Old Friends, Bookends

2 January 2014

A re-read of Peter Carey’s marvellous historical love story Oscar & Lucinda sends me down on a romp through my not-so-distant past.

It seems a bit redundant to review Peter Carey’s Oscar & Lucinda, a novel that’s been around since the late 1980s and has already been the subject of so much praise, and the recipient of multiple book awards, including the Booker and the Miles Franklin prizes. It’s such a glorious read, however, that it seems a shame not to review it simply because it predates blogging.

I first read Oscar & Lucinda in the summer of 1997, at the start of my final year of my undergraduate degree in English, and probably in anticipation of seeing Gilliam Armstrong’s wonderful film version shortly afterwards. I was inspired to re-read it largely because of recent conversations with three separate friends, all of whom named it as one of their favourite novels. Less heroically, I was also looking for an excuse to avoid starting Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, this year’s monster-sized Booker Prize winner that’s also a contemporary re-imagining of a 19th century colonial landscape, but which has now come to resemble a dreaded homework assignment for me and every other New Zealander and “serious reader”. Carey’s book seemed like a safer, more familiar and comforting way to ease back into the genre of Big Important Books.

As it was on my first time, reading Oscar & Lucinda was pure joy, though I can’t help but note how radically the world seems to have changed in the period between those two readings. In 1997, I thumbed a paperback borrowed from the university library, and then probably had a real-time phone conversation with my friend Marita about how much I was loving it. The internet was around in the late 1990s, but not yet ubiquitous, and a few of my friends had email, though no one I knew owned a cellphone. There were no smartphones or tablets to purchase and download novels onto, and there were certainly no blogs or Facebook pages or Twitter feeds on which I could post a pithy message about my love of the book or exchange views with fellow Carey fans. This time around, I read it on my Kindle, highlighting my favourite passages and sending them in electronic format to my laptop so I could use them in the writing of this review – and now posting my review on Goodreads and my blog, with follow-up advertisements via Facebook and Twitter.

At that point in 1997, I imagined, like most young people do, that I was at the most evolved and advanced point of human civilisation, and that the possibilities of life were limitless. But 15 year later, simply by the rapid and inexorably forward movement of time and the seismic change of technology, I’m now left viewing that younger version of myself as a character from historical fiction. This, it seems, is the stuff of being human, and the great existential joke with no punch line that is called “getting older” – the prevailing belief that we are at the centre of our own narratives and getting wiser one day at a time, even if to a younger generation we’re like insects trapped in amber, a charming curio of a slower bygone age.

Fortunately, I found that Peter Carey had an appreciation of and an answer to this dilemma in the pages of his wonderful novel. It’s perhaps the greatest skill of a writer of historical fiction to create in the reader’s mind the sense of the characters thinking of themselves as contemporary, or even as radicals fighting the older prevailing strictures of their own times. And this is exactly what Carey does in Oscar & Lucinda, a novel that follows two eccentric outsiders and eventual lovers on a grand adventure from London to Australia, in which new territories – the Outback, a church of glass, the body of a lover – are explored and revealed with extraordinary originality and vitality.

Our narrator is the great-grandson of Oscar Hopkins, who proposes to relate to us the circumstances of how his curious ancestor, an English Anglican minister, crossed paths with Lucinda, an Australian-born heiress – and in doing so, explain his own genesis. “In order that I exist, two gamblers, one Obsessive, the other Compulsive, must meet. A door must open at a certain time”. The precise and surprising details of Oscar and Lucinda’s connection aren’t revealed until the final chapters, allowing Carey to spin a yarn of wonderful complexity and randomness, in which life itself is revealed not as a coherent narrative, but as a series of gambles, coincidences, opportunities grasped and lost, glorious acts of folly and romantic gestures of blind faith.

Carey wittily pays tribute to the traditions of the great 19th century novels even as he lays siege to the genre by creating his own idiosyncratic narrative style. He adopts the omniscient third person voice of Dickens and Eliot, but with a looser and more eccentric narrative structure, and with an eye for eccentricity that’s more similar to 18th century comic novels like Tristram Shandy.

Slowly and precisely, he builds up plot and character through the accretion of small details, in hundreds of small punchy chapters that bowl along with amazing vigour. The apparently unremarkable props of a Christmas pudding and a game of hopscotch become augurs of great power and significance in the life of the teenage Oscar, prompting him to renounce his father’s Evangelical faith and become an Anglican minister. Likewise, a childhood present of a piece of tear-shaped glass called a Prince Rupert’s Drop fuels Lucinda’s life-long obsession with glass and a recklessness of spirit. They’re lovingly imagined moments, poetic and whimsical, that also manage to create an authentic sense of individual lived experience. Despite the theatricality of Carey’s style, Oscar and Lucinda feel like living breathing creatures, reacting to and kicking against the limitations of their age, as they go off to find adventures.

And what adventures they find. Carey’s narrative dances back and forth from the chilly beaches of Devon to the student rooms and green-lawned quadrangles at Oxford University, plunges into the feverish excitement of the racetrack and the smoky rooms of Chinese gaming houses, and onto a Titanic-sized steamer which takes Oscar and Lucinda to the barely-civilised wild west of colonial Sydney, and on into the heat and menace of the Outback. It’s history but not as you’ve ever quite heard it told before.

Like a good post-modernist, Carey bestows his narrative perspective liberally between Oscar, Lucinda and a number of apparently unimportant supporting characters – a serving maid struggling to make a pie during a Hopkins family debacle, a widow who shows her Italian lover her dead husband’s collection of pornographic playing cards entitled “Raped By Cossacks”, a frustrated society girl and jilted fiancée with dumpy knees, an Aboriginal prostitute who witnesses an extraordinary outburst by Oscar, and even the grass of the Outback as it comprehends the arrival of the white man. There’s a political agenda here, of course, as there is with most post-colonial novels – to re-insert the perspectives of those excluded from the historical record – but Carey wears this lightly and playfully, making a nice change from some of his more hectoring, joyless contemporaries. (John Berger, anyone?). His wish to re-imagine a historical narrative is as much an emotional quest as a political one, saying at one point, “You could not tell a story like this. A story like this you could only feel.”

Carey has particular fun with the sexual mores of a restrictive pre-Freudian age, relating Oscar and Lucinda’s vagueness and embarrassment about their own desires. In an erotic reverie, Lucinda imagines seeing “all the unspoken things between them come, at last, to be spoken of directly…. And other things, like kissing, but not quite so sharp and clear, with furry unfocused edges like a water colour.” Elsewhere, he gleefully lifts the curtain on the sweating, belching, farting and fornicating side of Victorian England and colonial Australia that you don’t tend to see in Merchant-Ivory movies.

While Oscar & Lucinda satisfies as a rollicking story and a sly updating of Victorian-era fiction, it’s also one of the most beautifully written novels around. Mr Jeffris, the psychopath Lucinda hires to transport the glass church through the Outback, dreams of literary success: “his prose would have a spine of steel and descriptions as delicate as violet petals.” It’s a phrase that could also describe Carey’s writing. Like the glass so beloved by Oscar and Lucinda, Carey’s writing is liquid, transparent and beautiful, reflecting and refracting thought with crystalline clarity and brightness.

Early on a character considers the concept of death “not as a single thing you could label with a single word. It was not a discreet entity. It fractured and flew apart, it swarmed like fish, splintered like glass”. Carey takes that credo of multiplicity of expression and applies it to everything.

Elsewhere, his imagery lands with an extraordinary jolt. At first you’re puzzled by the strangeness of a description of Lucinda’s eyes as “like young creatures which had lost their shells, and were not yet able to defend themselves” or “her proud face… all collapsed, like a crushed letter thrown into a basket”, or her pleasure at taking money from Oscar at cards, “as satisfying as drawing bent nails from old timber”, or Oscar “like a ventriloquist’s doll from which the ruling hand has been rudely withdrawn, leaving the subject slumped, without a spine, unable to lift so much as an arm”, with “legs too long and thin, untidy as a heap of unsawn firewood.” On a second glance, you dazzle at the accuracy of the image and the precision of Carey’s language. Then finally, you fall under Carey’s spell and wonder why no one in the history of time has thought to marry words together like this before.

Oscar and Lucinda’s love and shared eccentricity lead them to be “joined in a circle, an abstraction of human endeavour” and bring into an existence a thing never seen before: a church constructed of glass, borne by water into the Outback. Though things don’t quite turn out as planned, it exists nonetheless, a folly and a wonder, and an enduring manifestation of their strange and lovely bond. Carey’s achievement in imagining and bringing this novel into existence is no less wondrous. Over 15 years later, I still haven’t read a book that matches it for its originality, its beauty, its freewheeling insanity and just the sheer pleasure of reading his words. It’s a work truly deserving of that overused accolade, a modern classic.

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