The 81st in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the October 1994 issue. The intro read:
Peter Carey is Australia’s most successful writer since Patrick White – but he hasn’t lived there for five years. “The longer I ’ve been away, the weirder and weirder it looks,” he tells Nigel Cox.
A Sense of Difference
England wouldn’t necessarily be the ﬁrst topic of conversation you raised with Martin Amis, nor America with Louise Erdrich, but talking to Peter Carey, Australia comes up early and won’t go away. On tour out here to promote his new novel, The Unusual Life Of Tristan Smith, Carey has been living in New York for the last ﬁve years. “I’m getting like those Australians in Earl’s Court, who become so deﬁantly Aussie the moment they hit London,” he says. “Of course, if you live somewhere else, you’re deﬁned by your sense of difference.”
We’re sitting at his hotel window high above Auckland, where the lanky Carey leans back in his chair and pulls at his jaw as if trying to make it even longer. In his youth (he’s 50) you sense he would have been angular, awkward even. The main character in Tristan Smith has a face described as “severely triangular,” like “a gaunt little praying mantis” and it’s possible that Carey wrote this after looking in the mirror. But any awkwardness is now deep-buried behind the smooth exterior of the public face of the great southern land’ s best-selling serious novelist.
In fact he’s apologised for his three-piece suit and talks as though we should picture him in denim. “The longer I’ve been away, the weirder and weirder my country looks. Take, for instance, what I think is the total denial of the consequences of convictism, which is still there, no matter what anybody says.” His eyes, wobbly behind lenses, ﬂoat out the window and over the city. “I mean, here we are, with these people, who we say we’re proud of, transported, exiled, full of grief, terror, tortured, party to a genocide, feeling profoundly unloved and second-rate, hating God... and 200 years later, less, in World War I, we emerge on the world stage, eager to die, to prove ourselves, with a persona of being these suntanned, innocent people, happy smiling people.
“What’s going on here? Presumably we’re full of rage, at the people who did it, and yet we’ve taken, nationally, the position of the people who held the whip: none of us have dealt with this yet.”
Listening to him, you get the sense that Carey would usually be one of these happy smiling people. But on the Australian arm of this promotional tour he allowed no press interviews, preferring to give readings.
“Well,” he says, sheltering behind his glass of Evian, “newspaper writers are often very decent people, but they don’t have much time, and what are they going to do? They do the best they can, and then when I read the pieces... Well, I can’t blame them, so I feel sort of cheap and nasty.”
Which is a polite way of saying that some harsh things were written about him when he went to live in America. He left Australia under a cloud. His previous novel, The Tax Inspector, got nutty reviews. “There was malice,” he says, nodding grimly. “I was really mad when I left, and said some terrible things to some of my friends.”
After the publication of Illywhacker Carey seemed to be thrust forward as a kind of suitable spokesman for Australian culture. Suitable in that he wasn’t an academic (he didn’t ﬁnish his degree) or an intellectual (he ran McSpedden-Carey, an advertising agency), and yet he seemed to have big things to say about what it was to have been born in the Lucky Country.
Oscar and Lucinda, which won the Booker, conﬁrmed this status, but then The Tax Inspector, a novel describing incest and dysfunction in an Australian family and tax evasion among the highly cultured, seemed to bite at the hands that had lifted him. Perhaps, seen as ungrateful, he was made a whipping boy. He greets this scenario with amused caution. “Yeah, that’s true,” he says, and says no more.
If he left under a cloud he has returned in glory. In Australia, Tristan Smith has received “the best reviews I’ve ever had”: the Sydney Morning Herald called it “his richest and most satisfying work so far”, and the Melbourne Age talked about “its magniﬁcent delineation of character and event”.
But Carey is too modest to dwell on this latest triumph and has shifted back to what is obviously the stream that runs constantly in his head. “People who wanted to excuse my absence from Australia said, ‘I suppose it’ll help you see your country more clearly.’ And ﬁnally I think it’s doing that.
“Recently I sat there in upstate New York and some American friends who’d been to Australia said, ‘Waltzing Matilda, what’s that about?’ So I started to go through the words. ‘Once a jolly swagman’ – the whole notion of swagmen, to an American was really weird. ‘Slept by a billabong, Under the shade of a coolibah tree.’ Well... And the whole thing about the role of the trooper – why did he jump in the water? And the relationship between the troopers and the ghost, and the stealing... and that’s our song!”
Now a kind of goggle-eyed dancing takes place behind the round lenses of his glasses, as though in his head he’s trying to solve the master equation of Australia. But if it’s big ideas which ﬁll the stratosphere of his novels, he always begins closer to home. Carey was born in Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, which was one of the take-off points for Illywhacker. He has described its “ennui” in a recent essay: “I remember tearing up the juicy leaves of the mirror bush, throwing stones at cats, falling from the ﬁg tree, hanging from my britches, black ants crawling across a blackboard, World War II bombers and transports, one inch long, ﬂying high up in the cloudless sky.” A long way from Greenwich Village.
His parents ran a car sales yard, a setting he used in The Tax Inspector. After a stint at Geelong Grammar (not while Prince Charles was there) he travelled a haphazard path which led him on to advertising, and a commune, both settings which recur in Bliss. But Carey doesn’t write about himself. Rather, he’s used these personal places as points for his astonishing imagination to depart from.
He had intended to be a scientist. On Morning Report he told Kim Hill, “I used to love looking at the periodic table. When I was 15 I bought books on organic chemistry that I couldn’t possibly understand. I used to just look at them, the sheer magic of them, and imagine a life discovering and inventing things – and of course now, in literature, I do have that life.”
He’d never been a reader, and then “after I’d failed science, I discovered all at once the world of literature. It all came ﬂooding in in about two years – Faulkner, Joyce, Kafka, Beckett. It’s as though reading can never be quite as wonderful as it was back then.”
A name he doesn’t mention is the writer he’s most frequently compared to, Charles Dickens. Carey smiles as though in recognition of a friend. “Back when those comparisons were being made – round Illywhacker and Oscar and Lucinda – I’d really not read Dickens. But just at the moment I’m reading quite a deal of him, because I’m occupied with my next novel, which is a reimaging of Magwitch’s story. Magwitch, if you remember, is the convict from Great Expectations – really the ﬁrst Australian to go back to London and discover he wasn’t wanted.”
Asked who among contemporary writers he enjoys reading, the ﬁrst name Peter Carey comes up with is Cormac McCarthy. “I went into just the ﬁrst few pages thinking, ah, shit, Faulkner. But I thought All The Pretty Horses was just a stunning book. Language wrung, really working. And the stuff that the guy knows, I just feel weak in the knees. His feel for landscape, the relationship of those two boys, it was a great love story, and so cruel, ah, it’s really something.”
Carey has also been rereading Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Dickens, and says that in his novel “I’m writing as though there was somebody that Dickens knew, a man called John Mags, and it imagines Dickens meeting this character and the interaction between them.”
Dickens, of course, was a great reader from his work. So how does Carey see the readings he’s doing – is it delivering the book to its audience, or just more promo? He laughs. “Reading was something that I learned to do,” he says. “I was very bad at it. My wife directs theatre, so we worked on how to do it. And there were some very comic scenes there, you know: ‘Would you speak to your actors like that? Don’t tell me that now!’ I was 40 and I’d never read. I did it the ﬁrst time because I was offered a ticket to go to the Harbourfront Festival in Toronto. I was a bit frightened.”
He stops and considers. “I’ve always believed that literature exists in silence, between the reader and the page. A reading is something else.”
As the interview ends he says that he’s going on now to London, for more readings and interviews, and then “it’s home to Dickens”. And to Australia, perhaps – that Australia he ﬁnds more comfortable to live in in his head; that he never leaves.