excerpt from the Introduction by Paul GilesOscar and Lucinda
, first published in 1988, and True History of the Kelly Gang
, which appeared twelve years later, both won the Booker Prize for their Australian-born author, Peter Carey. Carey thus became only the second Australian to win the Booker, following Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark
in the US), which had achieved this distinction in 1982. Literary prizes are by their nature an odd hybrid of literary distinction and marketing management – Carey himself observed in 2014 how ‘a life spent lusting after prizes is bound to be unhappy’ – but they do usefully draw attention for cultural historians to how fortunes have fluctuated within the literary world. Both Oscar and Lucinda
and True History of the Kelly Gang
evoke historical milieux from the second half of the nineteenth century, worlds reconstructed in part according to the stylistic tenets of magical realism, and they both address the interface between Australian culture and the extensive global reach of the British Empire at that time. Some of Carey’s other novels – such as The Tax Inspector
(1991), set in the Sydney suburbs, or Amnesia
(2014), which addresses US political interference in Australia – are more overtly engaged with contemporary social issues, but arguably his best and most enduring works of fiction have been those set in earlier historical periods.
Carey has acknowledged being influenced by celebrated Latin American magic realists such as Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcıa Marquez, and he paid tribute to the latter after his death in 2014 by saying Marquez ‘changed the way I wrote’. Nevertheless, in his 2006 Paris Review interview Carey suggested that he considered himself principally ‘at home with . . . Salman Rushdie and Derek Walcott and most writers from the former British Empire’, and his own fiction adumbrates aspecifically Anglophone version of magical realism, one that intertwines realms of the fantastic and fabulous with a more assiduous focus on the nuances and complications of a recognizable social world. Though Carey moved from Australia to New York in 1989, at the age of forty-six, he observed in 2014 how ‘Australia is my lens, I cannot see the world any other way.’ But this antipodean ‘lens’ affords him the opportunity not only to relate Australian culture to a wider ‘world’, but also to clarify the significance of localized scenarios with a broader international context. Carey said of True History of the Kelly Gang
that he thought it had been an advantage to write the novel in New York, since that alien location ‘reminded me that people didn’t know the story, so I couldn’t assume anything, and that made the story better’. Carey’s work thus preserves an astute aesthetic balance between empathy and strategic distance, entering fully into the minds and hearts of his characters but also deploying techniques of alienation, in the Brechtian sense of that term, so as to set an interrogative frame around these fictional scenarios.
For Oscar and Lucinda
, Carey undertook a great deal of historical research into the conditions of nineteenth-century England. He admits to feeling daunted about this at first, thinking ‘I had no right to possess the English past, that it was not my past but their past’; yet as the book’s narrative unfolds, the significance of both temporal and spatial intersections across various times and regions becomes more evident. Just as Carey’s fiction encompasses different places, so it superimposes different time frames upon one another. Of his 1997 novel Jack Maggs
, which engages intertextually with the character of the transported convict Magwitch in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations
, Carey demurred from reducing his novel to the category of ‘historical fiction’ by saying:
"People talk about historical fiction, but for me, in Australia, Jack Maggs
addresses contemporary life. It was published at a time when Australians were still squabbling among themselves about whether Australia was going to be a republic. The issues of Jack Maggs
are being played out in this argument about the republic and whether they are going to go and sit by the fire with the Queen of England having cakes and ale or whether they are going to understand their situation. To label it historical fiction is to risk misunderstanding its context."
With Oscar and Lucinda
, similarly, there is an explicit invocation of how the narrator is approaching this story from a retrospective angle: he describes Theophilus Hopkins as ‘my great-great-grandfather’, while also making occasional mention of much later events, such as the floods of 1955 or how a bridge in the Sydney suburb of Balmain was located ‘where Mullens Street is these days’. Though the narrative is set in the nineteenth century, it is framed in relation to a twentieth-century context.
The more complex correlation between past and present in Oscar and Lucinda
involves the way all the novel’s characters find themselves caught up in one way or another with dilemmas involving questions of interpretation. Victorian Christianity at the time this novel takes place felt itself to be under threat from scientific works such as Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species
(1859), which postulated a much more extensive timescale for Earth than that laid down in the Bible and led toheated debates among the clergy about whether the Bible should be understood as literal or as metaphorical truth. Such theological controversies run all through Carey’s novel, as exemplified in Theophilus’s Puritan fundamentalism (he ‘read the Bible as if it were a report compiled by a conscientious naturalist’), his son Oscar’s instinctive reading of a storm at sea as ‘a sign from God’ (Oscar is said to be ‘still more Plymouth Brethren than he liked to think’), the Reverend Dennis Hasset’s ‘Broad Church’ preference for understanding the Virgin Birth as a metaphorical idea, Bishop Dancer’s ‘old Toryschool’ suspicion of Hasset as ‘a Latitudinarian’, and so on. All of this is commensurate also with the tendency of characters to misinterpret one another’s everyday actions, as for example with Oscar’s assumption that Dennis Hasset is Lucinda’s lover, a mistake that highlights the general liability within this novel to interpretative errors of various kinds. The emphasis throughout the book on gambling – Oscar is an ‘Obsessive’ gambler, Lucinda a ‘Compulsive’ gambler – represents another version of issues around prediction, predestination and providence, relating them to a more secular context. In this sense, the architectural structure of the book resembles a mise en abıme,with the narrator’s reconstruction and interpretation of this nineteenth-century past being mirrored in the attempts of his fictional characters to chart and predict the future. Hence the book balances its very specific dates – the narrative is setmostly in the 1860s, contemporaneous with the American Civil War, which is mentioned occasionally – against a sense of its historical situation always being refracted through an interpretative lens.
Nevertheless, the social exactitude and careful detail woven into Oscar and Lucinda
militate against any sense of the bookbeing merely a dry metafictional exercise. For example, the play with interpretation and its limits is comically highlighted when Bishop Dancer wreaks havoc by attempting his favourite party piece of pulling a cloth off the Dean’s table, a stunt that sends crockery flying in all directions and leads the narrator to comment: ‘The cloth was, likewise, pulled out from under Oscar’s life. But do not imagine that the Bishop’s party trick was metaphorical, for were it so it would not be equal to the devastation.’ In Carey’s bilateral formulations, the irreducible stuff of the material world sends things spinning in opposite directions by always trumping various theoretical designs imposed from without. Such a logic of paradox is also relevant to the book’s central design of a glass church, the key image with which Carey said this novel imaginatively started. In her critical work Victorian Glassworlds
, Isobel Armstrong described how glass was linked during the nineteenth century to anaesthetic style of transcendence, a medium through which corporeal substance might be refined into a replica of spirit, and the representation of glass in Carey’s novel similarly evokes a tension between the materiality of the world and its transposition into rarefied forms of ideation. Oscar feels that glass is ‘the gross material most nearly like the soul, or spirit’, while Lucinda becomes known as ‘the Glass Lady’, with the novel positioning itself on a liminal border between embodied and transcendent states. One of the most recognizable and rewarding aspects of Oscar and Lucinda
, however, is that its characters do not conform readily to preconceived templates or stereotypes of any kind. Lazy Oxford scoundrel Ian Wardley-Fish gets on well with his diligent fellow student Oscar, whom he calls ‘Odd Bod’. Wardley-Fish – who ‘did not go in for interpretation. It made him feel uncomfortable’ – nevertheless finds himself later enjoying Theophilus Hopkins’s naturalist account of his home environment, Hennacombe Rambles. Theophilus himself disapproves of Oscar’s theology but still prays for him. Dennis Hasset is reported, ‘peculiar though it might seem’, to have ‘agreed’ with the Bishop’s decision to send him away to aremote parish, on the grounds that he ‘did not feel his faith sufficiently’. One of the most remarkable qualities about this novel is the way abstract ideas come into collision with contingent situations and quotidian circumstances that do not readily accord with regular types or expectations, thereby creating attraction and friction that brings these characters vividly to life. The luminous textual details help to create this effect – for example, the way Oscar’s ‘trousers rucked up to show a bony white shin with red garter marks left, like a high-water mark, above the fallen socks’ – but so does the broader sense of human beings as erratic phenomena with mixed motives and split selves.
Lucinda Leplastrier herself is the most obvious manifestation of this kind of split personality. One half of her thinks Dennis Hasset ‘a weak fool and a poor friend’, but it ‘coexisted with this other part that loved him’. When Dennis Hasset first shakes Lucinda’s hand, he is struck by ‘the infinite complexity of Creation’, recognizing in her handshake ‘the wild passage of blood on the other side of its wall, veins, capillaries, sweatglands, tiny factories in the throes of complicated manufacture’. Carey studied chemistry and zoology at Monash Universityin Melbourne, and here, as in some of his other novels, the author’s specialist scientific knowledge is apparent in the way he represents the human system as a physiological instrument as much as an elevated consciousness. This again contributes to his characters being responsive to multiple pressures simultaneously. Carey has said that he particularly relishes the ‘pleasures of the novel’ because it’s ‘so much more interesting’ than short fiction, with the novel’s more expansive genre enabling an author to ‘go so far beyond what you know and what you think’, and Oscar and Lucinda
is perhaps the prime example within Carey’s oeuvre of a multifaceted cast of characters driven by contradictory impulses of one kind and another.
Believing that ‘a great novelist must be many and no-one’, Carey in his 2010 address to the Sydney Writers’ Festival explicitly rejected the kind of critical reading intent upon ‘extracting the message’ according to some ‘pedagogic norm’. There is certainly a feisty feminist aspect to Lucinda, who deliberately conceals her identity as a woman in her business affairs, with the gender politics of the novel being reinforced by the report of the association of Lucinda’s mother in London with ‘her old friend Marian Evans’, the real name of George Eliot, who assumed her public nom de plume for similarly androgynous purposes. In Gillian Armstrong’s attractive 1997 film of this novel, where Lucinda is played by Cate Blanchett, the complications of Victorian theology remain relatively understated and the role of the entrepreneurial heroine looms larger. Yet Carey’s own fictional prose retains a density through which the charisma of individual personality finds itself necessarily negotiating with an opaque and complex social world. In 2010, another novel by Carey set in the nineteenth century, Parrot and Olivier in America,
was once again shortlisted for the Booker Prize, leading English poet Andrew Motion, who was chair of the Booker judging panel that year, to liken Carey to Dickens; and something of the intractable quality of Dickens’s incorrigibly variegated world is apparent in Oscar and Lucinda
, whose artistic resonance lies precisely in its experiential irreducibility and its fine-grained detail.
Copyright © 2019 by Peter Carey; Introduction by Paul Giles. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.