Parrot and Olivier in America, p.42Peter Carey
I did not mind that he admired the grain of our table but not the table itself. He was a noble, after all. Also, this was a man whose entire soul had been pulled out of him as if it were a long thin gut of shrimp. A fellow must admire both his courage and his grace.
Finally, however, I understood that he intended to say nothing about the most remarkable aspect of our situation--that the ruined Watkins and his wife had produced art which his lordship knew--because I told him so--were being sold in Paris at prices one could hardly credit. He also knew that my wife was now painting whatever she pleased, not to flatter the vanity of clients who would not know a painting from a potato but in order to plumb the luminous mystery of New York light. As he remained silent on these two foundations of my life, I became annoyed.
BETWEEN THE HOUSE and the Hudson there lay buried a long shelf of what is known to ignorant laborers as Manhattan shitz, a diamond-hard gray rock which thrust itself forward from the topsoil and thus, with walls of earth bound hard with roots, left clear a most perfect place which had been named, not by deliberation but by common usage Picnic Rock.
It was here M. de Garmont and I retired after our meal of venison, each carrying our brandy in the only vessels available, two sturdy teacups such as you find in the town cafes.
It was at that hour, when the last skerrick of color had left the water and it lay below us lapping in its secret life, while above us the night sky, in fact or in imagination, showed the deepest darkest stain of blue. I could just trace the outline of the farther shore which I knew to be the Palisades, those cliffs which in the morning, in the eastern sun, would glow a luminous gold. So here we sat, in Paradise I thought, with our backs against the grassy bank, our legs stretched out, savoring our brandy and the aroma of fresh-cut lemon which--Mathilde thought this a wild extravagance--my companion used to keep away mosquitoes.
He sipped his brandy a second time and said it was made pleasingly rounded by the thickness of the vessel which he was far too polite to call a cup. He finally understood, he said, that certain brandies must have always been intended for vessels such as these ones whose thick walls served to counterfeit viscosity and therefore became part of the taste.
In short, the drink was rough enough to blind a sailor.
The bats, swooping low, added their black wings to the uncertain patchwork of the other blacks. The screech owl began, as usual, and I was somehow pleased my companion did not ask its name for he would have disagreed with it. I had already transcribed his essay on the problem of naming plants and birds in new countries and how screech owl and prickly bush, for instance, sounded like the language of children.
The brandy was not half bad if you would be patient with it.
"So," said he. "I have arrived here at an important moment in your life."
"A fork in the road, I think it is called."
"You have a business."
"Yes," I said, thinking, He is finally going to acknowledge what is going on here before his very nose where he finds us, like the first people on earth, recording the nature of our inheritance.
"The business of art," he insisted.
"It is a business of the highest sort."
He was quiet.
"Do you not agree?" I asked him, for I was truly impatient with his politeness and evasion and if he talked about the art as he had talked about the brandy I would break his neck.
Finally, he said, "Dear chap, no one else will tell you, so forgive me. The paintings are awful."
"You are in love. The paintings are awful. I lie in bed in that bare room and there is nowhere else for my eyes to go. I have studied them for hours."
"They are not exactly paintings."
"I agree," he said.
"She is experimenting with the New York light."
"The same sun shines on everything. It is the same light here as in France. It would be ridiculous to believe any different."
He appeared to be looking at the sky. At first I was furious and then I thought, He is shortsighted. He cannot even see the stars, poor devil.
"When you love a woman you impute to her the virtues you desire."
I thought again, Poor devil. He loved Miss Godefroy to distraction. He loved all the damned Godefroys. He would sit at table looking from one tight face to the next, smiling with his happiness.
"Come to Paris," he said suddenly.
I had heard him very well, but I answered the way fools do, "What?"
"I will pay for you."
"And leave this?"
"You are a remarkable man," he said at last. "You have discovered your own genius. When you leave America you will still be a remarkable man. You have a house here. Well, I will set you up in one at home."
You might think I was outraged, but I am worse than that, for I was flattered, although of this my tone gave not a clue.
"What, a hermit's cottage, that sort of thing? Like Rousseau? I believe he was always put up by nobles."
"They say he gave away his children to the orphanage."
"Fortunately you have no children."
"But I do."
"No!" he exclaimed as if it were of death I spoke.
"Oh yes, and a wife, and her mother as well."
"So," he said, then paused. "Ah." He sighed. "A business."
What complication of emotions crossed his face I will never know, but he, urgently, unexpectedly, clamped his arm around my shoulder and pulled me roughly to him. The lemon smell was very strong.
"Well," he said as he finally released me, "there is no place for me."
We sat in silence. I did not know what to think or say.
"It will not ripen well."
"Sir, she is my wife."
"I do not mean your handsome wife. I mean this, democracy. It is a truly lovely flower, a tiny tender fruit, but it will not ripen well. You will see."
Poor devil, I thought. Is it not obvious to him that the people are making their own future very well? What of our little factory? What was that? And had he not been on the brink of living here himself?
"I tried to love it," he said. "I could not."
"What did you see upon your bedroom wall?" I asked, a stupid question but I was embarrassed by his pain and wished to cheer him.
"I saw the awful tyranny of the majority," he said.
You bloody sprat, I thought. I said, "Does your lordship wish me to write this down?"
"Sarcasm does not become you, John Larrit. Listen to me well. In a democracy there is not that class with the leisure to acquire discernment and taste in all the arts. Without that class, art is produced to suit the tastes of the market, which is filled with its own doubt and self-importance and ignorance, its own ability to be tricked and titillated by every bauble. If you are to make a business from catering to these people, the whole of your life will be spent in corrupting whatever public taste might struggle toward the light, tarnishing the virtues and confusing the manners of your country. Dear John Larrit, this is harsh and beastly. I mean nothing but kindness. Bring yourself away."
"America is new."
"Indeed," he said, and I frankly loathed the certainty of his judgment. He might go away and write a book about this, but what could he know from so short a visit? The time it would take to make this nation would be put in centuries and it did not do to come prancing around in your embroidered vests and buckled shoes and even if the New York Sentinel reported what you said, it did not mean you knew.
"These people are not the same as the people you distrust in France. They will be educated."
"Oh dear," he said, and held his head in his hands and I could not tell if this was because he thought it a very bad idea or if he considered education impossible and expected our people would all grow up ignorant and their children after them.
"From what will they get their culture?" he cried, "the newspapers? God help you all."
Of course he apologized, but even when he apologized he went on to treble the offense. It was his opinion that the common American people preferred their leaders to be as undereducated as they were themselves.
"Ah, but they elect great men."
"Have you met Andrew Jackson? I have. He is a woodsman, an orphan. Mercy on you all."
"Then he is a miracle, and there will be more of him."
"Yes," he cried, and he had changed now, for there was none of the early condescension. He was no longer reclining but sitting, and his voice had risen. "Yes, and you will follow fur traders and woodsmen as your presidents, and they will be as barbarians at the head of armies, ignorant of geography and science, the leaders of a mob daily educated by a perfidious press which will make them so confident and ignorant that the only books on their shelves will be instruction manuals, the only theater gaudy spectacles, the paintings made to please that vulgar class of bankers, men of no moral character, half-bourgeois and half-criminal, who will affect the tastes of an aristocracy but will compete with each other like wrestlers at a fair, wishing only to pay the highest price for the most fashionable artist. Do not laugh, sir. Listen. I have traveled widely. I have seen this country in its infancy. I tell you what it will become. The public squares will be occupied by an uneducated class who will not be able to quote a line of Shakespeare."
Miss Amelia Godefroy would not love him as he wished, he was flayed alive, and in his pain he revealed only his pessimism concerning the possibilities of life. I was hurt, of course, but a man could not be angry with a child of the awful guillotine.
"I'm very sorry," he said. "I have behaved disgracefully."
He stood. We embraced. He gave me the cup, the brandy pretty much untouched. A screech owl cried, despairing, hauntingly lovely. He sighed and walked up to the house alone, poor sausage.
I HAVE OBSERVED in the libraries and binderies of Paris that a book for gentlemen should carry its dedication at the start. Here, straight off, the author thanks some noble lord or lady without whom, etc., etc., but as I, Parrot, am now the citizen of a democracy and have not lived in his lordship's hermitage, I will place my dedication here, in a very kindly spirit. Indeed, I would offer it as solace for my tortured patron, for patron he was, even if he did not know it at the time.
I dedicate this account of our lives and travels to Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Garmont in pretty much the same spirit that his mother, or more likely the Abbe de La Londe, offered him comfort during the fearful nights of his childhood. To him I say, in the fullness of my heart, sir, your fears are phantoms.
Look, it is daylight. There are no sansculottes, nor will there ever be again. There is no tyranny in America, nor ever could be. Your horrid visions concerning fur traders are groundless. The great ignoramus will not be elected. The illiterate will never rule. Your bleak certainty that there can be no art in a democracy is unsupported by the truth.
You are wrong, dear sir, and the proof that you are wrong is here, in my jumbled life, for I was your servant and became your friend. I was your employee and am now truly your progenitor, by which I mean that you were honestly MADE IN NEW YORK by a footman and a rogue. I mean that all these words, these blemishes and tears, this darkness, this unreliable history--although written pretty much as well as could be done in London--was cobbled together by me, jumped-up John Larrit, at Harlem Heights, and given to our compositor on May 10, 1837.
THIS NOVEL BEGAN when I read Alexis de Tocqueville's prescient Democracy in America. In the following three years I was nourished by a hundred other works, most notably George Wilson Pierson's Tocqueville in America, Andre Jardin's Tocqueville, and Hugh Brogan's delightful Alexis de Tocqueville, which was published just in the nick of time. The author's debt to Tocqueville himself will be obvious to scholars who will detect, squirreled away among the thatch of sentences, distinctive threads, necklaces of words that were clearly made by the great man himself. The very fanciful use I have made of these artifacts may not suit everyone, but as the world of Tocqueville seems to be filled with dissenting voices, it may not be inappropriate for a novelist to assume a minor place in the back row of that full-throated choir.
Naturally I read a great deal other than Tocqueville, and there are some who have recommended that I provide a bibliography, an instrument that seems as useful to the reader of a novel as a hammer is to a dolphin. Nonetheless I have posted a list of those books I remember reading while I worked. This is on my Web site at www.petercareybooks.com.
Finally, it is a pleasure to thank Frances Coady, Sonny Mehta, Ben Ball, Angus Cargill, Diana Coglianese, Meredith Rose, Lydia Buechler, Jean Marc Devocelle, Gabriel Packard, Vanessa Manko, Francoise Mouly, Ivan and Claude Nabokov, Lucy Neave, Ruth Scurr, Paul Kane, Patrick McGrath and Maria Aiken, Stewart Waltzer, Mike Wallace, David Rankin, Grant Hamston at the State Library of Victoria, and David Smith at the New York Public Library.
A NOTE ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Peter Carey received the Booker Prize for Oscar and Lucinda and again for True History of the Kelly Gang. His other honors include the Commonwealth Writers' Prize and the Miles Franklin Literary Award. Born in Australia, he has lived in New York City for twenty years, where he is now the executive director of the Hunter College MFA program in creative writing.
THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK
PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF
Copyright (c) 2009 by Peter Carey
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
Originally published in Australia by Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Group (Australia) Camberwell, in 2009.
Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Illustrations credits: celerifere: Mary Evans Picture Library; Liberty Leading the People by Eugene Delacroix,
Imagno/Getty Images; T. J. Maslen's map reproduced courtesy of Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Carey, Peter, date.
Parrot and Olivier in America / by Peter Carey. -- 1st U.S. ed.
1. Aristocracy (Social class)--France--Fiction.
2. French--America--Fiction. 3. Voyages and travels--Fiction. 4. Master and servant--Fiction. 5. Male friendship--Fiction. 6. America--Fiction. I. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.
Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Peter Carey, Parrot and Olivier in America
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