Peter Carey

I went to the Athenaeum Theatre on Monday to see Peter Carey "in conversation" with some self-important moron. Carey, an Australian novelist now living in New York, was in Melbourne to promote his new book, My Life as a Fake. The interview was an odd mix of overweening and slightly self-obsessed questions, and down-to-earth but mildly irritated (probably jet-lagged) responses. I kinda enjoyed it.

I have come around to Peter Carey's novels the long way. I read Illywhacker when I was about thirteen, ploughing determinedly through a narrative that I was only barely equipped to comprehend. It remains with me as a pastiche of images and words ("139 years", "Emporium") rather than a coherent narrative. Then I obstinately refused to read any Australian fiction for about a decade (except Patrick White's "The Aunt's Story", but that was only under school-inflicted duress). Why? I don't know. I think probably cultural cringing is in there somewhere (Blainey was onto something, at least in diagnosing me) -- a sense I had that Australia was an insignificant enough country and all that its writers served to do was make it smaller and more claustrophobic. Anyway. I don't subscribe to that anymore. I returned to Peter Carey late last year, to read Bliss. Bliss and Illywhacker were his first two works, and he has written about six or seven novels since, including two Booker Prize winners.

It is interesting to me that I have only chosen to read his early stuff. I have flicked through opening chapters of most of his recent works. I mentally associate his writing and his trajectory very closely with another dual-Booker winner who is now an alien-in-New-York, Salman Rushdie. Though I have read more of Rushdie than Carey (probably just because Rushdie isn't Australian), it is similarly Rushdie's two earliest works that I am most likely to evangelise of any in his catalogue. (That is, Grimus and Midnight's Children, although my preacherly manner goes up a few decibels when I'm talking about Haroun and the Sea of Stories, and I love Fury more and more each time I think of it.)

Bliss made me a firm Peter Carey convert. The novel, now going on 25 years of age, affected me in a lot of ways I wasn't at all expecting. I'm not going to review it here, I'm just saying I liked it. So I bought My Life as a Fake. It is loosely inspired by the Ern Malley affair, a supposedly dark period in Australian literary history, which has always only struck me as hysterical. It's just so... likely, in this country. The really sinister period in Australian literary history, for me at least, is the Helen Demidenko affair. I want to compare the two affairs one day, because I think they have a lot of congruities.

After all, what is it about this holy grail, Authenticity? I thought we were talking about fiction. I would take the semblance of it over Authenticity itself any day. That's the whole point, isn't it? This, again, is a very Australian insecurity. Just compare the Ern Malley affair and the Helen Demidenko affair with the odd spot in today's Age:

A spy novel titled Q that was written by four Italians under the name of former English footballer Luther Blissett is in the running for a British book award. Blissett became a cult figure in Italy following a disastrous season at AC Milan in the early 1980s.

This post might be starting to sound unduly critical of Australia. I am increasingly coming to love this country. Which, I'm afraid, is giving me more and more reasons to hate so much about it. I don't think that makes me a cultural cringer, I think that makes me a fledgling patriot. I'm proud of my nation; what I'm not proud of, I want to see improve. "Raise your standards!" can be a patriotic cry. What I'm least proud of, apart from Messrs Ruddock and Howard, is our neurotic insecurities. One of them, in literary populism at least, is the undue stress on Authenticity. Another is the constant desire to be loved, and to take credit for things that we have not really done anything to create or foster (such as our Aboriginal heritage, speaking for non-Aboriginal Australians that is). Another is our reliance on caricature and archetype in finding for ourselves a national identity (which does not seem to be allowed to be pluralised). Another, roughly the subject of the honours thesis I am undertaking, is our apparent unwillingness as a nation to grow up, and leave home.

Many Australians get sick of waiting for their country to grow up and leave home. So, instead, some of these Australians just grow up and leave home themselves. I would suggest that Peter Carey is one who did that. He lives in New York and he writes about Australia. One of his reasons for this seems to me obvious: writing about Australia would be easier (perhaps even just possible) when not living within it. This doesn't mean that anything written about this country from beyond its shores is any less Authentic for it. I think it can be less Authentic, namely when it gets hopelessly nostalgic and idealised beyond recognition. But equally (and I think this is the case with Peter Carey's writing), it can be more Authentic. I mean here that it has more semblance of Authenticity -- I must admit I don't really know what else fiction can have, though it seems that for many, semblance is not enough. Credentials are required.

Another of his reasons for writing about Australia as an expatriate I have no evidence for, but just suspect. I think he would like to drag Australia out from its little hole in the South Pacific and into the scrutiny of the world. And I think he would like to do that in order to give Australians the impression that their country would be able to survive in the world if it ever did grow up, and leave home. Whatever his intentions, I hold a little hope that this is something that flows in the wake of his novels.

What particularly riled me about Monday evening was question time. Why do they have question times whenever someone speaks before a public audience? There are times when questions are appropriate, but I would set very strict criteria for when those times are. With a public audience, you just get the socially misguided, those who bear a grudge, and people who feel they will be able to prove something about themselves with long-winded, usually incomprehensible questions. (And they usually do prove something about themselves, but never what they intend...)

On Monday evening it was a clearly slightly deranged woman, in her late fifties perhaps, her voice thick with old smoke and old grog, and that plaintive tone which combined with an Australian accent operates like fingernails on a blackboard, who asked Peter Carey the first question. It went something like (I am abridging it):

Peter, if you love New York so much that you'd rather live there than here, why don't you just write about New York? Have you ever thought about writing a novel about the early history of New York, uh, maybe including something about the Declaration of Independence? uh and um, Virginia, too?

I understand this is a woman with her own deep neuroses, but she inarticulately captures a very national one. And that's depressing.

Joseph | 29 Aug 2003

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