of the month, has been seen to make notes in lectures about the dangers of democracy. A friend – tell you who in a minute – thinks he should go to America. ‘Like Chateaubriand.’ He hates the idea.
The spy, working for the influential friend, is Parrot. We only find out later how he met ‘Monsieur’ – code-name for a one-armed royalist hero of the old school that Olivier first met when he visited the family in general and Olivier’s mother in particular – but now he works for him and… has been delegated to be the one to escort Olivier across the Atlantic. He hates the idea as much as Olivier: he’s been living with a Frenchwoman for the past five years, and has been very happy to tell us all about the life they’ve shared between the sheets. She throws him out as soon as he mentions the possibility of America.
One thing this novel shares with Carey’s previous one, His Illegal Self, is the way the childish point of view is so much more vivid than the adult. He’s spent far more time so far on these men’s early years, despite the focus having moved on to their adult lives in Paris. After telling us about the end of his comfortable relationship, Parrot takes us all the way back to his flight from the printing-house. That’s when he met up with Monsieur – in fact, he discovers, the Marquis de Tilbot – who was there to collect forged French currency that was to destabilise the post-Revolutionary economy. Out on Dartmoor the war hero, the boy thinks, is a useless aristocrat. But by the end of his second section this foreigner is showing real kindness to him. When, with his teeth, toes, one hand and an improvised bone tool the Marquis fashions a kind of blanket from rabbit pelts for him, Parrot has found himself a new father. And, decades later, we know where that has led.
On board ship
The novel has gone to a new place now as each narrator gets a couple of short chapters which let Carey bounce versions of events off each other. To some extent it’s a continuation of what was happening after they first meet in Paris, but now the effect is immediate. We’ve had Olivier’s version of the duel that left his best friend Blacqueville dead, and Olivier crying out for the chance to avenge him. (I can’t believe I didn’t mention Blacqueville before: he’s a success, the person Olivier wishes he was and sometimes imagines himself to be.) We also get the whingeing, self-serving story of the vile treachery that led to his being spirited aboard the ship against his will – and his hatred of Parrot who, obviously, isn’t fit to lick his boots. Parrot’s version is somewhat different, with the Marquis and him doing their best to get the rich idiot out of there while they still can. Olivier is now ‘Lord Migraine’ to him, and he hates having to share their tiny cabin as much as Olivier does.
Carey takes the unreliability of the narration further. Olivier still has the smudged, blotted handwriting of a schoolboy, so Parrot becomes his ‘calligrapher’ for letters home to mother. It soon becomes a power-game, as Olivier demonstrates how he can write insulting things about Parrot in these letters if he likes. He does like. Meanwhile, what Parrot likes is the subversive power of the underdog: sometimes he slips in changes he knows his myopic boss won’t notice.
As time goes on, the focus for the power-game becomes Mathilde, Parrot’s artist lover. She’s also on board, with her mother, her passage paid for by the Marquis for some ulterior motive, I guess, that we don’t know about yet. She isn’t speaking to Parrot except to rage at him for leaving her – but she’s speaking to everyone else. She insinuates herself into the American passengers’ company, painting portraits, becoming their darling. And Olivier gets his portrait painted too. He’s soon besotted, letting us know that she must be able to see the evidence of his animal passions as she observes him.
Eventually, he dictates a letter, which he tells us (i.e. tells Parrot) he couldn’t possibly send. It’s about his sexual conquest of Mathilde and it reads like 19th Century porn. Carey is careful not to let us know how much of what we read is Oliver’s wording, and how much is down to Parrot’s almost insane fantasising. Whichever it is, it sends Parrot even closer to the edge than he was before – he’s already thrown her first portrait of Olivier into the sea – and we wonder how the long voyage in an enclosed space are going to do for his sanity. Like, did that detail about her being a pillow-biter come from Olivier, or is that one of Parrot’s jealous fantasies?
The other thing in these chapters is Carey’s satirical take on Americans abroad. According to one or other of the narrators they are loud, sure of their own opinions and unable to perceive any faults in their own country. And the narrators are suspicious, in their different ways, of what their much-vaunted democracy really entails. The sons of farmers can reach the highest echelons, to Olivier’s disgust, but Parrot doesn’t see any real flattening-out of the social order: superficially democratic habits like allowing handshakes across social divides don’t stop the Americans being as snobbish as any European (except, perhaps, Olivier himself). And, well, Carey is an Australian living in New York…. This will be his first novel about ex-pats in America, and I imagine the satire has only just started.
To Olivier’s letter to Mother denying any romantic attachments
This comes about two-thirds of the way through and… and I’m not finding myself as entertained as I was during the early parts of the novel. We’re getting more Carey trademarks: parent-child relationships, including surrogates, and the crucial part played by childhood experiences; outsiders’ views of America and Americans; the ex-pat’s uncertainty about where ‘home’ is; Australia in general, and the exotic flora and fauna in particular. Why wouldn’t he write about what he knows?
And we get more games being played with our narrators’ opposing versions of events, especially during the early part of their time in America. I’m not sure how successful that is, really: we’ve already had the best jokes in France and on board ship, and it’s a relief when we start to get the slow recognition on the parts of both our men that the other isn’t completely worthless after all. We also get more of Parrot’s back-story, in two different kinds of flashback – my, doesn’t Carey like to mess about with the narrative and the time-line? – and, to go with that, a greater and greater sense of the Marquis as a kind of Svengali, for both of them. Anyway, I’m glad to see these two being more civil. We knew it would come eventually: the title gives it away, and there wouldn’t be a novel if they remained apart like petulant schoolboys.
The gradual evolution of their relationship is tied in with one of this novel’s other main themes: the early days of democracy. It’s one of the Americans’ favourite selling points, of course, and Carey has been having fun with it since the first moment he thrust our heroes into their company. (At one point someone remarks, or quotes from somewhere, that democracy and capitalism are definitely not mutually exclusive – taken, in context, to mean that any of your fellow-citizens is fair game, and that fighting and clawing your way to making money is a noble enough ambition for anybody.) Alongside this is Olivier’s painfully slow realisation that his old assumptions about class relationships don’t hold up any more. Parrot on his own can’t change his mind, as we see in France, on board ship and in the first weeks in America. But gradually, well, if Olivier doesn’t exactly get used to a different order he realises it’s something he has to deal with.
Parrot is nobody’s servant. He’s worked for the Marquis for decades – more of that later – but that’s different from Olivier’s fossilised model of domestic service. In Paris, he’s been used to being his own man with a degree of independence that strikes us as quite modern. He is disgusted at the way Lord Migraine – or the Comte Nez Pointu, or any of the other nicknames he gives him – expects the acquiescent invisibility of a household servant. Olivier only realises his mistake gradually, as he comes to terms with what democracy means in the imperfect form he sees everywhere in America.
Anyway. In America it’s in the nature of the genre Carey’s chosen for these themes to develop through episodes. Some deal with the contrasts between the way the young democracy views itself – their sometimes overweening pride and confidence in their project irritates both narrators at different times – and the sheer messiness of the early days of capitalism. Carey can hint at parallels between the early 19th Century and the early 21st, as questions are asked of the wisdom of an unregulated banking system and we see the ugly side of making a fortune: Peek, Olivier’s shipboard friend, has no problems at all foreclosing on a poor family, and helps their exit from one of his houses with a shot from his gun. Ok, he was aiming at a passing bird, but their horse bolted as though it had been deliberate. Ho ho.
But I was talking about episodes. We have the power-game Parrot plays with his boss. At first, Olivier can’t get any money without Parrot’s counter-signature, so you can imagine the kinds of humiliations he faces, like when a big black porter waits for the tip that isn’t coming. We get a whole series of episodes relating to Mathilde, and in particular her bout of smallpox. It’s Olivier who pays for a doctor – but Parrot gives him no credit for it. This is while they are still almost enemies, and Parrot convinces himself it’s his own olive-oil treatment that brings on her recovery. (Parrot is back with her now. At first, he thought her flushed features and high temperature came from their first sexual encounter since the Paris days.)
There are episodes relating to firearms. The foreclosure scene we already know about – but later Parrot is unexpectedly nearby when Olivier is about to be attacked. He does what he can to help – and is amazed when Olivier not only produces a pistol but fires it without any of the usual complicated preparations. Parrot is the one taken to jail for the shooting – but instead of this confirming the end of any possible relationship between them (Parrot has had nothing to do with the Frenchman for weeks), it adds to their understanding of one another. Olivier is impressed by Parrot’s efforts to help him and, for once, he has a genuine reason for ducking his responsibility: he’s the ’French Commissioner’ now, and he can’t be involved in a crime. (It turns out one of Olivier’s new acquaintances has lent him the pistol, a new-fangled toy, taking the kind of pride in them we might recognise in connection with more recent technologies. And, obliquely, Carey can make a point about America’s fascination with guns.)
Lots of other stuff. Carey isn’t the first to deal with the early days of cities along the Eastern Seaboard, but the very particular viewpoint of a Parisian snob lends something new with complaints about the monotony, the lack of monumental buildings – or planning, or anything else beyond the impulse to make a quick buck. However. Unlike Dickens in Martin Chuzzlewit, Carey allows his characters to recognise value in some of what they see. The spectacular autumn, and the small town they visit so that Olivier can see Miss Godefroy again, both have as much to offer as their equivalents in Europe.
Miss Godefroy. Olivier has found lurve – ironically, at a party Peek gives for him to meet his own daughters – and a lot of this section focuses on his efforts to make his trumped-up project to examine the American prison system somehow fit in with meeting her again. But talking about prisons: Parrot’s night in the sink that is New York’s lock-up, and some of the wrong-headed schemes Olivier encounters, are making prisons another theme. And guess what: Parrot’s escape from England with the Marquis all those years ago was to Australia where, with typical irony in this novel, he was discovered with some of the Marquis’s forged banknotes. So he isn’t transported there as a criminal, he just becomes one while he’s there. (Another running gag: he’s always taking the rap for whoever is his current boss.)
We find this out because Parrot is telling Olivier about it. It’s part of his explanation of how he comes to be working for the Marquis – during which ‘Monsieur’ appears to be, among his more noble qualities, a self-serving crook. The context is that in the library of another of Olivier’s acquaintances he’s just found a book he and his boss produced on the botany of Australia. Parrot is modest about the engravings he did for the book, but it adds to Olivier’s growing recognition that there’s a lot more to this man than he realised.
We also find out that Parrot had to fend for himself after his arrest in Australia, but that eventually he was able to make his way as an artist. He might not have been any good, but there was nobody about who was any better. (There are a lot of references to art in these chapters – in the whole novel, in fact. I’ll come back to those.) And, reader, he had a wife, a child – there goes that theme again – and… along comes the Marquis, maybe ten years after leaving him, and takes him away again. Parrot is not proud of this moment. (Another variation on the father/son theme comes in the flashback that tells of the journey to Australia: some days or weeks after the disaster at the printing-house the boy sees, or thinks he sees, his father. He’s on his way to be executed for a crime he didn’t commit.)
There’s a lot going on… but it doesn’t necessarily make for a wonderful reading experience. With an episodic series of adventures like this we have enough to do without Carey dropping entirely new themes like the Australians’ inability to think of their new country as ‘home’. Parrot tells us he had this feeling when he was starting a family there all those years ago – but, shit, why do we need to know about that in a novel about an Englishman and a Frenchman crossing the Atlantic? (I suppose you could argue that this novel is about displacement – and that Carey always likes to write about what he knows. Well, yes, you could.)
Art. In Theft, Carey’s last novel but one, the main narrator is an artist and the whole novel is based on the art he makes. This includes the labyrinthine plot, but it also includes one of the best descriptions I’ve ever read of what it feels like to create a painting. In this novel, Parrot keeps telling us he’s no artist – he found that out as a child – but he gets by. The true artist is Mathilde, entirely self-taught and not always brilliant in her drawing technique… but she’s a genius. We’ve heard Parrot mentioning Turner, and Mathilde, like him, can work wonders with colour. It’s her project to make a living in America, which is what all the portrait-painting on board ship was about. And maybe she will, if Carey gives her the chance.
One last thing, for now. Almost from the first time they met, the narrators have made up satirical names for each other, or made some dismissive reference to their place in the hierarchy. But, reader, they’ve begun to use real names instead. Parrot is no longer ‘Monsieur Perroquet’, but John Larrit – or even simply John. Stand back in amazement.
To Parrot’s letter to the Marquis about the engravings…
…i.e. about nine-tenths of the way through. I’ve stopped here because everything is looking fine and dandy for both our boys: Parrot has saved Olivier from the underhand attempt by his mother (with the Marquis’s help) to spirit him away from marital danger; Olivier has had his proposal of marriage accepted; and Parrot seems on the verge of doing what everybody does in America – making some money. But markets can go down as well as up in fictional worlds like this one, and there’s some way to go yet….
Where to start? How about father figures? I forgot to mention in the early part of the novel that Olivier’s mother has always been besotted by the Marquis – she’s coy and girly whenever he’s nearby, and always goes along with his plans. The trick to get Olivier out of France was concocted by both of them together, just like the one to get him back there. Olivier is far too self-centred – and jealous of his mother to the point of near-psychosis – to imagine an affair between her and the Marquis, but I’ve had a suspicion almost from the outset that the Marquis might be his real father. It would account for the long-term interest he’s taken – and it would be a good wheeze for Carey to spring a surprise like that at this late stage.
I’m reminded of His Illegal Self, in which the identity of the boy’s father is a source of constant doubt – so that others have to step into the role. In this next novel of Carey’s, when Parrot springs the news on Olivier that his beloved Abbé is dead – tell you why later – Olivier smacks him hard across the face. He practically grew up with that man while his father was busy doing important work for the royalist cause. And I’ve just remembered that early on Parrot quotes some philosopher about how easily broken (and by implication, forgotten) the father/son relationship can be – an idea Carey spends the rest of the novel exploring.
Another big theme: art and artists. Somebody else I didn’t really mention in the early part of the novel was Watkins, the brilliant engraver earning a crust as a forger in the printery. He’s the one who told Parrot he wasn’t worth a real engraver’s bootlaces, a message that turned him off the idea of becoming a real artist forever. Well, in the novel’s most shameless coincidence so far – and there have been a few in Parrot’s life – he meets Watkins again, mutilated almost beyond recognition by the fire all those decades ago. He meets him through Mathilde, who is using him as a model for Goya-style Horrors of War paintings. Parrot is in two minds. The paintings are superb – why would any self-respecting novelist use a mediocrity as a main character? – but where on earth is the market for such images in the young, thrusting, philistine USA?
This thread expands into something much bigger. Mathilde, with Eckhard the Jewish impresario and all-round entrepreneur – never mutually exclusive vocations in the United States, ho ho – is happy to turn to insurance fraud to finance her pursuit of art. Two of her houses have burnt down, although one of them is in Eckhard’s name in order to deceive the insurer. The victim is Peek, so Mathilde presents him as fair game. (Watkins and his wife, formerly the wife of the printery owner, are also beneficiaries of the scam. It’s as though Carey is so pleased by the set piece house-burning scene early on, he can’t leave the idea alone. Unless he’s making another point about enterprise in America: what is disastrous in Europe – think of the fire-damage in Olivier’s Paris as well – is a source of profit across the Atlantic.)
But Parrot is outraged, will have nothing to do with it – and has serious doubts about the woman he has been practically married to for over five years. Are we suddenly in the moral universe of an earlier kind of fiction – that of the 19th Century, say? In this universe art might be art, but for Parrot – and, surely, for Carey – it’s of no value if it’s built on moral relativism bordering on criminality. Whether this is where Carey wants to take us or not, Parrot’s already there, and he wants Mathilde and his newly rediscovered old mentor to be there with him. So we get the cunning plan he describes to the Marquis. He is going to find a proper market for the exquisite engravings Watkins has been doing and selling for peanuts – The Birds of America, so we’re in Audubon territory now – and get him and Mathilde off the road to perdition whilst making some money as well. What could be better? In America, clearly, there’s a right way to make money and I’m wondering whether it’s as unironic a commentary on the capitalism as I’m making out…. Maybe we’ll see: there are quite a few chapters to go. As I said.
Before coming up with his plan Parrot has a dark night of the soul. It’s one of the novel’s occasional moments of complete modernity, when one or other of the characters seems to be entirely one of us. In what seems not at all an early 19th Century way, he frets about his purpose in life. What is he? Servant? Salesman? Fixer? He doesn’t use those words, but his dissatisfaction is about his lack of any real job, never mind vocation. Maybe the reason he’s suffering from early-onset male menopause (historically speaking) is to do with what Watkins has just explained: when he told the ten-year-old he was useless he simply wanted to turn him away from relying on the slickness his talent permitted him. He wanted him to work at it and learn the craft properly. Instead – well, we know… and we’ve seen Parrot doing that whole regret thing for the life not lived. He feels almost bereaved, mourns what he could have achieved.
I realise now that Carey’s historical first person narrators are always what the therapists call undefended. Ned Kelly, Jack Maggs, John Larrit – they are all as willing to open up as any Californian. Or New York ex-pat. But why should I worry? Who said historical fiction had to be about reinventing a mindset that has been dead for a century or more? (Hilary Mantel had a go in Wolf Hall, but only up to a point. Thomas Cromwell’s feelings for his family owe far more to modern parent-child relationships than to pre-Rousseau attitudes. She also allows her characters to speak in entirely modern idiom, but that’s another issue to do, I suppose, with persuading us that the long-dead are as alive as we are – really, are just like us – if an author makes them so.)
After all this, the master-servant thing Carey has going seems less urgent. Olivier is still amazed by what appears to be regarded as natural in this new world, but he isn’t so appalled. At one point he even comes to recognise that Parrot is the nearest thing to a friend he’s had since the death of Bla cqueville in what now seems a different life. Different kind of friendship too, one in which he’s still feeling his way. It reaches a kind of crisis when he hits Parrot – and it’s during the explanation that he realises, again, how he’s underestimated his not-quite servant. His mother’s scheme had been to pretend that the Abbé is dying – but she (and the Marquis) haven’t calculated the effects of months spent together, and have let Parrot know that the Abbé is already dead.
Carey makes sure we notice the care Parrot takes not to act dishonourably: he scrupulously avoids telling Olivier about the trick. But there must be more to it than the sophisticated 21st Century author drawing our sophisticated attention to the irony of the waif and stray having a more innate sense of honour than the aristocrat. Surely?
I’ve been thinking about Dickens, and wondering if Carey is the nearest thing we have to a living Dickensian author. I’m not talking about Jack Maggs, his take on Pip’s lesson about class in Great Expectations… although now I think about it, that novel is a fairly big clue to his literary affections. The only quoted review on the cover of my (audio) version is to do with ‘dizzying… adventures’ and ‘great panache’. Fine. But Carey’s real interest is in the big moral questions he can explore through this particular genre of entertainment. He can be picaresque if he likes, have a tiny cast of characters whose paths continually cross and re-cross, allow impossible coincidences if they add another tweak to the moral development of his heroes…. Well, I’m convinced anyway.
I’d got on to the subject of Olivier. For him, the process of maturing is to do with finding a real purpose in life – and, because he’s crossed the Atlantic to the land of the recognisably modern, this means he’s got to find work. He seems genuinely interested in his prison survey now, and he’s turning it into a study of the social mores of what is fast becoming his adopted country. Who’d have thought it? His other project, of course, is marriage – and, finally, he seems to have hit it right, not only with Amelia Godefroy but with her father. And, reader, Godefroy is the son of – I forget what species of tradesman, but only a year ago Olivier would have crossed the road to avoid such a man.
And I’m back where I started this entry. America, for all the fun Carey has with its crassness, venality, philistinism (etc. etc.), is a place that can sort people out. Bring me your huddled (or puddled, muddled) masses. Oh yes.
To the end
There’s a moment when, as so often, Olivier imagines how Blacqueville would have responded to his American experiences. It’s the Fourth of July, and nothing is as it would be in Europe: no pomp, no regalia, no perfectly drilled armed guard. Shit, they haven’t even worked out precedence yet, getting by with a slightly different order each year. As ever, it all seems at best ad hoc and at worst amateurish – but Olivier wants to forgive this young country that still hasn’t worked out its own identity yet. Blacqeville would think – what? And who cares anyway? Blacqueville represents a part of Olivier that fulfilled no useful function once he left France. To put it crudely, he had to go. And Olivier, apparently, is finally learning what America has the resources to teach him.
Well, up to a point. In these last few chapters of the novel it becomes clear that he is never going to be able to become an American in the way he blithely anticipates. Godefroy takes him on one more of his cross-country journeys, this time to see a new wonder of the world: a place that sounds like Niagara Falls. Carey doesn’t call them that, but the shock and awe of it isn’t dependent on its name, and Olivier is utterly overwhelmed. Behind the Falls – ‘Now you’re a real American,’ Godefroy tells him – he can’t breathe, has a kind of fit. His future father-in-law, demonstrating the practicality of the former frontiersman, later responds to Olivier’s need to be bled (I never mentioned this regular ritual of his early life) by leaping into a river and collecting the necessary leeches.
These are clues to the way things are going. When he gets back to Amelia Godefroy he commits the faux pas of bleeding all over her when they meet. Amelia later explains that the icy atmosphere this leads to has nothing to do with the nosebleed: he kissed her in public – ‘like a Catholic,’ his future mother-in-law is reported to think.
It’s become a series of ever more demoralising episodes for him – and it ends with the one that sends him packing. Amelia expects them to be married in France, but Olivier can see that she would be mortified by his family’s treatment of her. We know he’s right – he’s developed far enough by now for us to realise he isn’t simply being a snob – but she overhears his conversation with her father and misunderstands. The only possible amends he could make would be to change his mind, which he simply can’t do – and next morning Godefroy recommends a good local inn where he could stay. Olivier is shocked by their ‘brutality’ (his word) which makes him feel as though he’s been hunted down and shot.
What’s a poor servantless aristocrat to do? Parrot describes the arrival of his former master at the ‘farm’ he’s bought in New York looking torn and pathetic, not only literally. He also describes how Olivier accepts his offer of somewhere to sleep – and chooses Parrot and Mathilde’s own double bed. Plus ça change. It’s become a feature of this endgame for Carey to have the hidebound aristocrat able to go so far, but no further: it’s no surprise at all when, near the end, Olivier tries to do a Marquis of Tilbot and get Parrot to leave everything he loves in the new country to return to the old.
Carey ends the novel after Olivier’s plea, but there’s no way we can imagine Parrot going with him. He’s the ideal new American, and his business venture seems likely to make him well off. Sure, he still defers to the man he’s started to call Lord Migraine again – but that’s little more than an old habit dying hard, complete with the servant’s secret nickname for the master. Olivier is yesterday’s man – and the implication is that Parrot is tomorrow’s. For him, ‘democracy’ doesn’t mean the threat of a monstrous rabble out for aristocratic blood. It’s – well, it’s what Americans have always meant by it. If you work hard… etc. And he has out-Svengali-ed the Marquis, who is now his agent in Europe. Parrot has outgrown this surrogate father and, in that way that Carey has of making an abstract point literal, he’s going to become a father himself. In America.
So is Carey doing anything subversive with the idea of what it means to be an American? Not as far as I can see. He even has all his characters use ‘America’ as a synonym for the United States, a name I can only definitely remember being used once. (I have a fussy habit of always referring to it as the USA. There are plenty of other Americas on the other side of the Atlantic.) His two narrators are such clear representatives of ideal and non-ideal candidates for successful citizenship of the new country it borders on crudity. But I’m I ok with that, because both characters become more rounded and more likeable as the novel goes on. Olivier’s mortification is enough to make us go beyond a mere toleration of his foibles to a genuine sympathy.
Anything I’ve missed? A lot of things to do with art. There’s a moment in which Parrot, resentful of Watkins’ arrogance, reminds the reader of how much his success depends on hard work by his assistants – a point made by the brother with learning difficulties in Theft. And Parrot describes Mathilde’s oil sketches, in which she attempts to capture the light of this particular part of coastal New York, in terms we recognise: she’s an Impressionist 30 or 40 years ahead of those French Johnny-come-latelies. Then there’s Watkins’ work: the echo of Audubon is made even clearer with the reference to just how many birds were shot in the creation of each etching – 60, in one case.
And we come back to an essential difference between the two narrators: Olivier has never been able to see, not in the way Parrot can. At a literal level he’s short-sighted, but, as so often in this novel the literal is making a commentary on something less obvious. Olivier hates Watkins’ work because its colours, like the autumn leaves in America, are too bright to be seen indoors. And he tries to tell Parrot that Mathilde simply has no talent. America, he says, will take a long time to learn good artistic taste, because it doesn’t yet have a leisured class to learn what it entails. Thank you, Mr Old World, your ship is ready to leave as soon as you are.
In other words, like so much else, artistic themes offer a commentary on our own time. Any American reader will be able to think back to artistic movements of the past half-century or more when, in the perception of the USA, American art was at the cutting edge. But Carey satirically allows Olivier to win at least one argument about artistic taste in New York. He can imagine a time when artists will simply pander to the market, making money from work that any European would scoff at. Suddenly we’re back in the market-driven modern art world that exasperates the main narrator of Theft almost to the point of madness.
Is Olivier also right about democracy? When Carey gives him the line about how absolutely anybody can become president, including the madman – ‘le fou’ – we hear the unmistakable sound of a chord being struck after eight years of George W Bush. But Olivier is just as likely to get it wrong. Less than 30 years before one of the bitterest Civil Wars in history, he has an almost utopian vision of universal harmony to the point of dullness. And, of course, by the time this novel was being written it looked as though either a woman or an African American could become president; by the time of its publication during the first months of Obama’s presidency, Olivier’s certainties about the ‘tyranny’ of democracy look rather quaint.
By the end, I don’t know whether this novel amounts to a manifesto of why only a fool would live in such a country – or, despite all its faults and absurdities, that the USA is where any right-thinking person would want to live. Except I do know: Carey gives the last word to Parrot, the one we’ve sympathised with all along, the one who has continually mocked Olivier even while considering him a friend – and the one who stays in the USA. And we all know where Carey has lived for 20 years.
In a long essay published in LRB in August, Nicholas Spice focuses on two aspects of the novel that don’t feature in my own diary: Carey’s historical sources, and his two narrators’ different use of language. For Spice, Parrot is the one whose language is alive, because Carey has him inhabiting a vivid world in which all the best descriptive models are offered by nature and the experiences of the ten-year-old boy. (The best examples Spice comes up with are from the early chapters: he agrees with me that these are the most vivid in the whole novel.) Olivier, on the other hand, is based on Tocqueville as described in Tocqueville and Beaumont in America by George Wilson Pierson. His stunted, self-conscious language is based on a mixture of modern translations of Tocqueville’s own writings and Carey’s efforts to work within strict parameters of how such a man would express himself. The suggestion is that whereas Parrot’s voice is pitch-perfect, Olivier’s is a failure.
Spice also suggests that Carey has created one novel out of what must originally have been the source material for two. One is a free fictionalisation of Tocquevile’s journey to the USA, complete with the study of prisons that sits so uncomfortably in Carey’s narrative. The other is the story of an Englishman who becomes an artist in Australia based, Spice speculates, on the unknown engraver of some real 19th Century prints. This story, of course, has practically disappeared from the final novel: these middle years of Parrot’s life are dealt with in a single anecdotal chapter and all we’re left with are occasional references to the flora and fauna he remembers.
This would explain some of the structural problems that seem blatant now. Fine. But the parts of the novel that I find most interesting are independent of these earlier incarnations. The real Tocqueville gives a kick-start to the exploration of democracy, but by the time we’re in the final third of the novel Carey is doing it through character at least as much as through the debates they have. Olivier fails to become a democrat because of what his background has made him, whatever he tries to make himself believe. Parrot succeeds because he has spent his whole life learning how to adapt to circumstances. And these, alongside behaviour and attitudes that make Carey’s 19th Century Americans seem so familiar, are the aspects of the novel that make the project interesting to a 21st Century audience.