First published on The Afterword, June 3, 2010.
By Brad Frenette
In Peter Carey’s new novel Parrot & Olivier in America (Random House Canada), the author introduces us to an aristocratic Frenchman named Olivier who travels to America in 1831 to document the young democracy. If that narrative sounds familiar, it is; Carey’s novel is a fictionalized representation of Alexis de Tocqueville’s real journey to the United States, documented in his oft-quoted Democracy in America.
Carey’s take is excellently imagined – a world of one-arm counts and engravers with an ear for mimicry – and told with Carey’s dazzling wordplay. The author calls it an “improvisation”, and his story indeed takes great sidesteps from the true tale. And that’s the point, as the two-time Booker Prize winner (Oscar and Lucinda and The True History of the Kelly Gang), explained in our chat during a recent press stop in Toronto.
Q: The book is an improvisation on Tocqueville and his famed journey to America, with Olivier as Alexis. Was there a freedom in that, because the narrative was already there?
A: I was interested in the idea. Imagine if I set a book in Toronto – with all the streets and the places you know. And say Canada is at war with the United States. So everything is right, but everything is different. I’d get pleasure in getting the things that are right, right and I be getting a lot of pleasure in inventing this other Canada. If you really understand what is made up, you get pleasure in the things that are real.
I began this book with ideas, and certainly the idaes and the arguments about democracy certainly relate to Alexis de Tocqueville. But anybody who knows about Tocqueville can read it and see that I’m making it up. Tocqueville had a friend named Beaumont. My Beaumont character is Blackville, and I kill him off really early. It can’t be Tocqueville, but like the Toronto-at-war-with-America story, it can be, and it can’t be.
Q: You had to kill off Blackville to get Parrot and Olivier together.
A: It’s like Caravaggio’s paintings. the way he composed the things – he just put in what he needed to tell the stories. That’s what I do with writing my novels. Get rid of [characters] – and that’s true of every word, every physical thing in the book – it’s there for the novel. And if it’s not, it needs to go.
Q: Did you ever try to follow the pattern of Tocqueville’s journey through America?
A: No, I never wanted to do that, to do it the way he did. Because the minute you decide you’re going to have this arguement, and have this character like Parrot, the son of an itinerant printer – who would never in real life have anything liuke a friendship with an aristocrat like Olivier – you are heading off into the fields of imagination. So, at the same time, for those who had only read a bit of Tocqueville – it was nice to take all the bits that they didn’t learn in college, that Tocqueville revealed himself to be rather snobbish, but he is of his class and time.
Australians know what it’s like to have visiting Brits. We’re sensitive to that. The sort of things Tocqueville said about America rang true in my Australian ears. There’s a lot of that in the book. That’s not the primary purpose of writing it. The purpose is to make a work of art and also to engage about this arguement of democracy that can’t be solved.
Q: You’ve yet to write about America extensively, was this – a book about a foreigners experiences in a distant America – the way into writing about your new home?
A: I’ve had book that started in New York, or characters that have came to New York, but in truth my next book isn’t going to be about America. So it’s not like the beginning of a whole series about America. But on the other hand, I’ve been there for 20 years and am passionately engaged with where I am. You couldn’t live in the United States and not be frightened, with Bush and Cheney in power. That was a very scary place to be. The regime felt criminal – illegal wars and torture. One is very interested in where one is, and to find a way to engage – I saw the door open when I read Democracy in America with Tocqueville.
Toquevelle was worried about the same things I’m worried about. I’m worried we are swimming in a sea of cultural crap, which we are.
Q: You recently spoke about the decline of literacy, and the reading of literature.
A: The difference between a mob and an electorate is education. You hope that we won’t totally abandoned the notion that we educate our people. We confuse somehow content and technology. We don’t understand the importance of reading, of reading literature. Maybe it’s never happened in the history of the world, but the United States never happened in the history of the world – it’s the most radical notion.
We have to seriously understand that whether we can read literature or not is a matter of life and death. It’s a national security issue. If you said, years ago – if we do X, we’re going to put a hole in the ozone layer. Well, we wish we could turn the clock back. If were saying there’s not a grain of sand in the world that doesn’t have its equivalent in plastic in the ocean – we’d say it’s tragic, how could we do it?
We haven’t got to the stage where we’ve thrown away the gift of literature, but we’re about to do it.
Q: What do you make of eReaders, this digital push in the book industry?
A: The citizen part of me, doesn’t give a damn. I just want people to read intelligently. To settle down, take your time, build up your reading muscles. You have to build up your strength.
The issue about digital books and rights, really is a financial one – how the financial deals that are made will affect the writers ability to make a living. That’s something for the writers and publishers to argue about.
Q: So you don’t see it as an encouraging thing, that it will get more people reading?
A: No, the issue is actually being able to read. Being able to sit down long enough, and not dashing off to do the next thing, which technology leads us to do.
So no, you can read crap on them too. So, what do you use it for? The big thing is to rediscover and infliltrate with our children a love of reading. And it can be difficult, but it’s rewarding. And that goes to how we pay teachers. If you can really teach, say Charles Dickens, then I think you deserve a fancy house more than a corporate lawyer.
I have a friend in New York City, a Canadian, who teaches kids in the ghetto, and he taught in the public school system. He’s done incredible work. He set up a touring Shakespeare troupe and the kids travelled the world. Now he’s in Bushwick and he is teaching people to read who otherwise wouldn’t ahve a chance of reading. He’s sort of my hero. A great, great guy.
Q: You read some 150 books in the research for this novel. Is that a normal go for you in the process of writing a book like this?
A: When I’m writing, I’m filling myself. That’s not a lot of books to have read in a couple of years. I’m quite a slow reader. One’s curiosity – one wants to know about things, say woman painters from that era. You are really trying to image the world you set out to make. All that reading can have the threat of creating a log jam in your book. You don’t want to give people a history lesson.
Before I started, I realize I didn’t know anything about the French revolution. [Tocqueville] is born after the revolution, but I spent a lot of time reading about it. It’s like underpaint. It’s just so I can feel at home making it up. The thing I really liked doing was working with this French architectural historian – he went to the Toqevuille chateau and he got himself in there and worked out these schematic maps. It was so nice.
His english was so terrible, and I had no french. It was when I was trying to invent this character, and I needed the chateau to be able to understand the physical space to see how [Tocqueville] operates.
Once I had all that, I went writing. I used everything I learned to make the place I wanted. That was a lot of fun.
Q: You run a class in creative writing at Hunter College. Can writing be taught, or only encouraged?
A: You can’t give anybody talent. But particularly you can’t give anybody will, which is probably more important than talent. Will, to the continue in the face of rejection. And the madness to think that you have something to add to the world of literature. But there’s a lot of things you can encourage, maybe save them a few years. A person with the will or the talent will get there anyway. The writing workshop is there to enable them to do what they want to do. It’s sort of like a good editor – kind, supportive, truthful, which is very hard. To not destroy people, and to be helpful.
You can learn things. That the body is part of dialogue. How our bodies move and what they do is part of the conversation. You can learn to think about physical space and how it affects the character and the action. And how all of the senses are really important.