Saturday, August 4, 2012

Parrot and Olivier in America, by Peter Carey

At the urging of an Australian friend who raved about it, I read Peter Carey's Booker Prize-winning novel, The True History of the Kelly Gang. It just left me flat. I took Carey's novel, My Life as a Fake, into the recording booth at Malaysian Ass'n for the Blind and regretted it -- I actively disliked that one. I had concluded that Peter Carey and I simply don't mix when I heard a podcast review of Parrot and Olivier in America and decided to give him one more go. This proved to be a good decision.

Olivier de Garmont, like Alexis de Tocqueville, is a French nobleman who visits the United States in the early 19th century and writes a book called Democracy in America. Those are, as best I can tell, the only similarities between the title character and his historical counterpart. The other title character is pure invention, aptly described by Thomas Mallon in the NY Times Review of Books:  "Parrot, his feisty English secretary, is almost 50 and has the kind of dizzying, Dickensian résumé that often qualifies a character for employment in one of Peter Carey’s books." And then there is the artist, Mr. Watkins, whose stunning avian etchings are collected in a book titled simply Birds of America but who has nothing else in common with John James Audubon.

Carey makes no attempt to present history accurately in this novel, but it still rings very true. The language, behaviours, sentiments and settings -- all feel very right, comfortably plausible.

de Tocqueville seems to have been a personable, likeable fellow. Olivier is a persnickety snob with frail health. (Parrot refers to him as Lord Migraine.)  Far from embracing democracy, he pines for the French social order that is once again imperilled after the Revolution. He is an aristocrat and doesn't waffle about it. When he arrives in America, he loses his sense of place and entitlement.
I will be disliked or even killed for saying this, but it is only with nobles, those of my own blood, that I have ever felt completely at home... Blacqueville and I were stallions bred for racing, now condemned to pull a cart of night soil.
Well, this 'racing stallion' is actually more of a maman's boy. Seeing the writing on the wall and fearing that the guillotine will start its work on noble necks again soon, Olivier's mother contrives with Tilbot, a noble acquaintance with a spotty past, to send her son off to America with Parrot as his secretary and watch-dog. His ostensible mission is to explore the new American concept of incarceration as reform and return to France with ideas for improving French prisons. Olivier stumbles upon his mother and Tilbot scheming, and it is after all a fascinating concept. (A pity the Americans never really managed it after all...)
I asked them what they were so fascinated with. My mother replied she had discovered that the Americans had invented prisons which would reform the people they contained.
The book's narration goes back and forth between Parrot and Olivier. If Olivier is a spoilt, effete fop, Parrot is his perfect foil: an Englishman who started life as a "printer's devil", was saved from a deadly raid on a counterfeit operation by Monsieur Tilbot, bounced around the world thereafter, earning his nickname by his early propensity to repeat whatever Tilbot said to him in French. When they are first thrown together on the ship bound for America, there is no love lost between the two men, and Olivier is galled by the Americans' insistence that his servant (Parrot) should share his quarters. Their egalitarian tendencies are merely one of many faults that Olivier finds with his ship-mates.
My companions... are nothing if not charming but it is already clear that the Americans carry national pride altogether too far. I doubt whether it is possible to draw from them the least truth unfavorable to their country. Most of them boast about it without discernment and with an aggressiveness that is disagreeable to strangers and shows but little intelligence. In general it seems to me that they magnify objects in the way of people who are not accustomed to seeing great things.
While Olivier consistently derides the Americans, Parrot, the more pragmatic of the pair, immediately grasps the opportunities presented by the young nation. Hard work and creativity can earn success, regardless of one's station in life. Carey does a superb job of making Parrot's delight as he grasps the implications of this new democratic concept almost palpable. Olivier, however, never ceases struggling with it, cherishing what had been his class privilege.
No matter how strong their religious sentiments, or their passion about the reform of criminals, the Americans quickly revealed themselves to be obsessed with trade and money and beyond the walls of that particular cell they simply could not see anything that diminished their enthusiasm for self-congratulation. They had got their hands on a mighty continent from which the least of them could, by dint of some effort, extract unlimited wealth. There being so much to be extracted it scarcely mattered how or if they were governed, because there is no need to argue when there is plenty for all. The energy put into this quest for wealth left little room for anything one might think of as culture, and so marked was this lack that I would always, in speaking of the wealthier families, use the English term middle class and never bourgeoisie. There was, as they were continually pleased to tell me, no aristocracy required.
But then Olivier meets Miss Amelia Godefroy, the fetching and intelligent young daughter of his host in Wethersfield, Connecticut, and he falls in love. Much as he admires both Amelia and her father for their gentility and keen observations, he continues to struggle with their democratic ideals.
Here in Wethersfield, where I am as unexpectedly content as I have ever been, we would find our ideas questioned at every moment. They believe that aristocrats will mingle with the common mass, while I despair of seeing the end of that noble class. My dear Miss Godefroy believes that the European will one day mingle with the Negro. To me this is a wishful delusion and nothing one observes can possibly support it.
While Parrot and his French artist wife, Mathilde, meet Watkins, the engraver who had been badly burnt in the same fire that killed Parrot's father and who is now producing stunning portraits of American birds, all of them seizing upon the great opportunities they see before them, Olivier continues to visit prisons and woo Amelia. Her father is delighted when Olivier asks him for permission to marry her, and Amelia prattles on about how lovely it will be to live in France. Only to Mr. Godefroy does Olivier admit the impossibility of that dream: His mother and the French aristocracy in general would never accept Amelia as one of their own; she would be excluded, the topic of caustic gossip. Amelia overhears this conversation, or at least "enough of it to break my heart!", and Mr. Godefroy gently escorts Olivier to an inn in another town.

Completely embittered, Olivier goes to find Parrot, his one-time nemesis and now friend, who is living happily and thriving on a farm in New York state. Olivier begs Parrot to return to France with him. Only the French can properly appreciate the art that Parrot, Mathilde and Watkins are making -- it is wasted on the boorish Americans! He launches a vitriolic tirade, predicting nothing good for the up-start nation.
"Yes," he cried, and he had changed now, for there was none of the early condescension. He was no longer reclining but sitting, and his voice had risen. "Yes, and you will follow fur traders and woodsmen as your presidents, and they will be as barbarians at the head of armies, ignorant of geography and science, the leaders of a mob daily educated by a perfidious press which will make them so confident and ignorant that the only books on their shelves will be instruction manuals, the only theater gaudy spectacles, the paintings made to please that vulgar class of bankers, men of no moral character, half-bourgeois and half-criminal, who will affect the tastes of an aristocracy but will compete with each other like wrestlers at a fair, wishing only to pay the highest price for the most fashionable artist. Do not laugh, sir. Listen. I have traveled widely. I have seen this country in its infancy. I tell you what it will become. The public squares will be occupied by an uneducated class who will not be able to quote a line of Shakespeare."
"...the poor little sausage," thinks Parrot to himself as Olivier stalks off, a broken man.  At once Carey has captured both the wonders of the young America -- all of its promise and optimism and opportunity -- and the darker aspects of its future: an uneducated and materialistic class who will not be able to quote a line of Shakespeare; barbarians at the head of armies...

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