Monday, May 10, 2010

What We're Reading

Parrot & Olivier in America by Peter Carey

What caught my eye about this book was not Carey’s name and celebrated credentials (twice a winner of the Commonwealth’s prestigious Booker Prize) but a familiar face staring at me from the book jacket cover. It is the self-portrait of the bon vivant Maurice Quentin de la Tour, a masterful pastel and perhaps my favorite painting at the local Norton Simon Museum. So I was well disposed from the beginning to enjoy a work that would invent a more detailed life and character for the French aristocratic type suggested by the painting. Carey’s fictional portrait of the Count Olivier de Garmont, the young scion of a French noble family that has just barely survived the French Revolution, is a delightful animation of the painting. It has become impossible for me to think of the character without thinking of the artwork.

“Parrot” is the nickname for the Englishman John Larrit, the son of a politically radical Jacobin itinerant printer. He lost his mother while he was very young, and at 12 years old becomes an orphan when his father is executed for alleged counterfeiting. The young Olivier, in danger in France because of his noble pedigree and royalist leanings, is sent on a “mission” for the French government to America. It is little more than a circumspect exile in politically dangerous times. Through odd and improbable paths the stories of their lives join as Parrot is commissioned by a friend of the de Garmont family to serve as Olivier’s protector and secretary on this journey. Olivier does not know that Parrot is also charged with spying on him by Olivier’s overly- protective mother. He sends letters back to his employer and the Comtesse de Garmont detailing Olivier’s actions and associations.

It is in the early Republic, in Jacksonian America, that the tensions between the ancien regime and the new democratic order play out. Carey’s portrait of early America is wonderful, a refuge for the gauche, a buzzing hive of chicanery, money schemes, hope, exploitation, freedom, vitality, and lust. It is also a place of great beauty and charm. Carey, as in his History of the Kelly Gang, is a master of recreating the rambunctious and demotic undercurrent of life in an historical period, an immersion for the reader that is such a refreshing relief from the costume dramas of historic figures and the roundup of expected heroes in what we think of as traditional historical novels. Instead of battles and sententious speeches, we are invited to explore a world delineated by picaresque exploits and by frank and common speech. The language becomes a source of much amusement when laid beside Olivier’s polite circumlocutions. Olivier is an improvisation on the historic Alexis de Tocqueville, the French aristocrat who wrote the classic Democracy in America during his stay in America during this period of American history, and there is a “bird” artist we meet that makes for us a distant allusion to Audubon, but it would be wrong to call this an historical novel in any traditional sense.

The setting of Olivier and Parrot in early America provides a venue in which to explore major ideas at rivalry in the world at a time of great political and social change, as do the contrasting characters and perspectives of Parrot and Olivier. In a style that mirrors their worlds, being both earthy and refined, Carey describes the development of a relationship between the two protagonists that moves towards an unsentimental accommodation and friendship. Parrot and Olivier is, I think most aptly characterized as a beguiling comedy of political manners, an imaginative entertainment that is sometimes broad, usually sophisticated, and charming as a bumbled minuet.

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