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Peter Carey (b. 1943)

 

Australian short story writer and novelist, who has combined in his works realism, fantastic, and surreal situations. Carey's first novel, Bliss (1981), can be read as a posthumous fantasy, The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith (1994) is set in an alternate-world Earth, and The Big Bazoohley (1995) involves a witch. His dark satire Oscar and Lucinda (1988) won the Booker Prize for fiction and was filmed in 1997.

"My great-grandfather drifted up the Bellinger River like a blind man up the central aisle of Notre Dame. He saw nothing. The country was thick with sacred stories more ancient than the ones he carried in his sweat-slippery leather Bible. He did not even imagine their presence. Some of these stories were as small as the transparent anthropods that lived in the puddles beneath the river casuarinas. These stories were like fleas, thrip, so tiny that they might inhabit a place (inside the ears of the seeds of grass) he would later walk across without even seeing. In this landscape every rock had a name, and most names had spirits, ghosts, meanings." (from Oscar and Lucinda)

Peter Carey was born in Bacchus Marsh, Victoria. His parents, who had a General Motors dealership, sent him to Geelong Grammar School, one of the leading private schools, "where the children of Australia's Best Families all spoke with English accents". Carey studied briefly in 1961 at Monash University, where he failed a science degree. After leaving university, Carey worked in advertising agencies in Melbourne and London. He started to read passionately, especially the work of Joyce, Beckett, Kafka and Faulkner, and in 1964 he began to write. By 1968 he had composed three unpublished novels. In 1974 Carey moved to Sydney, where he became one of the best copywriters in the country. He campaigned among others for Lindemans winery, with the slogan, "You make us smile, Dr. Lindeman." In the 1980s he opened McSpedden Carey Advertising Consultants with Bani McSpedden. About 1990 Carey moved with his wife, Alison Summers, a theater director, and his son, to New York, where he taught creative writing at University of New York. When his American editor asked if he would like to co-write the memoirs of his fellow Australian, Julian Assenge, he dismissed the idea. "Two control freaks? It wouldn't work," he said in an interview to the Bookseller in 2014.

As a writer Carey made his debut with The Fat Man in History (1974), highly praised by critics. It was followed by War Crimes (1979), an award winning collection of short stories, most of which Carey wrote in an "alternative community" at Yandina in the rainforest of Queensland. Bliss was a darkly comic novel about an advertising executive, Harry Joe, who wakes up from a heart operation and believes that the life he has known is in fact Hell: his wife is having an affair with his business partner, his clients poison the environment, his daughter uses drugs, his son is a Communist; they have incestuous relationship. Harry must die again before he is free from the world he hates.

While living is Bellingen in northern New South Wales, Carey wrote Illywhacker (1985), which partly drew on his grandfather's experiences delivering the first mail around Australia. The book took its title from an Australian colloquialism for con artist. Herbert Badgery, the 139-year-old "illywhacker," confesses at the novel's beginning that he is a liar, but anyhow tells the history of twentieth-century Australia through his comic adventures. In the true spirit of postmodernist playful treatment of "reality," Herbert questions the truth of the very stories he is telling, and parallels the official history of the country with prodigious lies.

The Bellingen Valley and its surroundings left also marks on Oscar and Lucinda (1988), an historical tour de force set in the 19th century. It is a caricature of the bigotry of Christianity and a love story of Oscar Hopkins and Lucinda Leplastrier. Oscar quarrels with his father and escapes into Anglicanism – his father is one of the Plymouth Brethren. Compulsive gambling - Oscar has proved the existence of God for himself by gambling - takes the young Reverend to Australia. On the ship he meets Lucinda, an orphaned heiress, and an obsessive gambler. She owns a glass factory and together they built a 12-ton cathedral made from glass. Lucinda bets her inheritance that Oscar cannot deliver his church to his remote missionary post. But Carey has already made it clear, that the union of Oscar and Lucinda is impossible. Oscar's foolish attempt fails and the church sinks into the Bellinger river. "And when the long-awaited white fingers of water tapped and lapped on Oscar's lips, he welcomed them in as he always had, with a scream, like a small boy caught in the sheet-folds of a nightmare.'' The theme of gambling was for Carey a handy plot device but it also reflected the author's postmodernist philosophical stance: ''I remembered what Pascal said about belief in God being a gamble – and when I find two things that fit like that, it interests me.'' Gillian Armstrong's film version of the book, starring Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blachett, dealt the theme of self-restructive passion in more distant manner than Werner Herzog in his films Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982).

Tax Inspector (1991) was a tragicomedy of modern life in run-down town outside Sydney, set amongst Catchprices, a cursed family of car dealers. In The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, which Carey wrote in New York City, he presents the reader two imaginary lands: the domineering high-tech Voorstand and the archipelago called Efica, populated by rebellious and nationalistic people. The title of the novel refers to The Life and Adventures of Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne (1713-1768). As in his earlier works, Carey shows his laid-back mastery over the techniques of storytelling: ""Please sit in your seats," Tristan, the disillusioned narrator, starts, "while I have you understand exactly why my heart is breaking." In Jack Maggs (1997) a departed criminal returns in secret to England from Australia, to see his beloved son. Carey took his protagonist from Dickens's Great Expectations, Magwitch in the book. The novel won the Commonwealth Writers Prize. Departing from the standard custom, according to which the winner receives an invitation to meet the Queen, Carey dropped the invitation for family and personal reasons.

Carey's novels have been a gold mine for critics who look influence of magic realism, Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, Charles Dickens, postmodernism, and postcolonial political literature. Carey himself has not explained too much of his work. He has said that Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude had a huge effect on him, but in a New York Times interview Carey confessed that he has "never really read Dickens. I quit 'Bleak House' after I encountered this nauseatingly good little girl. But I will read Dickens one day, I promise.''

True History of the Kelly Gang (2001) won the prestigious Booker Prize in 2001. It drew a colorful portrait of the famous Irish-Australian outlaw and tragic martyr. Receiving the award, Carey told that he was indebted to his wife and the writer Ian McEwan, one of the favorite candidates, promising to buy him an expensive meal. Carey adopted in the book the language of late-19th-century rural Australiains, using among his sources the outlaw's one surviving letter. "I lost my own father at 12 yr. of age and know what it is to be raised on lies and silences my dear daughter you are presently too young to understand a word I write but this history is for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false." Carey takes the reader from Ned's childhood and teenage years in prisons to his horse stealings and bank robbings, and finally to his years as a leader of a rebel band of farmers, fighting against servants of a corrupt system. In 2001 Carey also published A Wildly Distorted Account, a travel book of the author's 30 days visit to Sydney.

My Life as a Fake (2003) was inspired by Australia's most famous literary hoax, the "Ern Malley Scandal" of 1944, which completely humiliated one editor and a number of modernist poets, and sent two joking poets into exile. Theft: A Love Story (2006), narrated by two brother, was about art, forgery, murder, and true love. "Peter Carey is a superb writer, whose prose is always active, and who infuses his characters, however eccentric, with a warmth that lets them live in our minds. But "Theft" is not a superb novel; there is something displaced at its heart." (John Updike in The New Yorker, Issue of 2006-05-29) The Chemistry of Tears (2012), Carey's 12th novel, is set in two timelines. Catherine, a horologist, mourns in contemporary England the sudden death of her lover, and in  nineteenth century an Englishman, Henry Brandling, hires a German watch-maker to built an automaton for his son, who suffers from consumption. Through Brandling's notebooks, Catherine reconstructs the clockwork machine, a swan, and at the same tries to mend her broken heart. "This tour de force of the imagination succeeds on all fronts," said Rebecca K. Morrison in the Independent

For further reading: Peter Carey: A Literary Companion by Mary Ellen Snodgrass (2010); Dancing on Hot MacAdam: Peter's Carey's Fiction by Anthony J. Hassall (1998); Peter Carey by Bruce Woodcock (1997); Peter Carey by Graham Huggan (1996); Aspects of Narration in Peter Carey's Novels by Hermine Krassnitzer (1995); Dancing on Hot Macadam by A. Hassall (1994); Peter Carey by Karen Lamb (1992); Australian Voices by Ray Willbanks (1991); Liars: Australian New Novelists by H. Daniel (1988) 

Selected works:

  • The Fat Man in History, 1974
  • War Crimes, 1979
  • Bliss, 1981
    - Hurmio (suom. Matti Kannosto, 1983)
    - film adaptation: Bliss, 1985, prod. New South Wales Film Corp., Window III Productions, screenplay written with Ray Lawrence, directed by Ray Lawrence, starring Barry Otto, Lynette Curran, Helen Jones, Miles Buchanan
  • Illywhacker, 1985
  • Oscar and Lucinda, 1988 (Booker Prize in 1988)
    - Oscar ja Lucinda (suom. Leena Tamminen, 1989)
    - film adaptation in 1997, prod. Australian Film Finance Corporation (AFFC), Dalton Films, Fox Searchlight Pictures, dir. by Gillian Armstrong, screenplay by Laura Jones, starring Ralph Fiennes, Cate Blanchett, Ciarán Hinds, Tom Wilkinson   
  • Exotic Pleasures, 1990
  • The Tax Inspector, 1991
  • Until the End of the World, 1992 (screenplay)  
    - film adaptation: Bis ans Ende der Welt, 1991, prod. Argos Films, Road Movies Filmproduktion, Village Roadshow Pictures, dir. by Wim Wenders, starring William Hurt, Solveig Dommartin, Sam Neil, Max von Sydow, Jeanne Moreau
  • The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, 1994
  • Collected Stories, 1994
  • A Letter to Our Son, 1994
  • The Big Bazoohley, 1995
  • Jack Maggs, 1997
  • True History of the Kelly Gang, 2001 (Booker Prize in 2001)
    - Kellyn kopla: tosi tarina (suom. Seppo Loponen, 2002)
  • 30 Days in Sydney: A Wildly Distorted Account, 2001
  • Four Easy Pieces, 2002
  • My Life as a Fake, 2003
  • Wrong about Japan, 2005
  • Theft: A Love Story, 2006
  • His Illegal Self, 2008
  • Parrot and Olivier in America, 2010
  • The Chemistry of Tears, 2012
  • Amnesia, 2014

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