Peter Carey, author of Oscar and Lucinda and winner of the 1988 Booker Prize, talks to Peter Jinks about his new picaresque novel, The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith.
Long distance love affairs are often stormy. and Peter Carey's relationship with Australia is no exception. It started when he ran away to New York. abandoning the country that he made his career writing about.
Australia — like Scotland — has a habit of resenting ex-patriate success stories. And while few would dispute that Carey is literature’s Greatest Living Australian. it‘s worth remembering that the title is applied sardonically Down Under. After all. there is much about Carey to envy. Despite his rtrral. lower- class background he received a privileged schooling at Australia‘s equivalent of Eton. Geelong Grammar. He lives with his young fatnin in New York’s Greenwich Village. and scooped the Booker Prize in [988 with his third novel Oscar and Lucinda having been shortlisted for the same prize three years before with lllywhacker. His work is popular and internationally admired. His characters are as bright and unpredictable as a ﬁstful of marbles. the plots often outrageously improbable.
His characters are as bright and unpredictable as a fisttul of marbles, the plots often outrageously improbable.
Carey has had plenty ofquarrels with Australian writing. It's part ofa continuing passion for his country. as evidenced in previous novels. Oscar and Lucinda is a tangential love story of breathtaking proportions that ranges from the green hills of Dorset to the lunar plains ofthe Antipodes. Illywltacket' is a beautifully sustained comic narrative told by a 139- year-old Ozzie conﬁdence trickster. His last book. The Tax Inspector. tackles modern Australia in a mood of bleak foreboding.
All of which makes Carey‘s new offering. The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith. quite a departure. He conjures a fictitious world that he initially intended to be a re-invention of America. But it developed into a strange hybrid world. with Australian. French colonial and Afrikaaner overtones. Like the Settlers Free in the book‘s folk tales. Carey is entering what for him is virgin territory.
In his London Soho hotel. where he is promoting the book and researching his next project. he explains how inspiration struck: ‘The idea came from daydreaming at a literary conference in Orlando. Florida. Watching Minnie and Mickey Mouse wandering around — it rather reminded me of Ron and Nancy Reagan. l fantasised about Voorstand. a country like America where these mouse creatures
walked the streets. with roots in some heretical Protestant past.‘ It gets odder. The book‘s narrator. Tristan Smith. is a terribly disﬁgured. crippled boy of uncertain parentage who can hardly speak. He is born into a radical theatre company through which his mother. the company manager and a would-be politician. rails against the mass entertainment culture of Iiftca's imperial neighbour. This is represented by the Sirkus -— a high-tech version of the circus —« that has swamped their native traditions. Tristan finds liberation from his repulsive looks by donning a mouse costume another symbol of their oppression.
Carey‘s exile frorn Australia is a happy one — a fresh source of creativity. even if his familiar literary voice comes across as somewhat garbled in this book. ‘In a funny way I‘ve become more and more obsessed about where I come from. As I get further away from Australian daily life. it looks stranger and stranger to me which. given the way I like to write. is an exciting and wonderful gift. The book is really informed by the experience l've had of being frorn the periphery and living in the centre.‘
()ne Carey trademark is still there: wild. willful women charge through the narrative. constantly changing the course of events. They are strong- rninded and voracious for experience. When Tristan‘s mother says farewell to her young lover. Carey writes: ‘She kissed him lusciously. softly. sensuously. but carelessly too. like you might eat a peach in the middle of the season.‘ it‘s rare for male authors to write about women like this — and led to a clash with With Wenders when they collaborated on the film.
' Until the End aft/1e war/i1: ‘With the female l character l thought I was making her sexy by giving
Peter Carey: internationally admired her power. but he kept on taking that stuff out.’ The result. be freely admits. was not entirely successful.
Carey feels that he had to stretch himself in his new novel. Like all writers he lives with doubt and uncertainty every day. but is keenly aware of how had an author can sound when they whinge. He talks about the pleasures of his vocation that most scribes don't choose to mention: the days of sheerjoy when the language feels good. or when you feel that you‘ve written something that is smarter than you are.
‘As I get further away from Australian daily life, it looks stranger and stranger to me which, given the way I like to write, is an exciting and wonderful gitt.’
Writing Tristan Smith didn‘t require much research. he said. But what about the circus? Surely he must have immersed hitnselfin it to write the book. ‘No.‘ he responds blankly. ‘I only remember going to the circus once. as a kid. i had terrible ear-ache and wanted to go home.‘ So that's how this Booker Prize- winner does it — day-dreaming. His obvious talents combined with an easy-going demeanour and , engaging personality make it easy to see how Peter Carey commands so much literary respect. Even if he‘s undervalued at borne. internationally he is up there with the best. The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith is published by Faber and Faber at f I 4. 99. Peter Carey will be at Waterstanes. George Street. Edinburgh on Thurs 8 I
2 Sept at 7.30pm.
The List 9—22 September l99-l 69