|Friday 03 August, 2001
Carey And The Outlaw
Peter Carey’s many novels range in style. From the historical re-imagining of Dickens in Jack Maggs, the modern and bleak Tax Inspector through to the curious tale of Oscar And Lucinda. His latest novel takes yet another perspective as Carey takes on the legendary outlaw Ned Kelly.
Here one of Australia’s most engaging authors speaks to Meridian Masterpiece about how he has taken the bare facts of the anti-hero’s life and turned them into the basis for a prize-winning novel.
From early in his career Peter Carey’s writing has attracted admirers and prizes.
His first novel, Bliss, earned him the 1982-Miles Franklin award. His third, Oscar And Lucinda, not only won the Booker Prize, but was made into a film starring Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett.
His two most recent novels, Jack Maggs, and now True History Of The Kelly Gang, have won the author the Commonwealth Writers Prize.
The Ned Kelly Appeal
Since the late 1980s Carey has lived mostly in New York, with his wife, theatre director Alison Summers and their two children. Despite living stateside, Australia’s mystery and anthologies have always snared his imagination.
Carey’s current interest in Australia’s anti-hero Ned Kelly was sparked after reading the outlaw’s surviving testament, known as the Jerilderie Letter. It led him to think about the significance of Kelly within Australia’s history and of how the convict’s legacy still shapes the nation’s society.
‘This outlaw story isn’t just a story, but really I would say it is the story. He is admired for his courage, but you have to think of Australia as being this place where the European history begins with a penal colony.’
‘There was this 19th century notion of the convict staying – so the question is, can you have a decent society when you begin with these people?’
When armed police finally cornered Ned Kelly, he emerged into the midst of the fray in an iron helmet and body armour.
The image of the gangster with such sinister headgear has an archetypal power for modern Australians.
Carey questions the appeal of this iconic national figure when, in his book, a witness to Kelly’s last stand asks:
|‘What is it about us Australians, eh? What is wrong with us? Do we not have a Jefferson? A Disraeli? Might we not find someone better to admire than a horse thief and a murderer?’Peter Carey |
The suggestion that Kelly is in fact Australia’s answer to Thomas Jefferson raised eyebrows in both literary and news gathering circles. On the release of the True History Of The Kelly Gang earlier this year, Australian newspapers queried how the author could make such contentious claims.
Writing at the time the novelist Patrick McGrath defended his friend when he wrote:
‘There were letters to the paper condemning his suggestion that Kelly was the Thomas Jefferson of Australia. That reaction indicated the statement was true, but also very troubling for Australians. That, in fact, a strand of their character could be traced back to a murderer and a thief who wound up on the gallows.’
On the surface the Kelly Gang story may seem like an unusual choice for Carey, but aside from his interest in Australia’s history, the way that the Jerilderie Letter was written also appealed to his linguistic curiosity.
As Carey has explained:
‘Ned Kelly was a familiar figure, but there was something about the prose – I’d been reading Joyce and Beckett and in this bushranger found this rush of Irish language that seemed part of the same tradition.’
In writing the character of Ned Kelly, Carey gives him a very particular voice. As with the Jerilderie Letter, the author omits commas and uses an unorthodox system to punctuate the text.
Carey explains his impetus to write in this style:
‘The desire to produce a sort of run on prose, to make a sort of poetry out of this uneducated voice …things like the abbreviations just seemed to me to be natural to a person in a hurry… I never felt that I was making it up. I always felt that I knew it.’
It is perhaps this confidence in writing that has made Carey’s novels so successful. His skill at interpreting a range of subjects and presenting them in authentic and readable styles demands great clarity.
A skill that has not gone unnoticed by the author Julian Barnes as he recently wrote of Carey’s narrative power:
‘At the very basic level it does what the best literature does. It convinces you that it was exactly like that. That this is how they lived and these were their mental and physical parameters. I didn’t hear a single false beat.’
| Further Reading
Oscar And Lucinda, 1988
The Tax Inspector, 1991
The Unusual Life Of Tristan Smith, 1994
Jack Maggs, 1997
True History Of The Kelly Gang, 2000
Published by Faber And Faber.