The last few days I’ve been reading Peter Carey’s Parrot & Oliver in America. I read it in the coffeehouse over a Cooler. I read it in the car on the way to a park. I read it on the couch today. I have to say it’s one of the best new novels I’ve read this year unless Carey lets me down in the final pages, which is impossible at this point. Consistently well-written, charming, witty, and imaginative, it gives historical novels a good name, and I don’t like historical novels much. That said, I admit I have read several good historical novels this year: Jane Smiley’s Private Life, David Malouf’s Ransom, and Connie Willis’ World War II novel, Blackout (which also involves time travel and is classified as SF). I’ll never read Wolf Hall (20 pages was enough) but am comfortable with the prospect of Carey’s humorous historical novel winning the Booker. (I do have a few others on the list to read, though. All, in fact.)
Based on Alexis de Toqueville, Olivier is a French aristocrat whose politics are confused by the French Revolution and his pride in aristocracy. When he and his best friend frequent political meetings which endanger their lives, his parents intercede and arrange for him to travel to America to investigate prisons. Reluctant to go, he is kidnapped and awakes from his drugged stupor on a ship bound for America. He is accompanied by Parrot, an English artist, secretary, and spy, hired by Monsieur, the French marquis with whom as a child he escaped a political raid on a printer forging currency (Parrot’s father was killed), to look after Olivier. The marquis is in love with Olivier’s mother, who wants to make sure her snobbish son doesn’t do anything stupid in America to jeopardize himself. It is Parrot’s job to spy on him for his mother.
Of the two characters, Parrot is by far the most interesting. He is amusing, observant, and has a fascinating private life. Parrot is in love with a passionate artist and businesswoman who lives with her mother, a comic character who constantly chews garlic, much to Olivier’s disgust. When Parrot finds that it has been arranged for his lover and mother accompany him to America, he is relieved. But on board the ship he is sick, loathes the snobbish Olivier, only reluctantly acts as his servant, and is ignored by his lover while she develops a portrait business on the ship.
Here’s an example of Parrot’s beautifully written and amusing observations.
“One day bled into the next. I lay in my coffin, assaulted by the screams of ducks and geese being slaughtered upon the deck, the cries of passengers, the push and bustle, the plates and bottles crashing to the floor of the main cabin. So close was my pillow to the dining table that my ears were soon poured full of gravy, the voices, opinions and histories of Mr. Peek and his wife and two duaghters, of Mr. Hill, and of Mr. Defenpost, and what they thought of Eckerd and his actress, and all of this got mixed up with my ear wax and my nausea, so I was sick of them a week before they shook my hand.”
In America Parrot and Olivier have adventures with all classes of people, whose more-or-less equality annoys Olivier: wealthy bankers, working-class men who riot after their pigs are let loose, criminals (Parrot is briefly imprisoned), prison managers, Quakers, other Protestants, and French exiles. Olivier falls in love with a rich farmer/prison reformer’s beautiful, refined daughter who plays the cello but also throws herself at him. Parrot is sent on a foolish errand to buy a copy of Moliere so Olivier can read French to his paramour. He comes back with the wrong book–a book that will do very well, though–and the two almost become friends over this incident after Olivier throws a ridiculous tantrum.
This novel is so entertaining. And entertainment is something I sometimes miss in contemporary novels…
BLOGGER BURNOUT. I’ve been reading blogs about blogger burnout lately. Some bloggers have complained that blogging takes time away from reading and that they spend up to two hours a day answering comments on their blogs and commenting on other blogs. Well, at least they’re not watching TV. Take a few days off, a couple of Prozacs or other controlled substance, breathe deeply, and you’ll feel much better. 🙂 It’s all a matter of proportion.
MORE. I confessed to an online friend that I’ve given up reading Viragos and Persephones. It has been one year since I read a Virago (Rosamund Lehman’s The Gipsy Baby) and two years since I read a Persephone (Elizabeth Cambridge’s Hostages of Fortune). Is it possible that I’m reacting to bloggers’ passionate campaigns to promote these books? I’ve read so much good about these books that I’m starting to think they’re bad? Or am I just tired of these books? Or have I read all the good ones?
I’ll have to think about it.