The Historical Novel, Part 1: Parrot and Olivier in America

I occasionally house sit for a neighbor who has a house that is a bibliophile’s dream. Covered in bookshelves that complete with nooks for window seats or built in desks, I can’t imagine a happier place to live. My neighbor constantly is adding to her collection, with one shelf in particular that houses any recent additions. Strewn about the house are the most recent editions of the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books, in order to inform the next purchase I would like to think.

During a recent conversation, she told me to borrow whatever I’d like and so a few weeks ago I picked up two books that I’d been eyeing for awhile. Several weeks later, I’m almost finished with the second and began to contemplate the coincidental nature of my choices. The two books, Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey and The Master by Colm Toibin, were both written by contemporary writers from parts of the British Empire (Carey is from New Zealand, while Toibin is Irish), both books rely on subject matter that is unabashedly American, and both present romans a clef in a refreshing, literary manner.

Parrot and Olivier in America is based on Alexis de Tocqueville’s grand quest to understand the American people in his 1820 book, Democracy in America. But Carey goes one step further than Tocqueville’s attempt to understand the burgeoning nation through the lens of a French aristocrat. In alternating chapters, he presents the figure of Parrot, the English working class secretary, and Olivier, the de Tocqueville representative.

The two characters hate each other, mostly for being the “other,” the one they blame for the tragedies in their lives. Olivier sees Parrot as the low-class carpetbagger peasant who killed his grandfather in the Revolution and stole his family’s honor. Parrot, on the other hand, sees Olivier as being the archetypal aristocratic oppressor, who separated his family in an act of unfathomable cruelness. And while Carey never brings it up directly, the centuries of embitterment between the French and the English only underscore their differences.

But of course, it is America that bridges these two characters, their hate of each other perhaps surpassed by their loathing of the untamed wilds of the colonies, complete with the pigs that rule the streets of New York City. Carey’s writing sweeps up the massiveness of the land and the difficulty in someone from the old world truly understanding why people would choose this life. But he is also kind to his American characters, suffusing them with the wide-eye idealism and naivety still indicative of Americans.

As a historical novel, Carey’s prose is lovely and engaging, while painting an interesting portrait of a world that is now unimaginable. To think that New York City, the ideal mega-metropolis, was once every much the backwater where one could only get a substance labeled “brandy” that was sure to rip apart every organ in its path to digestion, and in the far out stretches of Manhattan, there was a gentle countryside, complete with streams and fields.

In studying American history, one often forgets that America, the country, almost did not make it. Our pride surges up, conquering and reclaiming every historical defeat as mere inspiration for our continued greatness. Carey’s novel reminds us that we are a self-made nation, but that it is not always paved with golden streets. When he ends his book, we are reminded happiness can be found in America, but so can so many other things.

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