Monday, March 7, 2011
Peter Carey has fun with the idea of De Tocqueville in America in this witty novel, Parrot and Olivier in America.
The real Tocqueville is described by his biographer Hugh Brogan as having been “cross-grained, refined, severely intellectual, private.” Carey doubles the worst of these ingredients to create, in Olivier, a pompous, febrile, tantrum-prone twit, a master Parrot refers to as “Lord Migraine.” Olivier is abstractly liberal but consumingly elitist; his servant boils with ambition and resentment. A socialist and unbeliever, Parrot imagines his own mind to be “a mighty garden wild with weeds,” and himself a man “subject to the laws of Newton but not to those of kings.” He is being cruelly transplanted to a new world whose democratic opportunities he cannot seize: “I read Tom Paine by candlelight, but for 18 hours a day I was a vassal.” He is, however, able to bring along his volatile mistress, Mathilde, a portrait artist who hates the aristocrats she flatters in paint. Tormented by the hours of the voyage that Olivier spends sitting for her, Parrot tosses the resulting canvas over the Havre’s starboard side.