Peter Carey’s “Parrot and Olivier in America”



There are National Trust properties up and down the country which, in their piecemeal, potted restoration have become something less, something more dislocated, than a single house: there’s a Regency bedroom, there a Renaissance kitchen; look closely, and up the stairs from the rococo balustrades will be the severe Victorian lines of a droll drawing room. Every corner will have a story slightly out of synch with the others – and, inevitably, the visitor will enjoy some rooms better than others, may even find a couple thoroughly divine, but exit to the tea shop feeling if not underwhelmed then certainly confused.

This is the experience which awaits the reader of Peter Carey’s latest, Parrot and Olivier in America. At its heart is the sort of recreation of historical voice that Carey has made his own, and ultimately this is its only unifying project. The novel doesn’t have much in the way of a single plot, nor anything approaching an enforced coherence; its principle pleasure is in the reiteration, in each of its constituent moments, of an historical perspective. This is not to say historical accuracy, of course: Carey riffs too freely on Audobon and de Tocqueville, reprints out of context too many documents from the period, ranges too widely and wildly across continents, to establish a definitive history. Carey’s project is, of course, more of the imaginative variety, and in this he may be the consummate novelist writing today.

This bifurcated novel’s twin, eponymous voices are of the venal and the upper classes. Parrot, an Englishman with a storied and shady past, find himself, as a result of a series of political and probably criminal coincidences Carey never quite unpicks, accompanying Olivier, a French aristocrat whose family has fallen out of favour, to America, where the latter is to inspect American prisons on behalf of the French government. Their relationship constitutes the bouncing off of almost wholly incompatible perspectives: Olivier’s privileged, pie-eyed nostalgia for feudalism, Parrot’s over-awareness of the corruption of elites. In their trip to the United States, of course, they come face to face with the future, in the form of democracy. At one point, Olivier discusses Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People with Peek, an American he initially considers a friend, and in particular the pistol-toting boy at its centre, whom Olivier finds “vile”. Peek tells him:

“He will end up president. […] As Americans we must allow the possibility. He may simply end up rich. My dear Olivier, this is not your ancient France. But if it were, that boy – if he showed similar initiative – might take possession of half the lands along the Loire. If he works hard. There are countless acres of American owened by no one, waiting to be taken. You want our American Avignon, it is empty. It is yours. I give it to you.” [pp 227-228]

This is the world that scares Olivier – one of opportunity and fluidity. But it is also one of which Parrot is sceptical – its promises of emancipation and elevation seem to him hollow and self-serving. Carey’s thesis about democracy never seems to get beyond such sterile extremes of characterisation, although it allows him some humourous scenes: Olivier listening to one American mathematicise society, Parrot providing snide asides about one popinjay or another, power relationships dramatised in the watery rescue of a fine edition of Molière. Other episodes are as diverting but decidedly less relevant: Parrot pretending to be a rabbit, a glorious interrogation scene featuring a poor forger and a bedecked Lord, Olivier in his boyhood learning his Latin. Indeed, Carey seems strongest in these more picaresque moments, and the novel should be seen in this light. It’s hard to see what grand statement, or unified novel, Carey wanted to stitch together between these two characters and their shapeless roamings; Parrot and Olivier in America is rather a sort of modern Humphry Clinker: ribald, itinerant and full of incidental incident.

So where does that leave it in the Booker stakes? Some way behind, I think: though some pages of Parrot and Olivier are more fun, more wryly wrought, than anything else on the shortlist, others pass by in something of a miasma. Carey pitches the twin voices just so, but perversely his novel never seems to find one. This leaves, it seems to me, In A Strange Room and C to duke it out for the prize. The Finkler Question is as fine and spry a novel as any, but though it’s a masterfully turned comic novel it lacks the formal inventiveness of Galgut and McCarthy’s efforts. C may ultimately make the grade, its mixture of sardonic humour and serious intent resulting in a remarkably rich – if intermittently featureless – tapestry, all competing strands and difficult textures. In A Strange Room, by contrast, is simply a perfectly melancholic miniature with nary a word out of place.

Comedy, tragedy, or fractal farce: place your bets, we’ll know tonight.

Howard Jacobson’s “The Finkler Question”

The Finkler Question has been good to me. I’ve been spending quite a lot of time in hospitals these last couple of days, and that enables long chunks of reading time. Thankfully, Howard Jacobson’s latest novel – short-listed for the Booker Prize, of course – has been intelligent, amusing, erudite company. It’s a beautifully composed piece of work, enquiring and fully whole in terms of character, vision and theme. If it is a quintessential Booker book – all bourgeois interiority and well-meant handwringing – it is also quite other – a comedy, for starters, but also an avowedly specialist book, one which on the surface entirely eschews universalist preaching for a tight and unyielding focus on a single small group.

For Julian Treslove, whose name is a fairly obvious pun on his habit of serial monogamy, a Finkler is a Jew. He has named them so after his schoolfriend Samuel Finkler, now know as Sam to the many readers of his hugely successful series of pop psychology books (Descartes and Dating, for instance, or The Socratic Flirt: How to Reason Your Way into a Better Sex Life). What makes Treslove’s selection of Sam as the emblem of a whole ethno-religious grouping problematic is that, in his abandonment of ‘Samuel’, the philosopher has in turn symbolised a fierce frustration with – a broad distaste for – his fellow Jews, and in particular for Israeli Jews and Zionists. The pair’s old schoolteacher, the Czech ex-Hollywood journalist Libor Sevcik, argues with Finkler frequently about such topics – he survived the middle of the twentieth century, and this colours his view of the twenty-first.

Thus the stage is set for the novel proper, which begins in earnest when, on the way home from an evening at Libor’s during which the two Jewish widows and the Gentile singleton comiserate and dispute, Treslove is mugged. The complication of this mugging is two-fold: first, Treslove is convinced his assailant is a woman, and women are a source of considerable trouble for him; and, second, he comes to believe she accused him of being a Jew. Being “a man who did not function well on his own” [pg. 6], Treslove exhibits a terrible need for a tragic other, and this dual trauma exacerbates this need. The Finkler question comes to be, for Treslove at least, how to become one – how to be accepted into a group which offers a ready-made tragic history, an ersatz justification for “a man who ordinarily woke to a sense of loss.” [pg. 47]

For Finkler himself, the question is a much different one: how can one escape that weary self-awareness? For Libor, meanwhile, it is about living with it, about finding a way of managing an acute sense of all that has gone before you, all that has made you who you are – and whatever of you may be left when you go. This is why Jacobson is only superficially interested in the question of his title. In the Jewish Chronicle, Jonathan Freedland has suggested you might need to be a Jew fully to appreciate the novel; on one level, on a very important level, this might be true. On another, however, it is manifestly false: in the love affairs and museum openings, the dinner dates and holidays, of this novel of incident, Jacobson is on the trail of something broader – but also much narrower – than Jewishness alone.

The Finkler Question is certainly all about self-definition and self-absorption, about identity and the lack of it (Treslove works as a celebrity lookalike – he looks a bit like a lot of them, and therefore he’s in high demand), about how we choose whom we choose to blame for one thing or another (“say ‘Jew’ and it was like throwing a bomb” [pg. 186]), or to love for one reason or another (and in one way or another). Jacobson’s subtle and sympathetic characterisation provides ample and holistic scope in which to present a myriad iterations of his theme without repeating responses or dictating results. It’s a tour de force of literary imagination, a thorough examination of theme, but – crucially – also confoundingly inconclusive. In a word, it’s lovely.

Some, however, disagree: Kevin from Canada, in an excoriating post, wrote that the book “has no place on the Booker longlist. It is dreadful. I don’t rubbish books on this site, but this is one that deserves the full rubbishing.” I expect I missed an awful lot about the novel given the environment in which I read a lot of it, and yet I found infinitely more in it than Kevin believes there is. It is supply written, very often invisibly so, and the intellectualism which Kevin found so irksome I found both humane and gentle. Partly as a result of a conversation over at The Asylum, Kevin has formulated the theory that unless you find the opening of the novel funny, you will not like it. I do not disprove his hypothesis: I found parts of the first section, and indeed of the rest of the novel, laugh out loud funny. Jacobson includes everything from delightful dialogue to broad farce, and he carries it all off with prose which contains both the major and the minor voice. This is in my book writing very far from dreadful.

The Finkler Question has a line to remember on every other page, and I suspect a scene to stay with you in every chapter. Here is a small canvas with preternatural depth of field.