By Peter Carey
Alfred A. Knopf, 2010
A reason for the enduring appeal of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is that it’s very flattering. It aims a critical eye on the uncouth republicanism of a young country and finds the results invigorating, restorative. America possesses an evergreen vitality in these pages, a braggart wunderkind promise that contrasts so pleasingly with the specter of a fuddy-duddy continental aristocracy.
So it’s painful to find in the second volume of the book one of the most quietly devastating analogies ever conceived to explain how the arts are valued in America:
When I arrived for the first time at New York, by that part of the Atlantic Ocean which is called the Narrows, I was surprised to perceive along the shore, at some distance from the city, a considerable number of little palaces of white marble, several of which were built after the models of ancient architecture. When I went the next day to inspect more closely the building which had attracted my notice, I found that its walls were of whitewashed brick, and its columns of painted wood. All the edifices which I had admired the night before were of the same kind.
Tocqueville was thinking of fine art when he wrote this, but those wooden pillars painted to resemble Parian marble speak as well as his estimation of American literature, which he declares to be fundamentally imitative of European letters. We may patriotically protest the point – Tocqueville came to America in 1831, long before Melville, Whitman, and Twain had fashioned the voice of the New World. Yet Tocqueville’s calm, unimpeachable logic has a nagging persistence: aristocrats have the time and leisure to cultivate highly refined and nuanced art; in democratic societies, however, when the potential audience for art is all busy working toward their material advancement, an aesthetic of impatience holds sway. Prettiness is valued over beauty, gratification over profundity. Americans, Tocqueville observed, are more receptive to a pleasing imposture than to the masterpiece itself.
Such ideas must have been on Peter Carey’s mind when he devised his new novel Parrot & Olivier in America, a sarcastic reimagining of Tocqueville’s landmark trip. Imitation has been the dominant theme of Carey’s 11 novels. Theft (2006) is about an art forger; My Life as a Fake (2003) fictionalizes an infamous literary hoax; the very title of Illywhacker (1985) is Australian slang for a confidence man. Carey not only likes liars and frauds, but he likes undermining the reliability of his narratives in order to dupe his readers – so we are at once conspirators in his characters’ subterfuge and, when the rug is pulled from under us, victims of it.
The same trickery is on display in the character of Olivier, Carey’s version of Tocqueville. He has retained the biographical outline – a French aristocrat, finding it wise to absent himself from a dangerously unstable royal court, travels to America, ostensibly to report on the penal system, ultimately to write a comprehensive study of democracy – but subverted Tocqueville’s personality in ways intended to get a rise out of his admirers. These constant winks at the Tocqueville cognoscenti, though, make Parrot & Olivier one of his least accessible novels. Carey has been grand, goony company when offering his own boorish spin on the Australian tall tale, as in Illywhacker and Oscar & Lucinda (1988). But his native inventiveness is constrained here. This novel is so oddly interested in provoking historians that the story it gins up is actually slower and less interesting than Tocqueville’s real travels.
Coincidentally, one of those historians, Leo Damrosch, has just published the jaunty précis biography Tocqueville’s Discovery of America, and from its pages emerges a spirited, unprepossessing young man thrilled by the novelties of America and the expressive energy of its citizens. Damrosch points out that while British visitors like Charles Dickens and Fanny Trollope were indignant about, say, Americans’ habit of spitting on the sidewalk (a complaint the British levied against the French as well), Tocqueville viewed such behavior with amusement and fascination, if not a little Rousseau-inspired envy. When he completed the first draft of Democracy in America, his family pleaded with him to make it more sympathetic to the aristocracy. This was not a man blinkered by the privileges of his caste.
Carey’s Olivier, however, is this precisely, a cramped, otiose prig who spends the bulk of his time in America sneering about the food, the help, and the occasional luckless French speaker who dares to address him as toi. Olivier is scarred by the ancestral memory of the French Revolution and is openly hostile to America, which he sees as a breeding ground for the “bloody grapey drunken demos” who guillotined his grandfather.
Olivier is accompanied by John Larrit, nicknamed Parrot, playing the Carey archetype of the sympathetic con man. Larrit was an apprentice to an engraver who counterfeited French currency, was sent to the penal colony of Australia, recalled to Europe, and eventually forced to go to America in order to spy on Olivier for a marquis in love with Olivier’s mother. To add shag to this dog of a plot, Larrit is travelling with his lover Mathilde, a brilliant, headstrong, and bosomy painter he fears will leave him.
This odd couple arrangement, a staple of most of Carey’s books, opens the door to the ironic revisionism that is the novel’s M.O. Olivier is haughtily insistent about his superior status, but in America he is pathetically dependent on Larrit and other retainers. He becomes interested in his surroundings only when he meets Amelia, a brilliant, headstrong, and bosomy daughter of a New York industrialist with whom he’s so besotted (horny may be more like it – in this the mirror on the rambunctiously philandering Tocqueville is accurate) that he’s willing to become an American. But it turns out that Amelia, the striving, opinionated apotheosis of American egalitarianism, has her heart set on becoming a French noblewoman – and indeed, most of the Americans in Parrot & Olivier are slavishly enamored of the aristocracy, despite the bombast of their nationalism.
Larrit’s fortunes are of course reversed, as America is far more exploitable for a cunning lackey than for a nobleman relying on hereditary entitlements. While subordinating himself to his officious lordship he is able to procure land in the Hudson Valley hardly less beautiful than that found in the average French fiefdom. He subsists happily with Mathilde on the exquisite engraving work of his old master Watkins – and yet Americans themselves are too philistine to appreciate the art (“no one here knows quality,” Watkins says), and all his sales come from European aristocrats.
In one episode of the novel, Olivier tasks Larrit with procuring a French edition of Molière’s Tartuffe so that he can serenade Amelia. Like much of Parrot & Olivier, this minor incident takes a glacially long time to play out, and its import is exclusively thematic: Tartuffe (which also figures into Carey’s Unusual Life of Tristan Smith) is about a peasant who masquerades as a holy man in order to defraud a credulous king. It is furthermore composed of alexandrines, a notoriously rigid metrical system of verse that was certainly on Tocqueville’s mind when he wrote, in Democracy in America, that aristocracies often create artificial codes of literature interpretable only by elites. Significantly, Larrit instead brings Olivier a prose work of Molière’s called Versailles Impromptu, a meta-drama about a tyrannical writer named Molière trying to put on a play for the king (in it, Molière imitates the histrionic style of actors in order to ridicule them, much like a stand-up impersonator).
This is, again, a sop for scholars, although it is not evident that such readers will be adequately entertained by a fiction founded on a single, endlessly repeated revisionist idea: that Democracy in America was actually a work of sardonic noblesse oblige. But what about readers who have not troubled to debrief with a Tocqueville biography before reading the book? The story-telling of Parrot & Olivier, like that of Carey’s labored Dickens pastiche Jack Maggs (1997), relies so heavily on mimicry that none of it feels real or heartfelt. Here is the sort of vamping exchange you commonly encounter, this regarding the infamous copy of Molière’s Versailles Impromptu, which Larrit wants Olivier to use to woo Amelia:
“And do you know, my dear sweet American lady – you will whisper – Molière and his troupe in the play, the actors are characters, have been asked to perform for this very king. The one who rightly owns the book. Louis Quatorze.”
“Your French is awful [says Olivier].”
“In fact it is better than your own.”
“You will not tutoyer me! Tell me, clown, how can I recite this to Miss Godefroy [Amelia]?”
“You tell her how I performed it for you. You say, Miss Godefroy, dear,” and the rascal jumped three feet sideways. “You see. This is how I do the different parts.”
I can’t exactly triangulate the pre-Victorian voices Carey is purloining, but it seems to me that Olivier is derived from Laurence Sterne’s ironically foppish and high-handed Tristram Shandy and that the Parrot chapters are modeled from Tobias Smollett, whose Humphry Clinker is likewise a loyal manservant with hidden depths. These are cute, kitschy impersonations of picaresque classics, but readers won’t know they’re impersonations unless they’re familiar with the originals. So just as Carey jabs at American philistinism, he’s relying on that very thing if his book is to be a success. It’s just another irony in a book so packed with them that, like overissued currency, they lose all value: one of the inside jokes for scholars is the gullibility of the reader, who can’t see how mannered and unoriginal Carey’s writing really is.
It’s facsimile prose, in short, not the achieved voice we should expect from someone of Carey’s stature. Unsurprisingly, in his chapter on the American artisan, Tocqueville saw this coming:
Among a democratic population, all the intellectual faculties of the workman are directed to these two objects: he strives to invent methods which may enable him not only to work better, but quicker and cheaper; or, if he cannot succeed in that, to diminish the intrinsic qualities of the thing he makes.
That’s the danger of monkeying around with Alexis de Tocqueville in a novel; he’s apt to have had the definitive word on your book 170 years before you wrote it.
Sam Sacks is an editor for Open Letters Monthly. His book reviews have also appeared in Commentary, The Wall Street Journal, The Barnes and Noble Review, The Quarterly Conversation, and The New York Press, among other places. He lives in New York.