Week four: readers’ responses to the novel

Jane Austen used to chat with ­family and friends about the afterlives of characters from her novels. How happy would Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax be together? It was evident from his discussion of Oscar and ­Lucinda at the Guardian book club that Peter Carey has no such attachment to the people he had invented. “Do you ever revisit the characters you create, in your mind?” asked one reader. He spoke of the characters whose stories are incomplete, giving the example of the wonderful Wardley-Fish, who travels to Australia merely to find ­Oscar and manages to keep missing him. “Years could go by without me thinking of Wardley-Fish,” Carey answered drily. “You’ve got these people alive in your mind, I hope, but I haven’t any more.” He paused. “I shouldn’t say that, ­really”.

“Emotional attachment” (as one reader put it) was exactly what many felt towards his leading characters. People loved the novel because they loved Oscar and Lucinda. The canny exercise in post-modern narrative – with its framing narrative, its shifts of viewpoint, its allusiveness – seemed to many a rather traditional thing: a love story (albeit one in which the lovers do not meet for more than 200 pages). The readers’ willing surrender to the illusion that the protagonists were real people was shared by bloggers on the book club website. One compared the effect to that of Ian ­McEwan’s Atonement. “To me, Atonement and Oscar and Lucinda provoked a huge emotional response; I see them as the two most powerful romantic tragedies – or whatever you would have it – of the past two decades.” ­Another suggested that the effect of our identification is (as George Eliot might have hoped) to expand our own sympathies. “When I read a novel in which there are characters for whom I long to see the best in life, and whose misfortunes wound me as though happening to me, I come out the other side, I hope, more attentive to the people around me, more concerned for them . . . And no characters I’ve ever met have ever inspired such pronounced aching in me to see good done them than Oscar Hopkins and Lucinda Leplastrier.”

So there was perhaps a little ­puzzlement that Carey did not share what one reader called her “affection” for the book. For this novelist, the reality of the novel was its plan, not its characters. Some readers acknowledged their pleasure in the design as well as the characterisation: “Although it is big and has all the virtues of a page-turning saga, it also feels very compact and structured.” This reader felt that the pleasure of identification would not have been so great without his strong sense as he read that everything was “planned”.

What had not been planned was the novelist’s excursion into historical fiction. Carey responded ruefully to a member of the audience who suggested that his novels showed him setting out to tackle the various phases of Australian history. No. He had stumbled on the story of a church transported to a secluded spot, and had not been able to avoid the expedition to the 19th century. The place to which the story led was his starting point.

A correspondent in last week’s paper corrected my casual (I agree) use of “the outback” to refer to the location of the novel’s concluding episodes, in which Oscar travels with the glass church to Boat Harbour, “in the parish of Never Never”. She pointed out that this was not somewhere in Australia’s “harsh, inhospitable desert interior”, but what is now “the pretty, leafy, exceedingly hospitable little town of Bellingen on New South Wales’s central eastern seaboard”. Yet in the novel the ­journey to this place is hellish (not least because the aquaphobic Oscar insists on traveling by land). En route, Oscar encounters settlers who live in primitive conditions beyond any human law. He himself is reduced to violence to counter the sadism of Jeffris, the expedition leader. A blogger who had revelled in the descriptive pleasures of the novel was prompted to the same error of nomenclature, in complaining that “the rawness of the outback scenes seemed too abrupt and arbitrary an ending after so much opulence”.

“When you reached the ending, I wonder if you felt as bereft as I did?” asked a reader at the book club. “I felt fantastic,” Carey responded. All that mattered was “getting the end to work”. His bereft reader was happy, she said, with what might be thought the unhappy ending of the novel. Yet she had become so involved with the leading characters that she was “lost, for days” after she had finished it. Carey could not share her feelings, but he did thank her for them.

John Mullan is professor of English at University College London. Next week he will be looking at Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated. Join them for a discussion at 7pm on Tuesday 2 March, Hall One, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9AG. Tickets are £9.50 online (www.kingsplace.co.uk) or £11.50 from the box office. Tel: 020 7520 1490.

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