Probably my opinion of this bold book is worthless. Peter Carey, having decided to write a novel about Alexis de Tocqueville’s visit to the United States in 1831-2, read, among many other works, my biography of Tocqueville, which was published two years ago in, he says, ‘the nick of time’. He is kind enough to call it ‘delightful’, and has plundered it assiduously. What I myself find delightful is the way in which Carey has picked up the signals. I never expected such a close, intelligent reader, and I’m glad to think my work has been of use to him. But this does not make me a dispassionate reviewer.
And nobody else has my reasons for studying Carey’s transmogrifications. He makes it as easy as he can for readers who know or care nothing about Tocqueville. He calls his hero Olivier de Garmont, giving him both a completely distinct personality and substantially different adventures in America. He invents a travelling companion for Olivier, a wastrel Englishman nicknamed Parrot; between them they give both sides of every question, and experience a good deal of sex and violence, neither of which happened to Tocqueville during his voyage, unless you count a shipwreck on the Ohio river.
Carey understands that historical novels nowadays have to manage a high bodice- ripping quotient, which he does his best to supply; and he leaves out a great deal of intractable material, such as Tocqueville’s journeys to Canada and on the Mississippi. Instead, we get chapters on Parrot’s grim childhood experiences as a fugitive on Dartmoor and aboard a convict ship bound for Australia (in which thrilling passages I thought I detected the influence of Robert Louis Stevenson).
Yet, even so, Carey has, I think, unduly stinted on the blood-and-thunder. His intellectualism is the reason. He is really anxious to contribute to the debate on Tocquevillian themes, above all the viability of American democracy. For instance, his closing pages contain a dialogue between Parrot and Olivier about the future of painting under democracy, which could be read as a satire on the current New York art market; but the intellect gets in the way of the tale. I was reminded of Marie, ou l’esclavage, the novel written by Tocqueville’s actual companion, Gustave de Beaumont. And the tale gets in the way of the argument. Olivier is a poor creature; it is impossible to believe that he is the author of Democracy in America and the Système Pénitentiaire. He and his relatives are reactionary snobs, which was certainly not true of the Tocqueville family.
Carey’s vision of post-Napoleonic France seems stereotyped. His America is much better, but his account of it is in direct competition, not only with Tocqueville, but with writers such as Frances Trollope and Michel Chevalier. In short, he falls between several stools. Nor does the brilliance of his writing entirely compensate for his plot, the incidents of which are too contrived to be believable.
What a shame. But disappointed readers can still turn back to Democracy in America and Kidnapped; and my biography has just come out in paperback.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated January 30, 2010Tags: America, Fiction, History, Philosophy