Returning to this modern classic, I like it more than ever. Has it grown on you folks also?
Oscar and Lucinda, this month’s book club choice, presents a small problem for this web column, because I’ve already reviewed the book here. But then again, it’s an excellent opportunity to talk about how the passage of time can change one’s view of literature – for better or for worse.
This theme is especially relevant to Oscar and Lucinda since it’s one of those books that resonates long after the first reading. At this month’s book club event, members of the audience repeatedly mentioned how strongly they feel – and how long they have held such feelings. It’s one of those rare and precious works of literature that has come to form an important part of many people’s lives, one that’s thought about often and with considerable affection. When Peter Carey did a signing afterwards, people in the queue looked positively weak-kneed – and that wasn’t just because of his rugged Aussie charm.
I understand why they were overwhelmed: the book has stayed with me too. I have vivid memories of – to give just a few examples – Oscar’s nervous first visit to the racecourse with Wardley-Fish, of his meeting with Lucinda on the boat to Australia, and of course of that great glass church floating up the river to Bellingen. More than that, I still feel some emotional attachment to the wild-haired Oscar and Lucinda and their peculiar love story.
Because I recall the book with such fondness and admiration, re-reading the review I wrote a couple of years ago was a salutary experience. I disagreed with the bloody thing. OK, I did my best to convey some of the delights that the book offers – as well as how easy it is to fall for the main characters. But the piece is also full of criticisms that now seem embarrassingly snippy. It seems absurd to complain about such small things when so much of the book is so very good.
I’m aware that I’m slipping into a pretty ugly form of solipsism in reviewing my own review – but I hope there’s some interest in this demonstration of the way good books can mature in the mind. Whisky-like, Oscar and Lucinda’s bad qualities and rougher edges (if indeed there were any) have evaporated with time, while the deeper flavours have strengthened and taken on more complex notes.
It’s possible, of course, that this hazier, warmer recollection is less true to the actual book than my original view – but I’d also say that the fact that Oscar and Lucinda’s absence has made my heart grow fonder is an indication of its enduring power. Particularly, it shows the effectiveness of the love story, which now dominates my memory.
Or, at least, that’s one way of looking at it. Funnily enough, this emotional response was one that Carey himself suggested was quite unexpected. “When I started to write the book,” he said, to the book club audience, “there was no love story. There was a whole lot of ideas … I never thought about the romantic expectations of the reader … It was something of a shock to me.”
That’s how he sees it now, anyway. But it seems I’m in good company when it comes to changing my view of the book over time. Carey suggested his own memory was itself subject to alteration. “You start being a bad witness to your own book,” he said, explaining that his public statements about it at festivals and book clubs have now tangled with his real memories of writing it.
He also spoke movingly (and thrillingly for anyone who’s tried to bring a book into the world themselves) about his emotional involvement with the characters, and about his recollections of getting towards the end of the book, tying up all the pieces and feeling that it worked. Fascinatingly, though, he disavowed the kind of attachment that so many of us feel for the book’s protagonists. When someone in the audience spoke of the characters remaining luminous in his mind, Carey admitted that they didn’t for him. Which is probably as it should be: the novel has taken on a life separate from its creator. A life that’s different for everyone who reads it – and even changes for those individuals as time moves on.
So, how is Oscar and Lucinda for you now?