Peter Carey | Luminato at the Library | Part 1 | June 11, 2012 | Appel Salon

[applause] Geoff Pevere: Thank you. Thank you very much.
This evening, it gives me great pleasure to be here as part of Luminato and participating
in what I think is easily the coolest and richest and best event in the entire week,
and that has nothing to do with my presence and everything to do with our guest this evening,
Mr. Peter Carey. I’m assuming that very, very many of you, if not all of you, are familiar
with Mr. Carey’s written work. He is a phenomenally talented and provocative novelist and through
with such books as the True History of The Kelly Gang, Oscar and Lucinda, Parrot and
Olivier in America. He has consistently surprised us with his prose and also surprised us with
his investigation of the relationship between history and the imagination, the emotion,
and the intellect, machinery, and the organism and all of these things in a very, very interesting
and provocative ways are also explored his new book, The Chemistry of Tears. I probably
don’t need to tell you that he is the winner of not one but two Booker prizes. And without
further ado, I would like to introduce reading from his new book, The Chemistry of Tears,
our guest this evening, Peter Carey. [applause] Peter Carey: Twice. [laughter] Let me read
from just the very beginning of The Chemistry of Tears, and you can set your watches, I
think it will take 10 minutes. The voice… We do kill the thing we love when we read
out loud of course because it’s much better when you do it because in your imagination
you will know immediately that this is an English woman and you will imagine her in
your mind. My performance is really gonna to screw this up, but there you go. PC: Dead and no one told me. I walked past
his office, and his assistant was bawling. What is it Felicia? Oh, haven’t you heard?
Mr. Tindall’s dead. What I heard was, Mr. Tindall hurt his head. I thought, for God’s
sake, pull yourself together. Where is he, Felicia? And that was a reckless thing to
ask because Matthew Tindall and I had been lovers for 13 years, but he was my secret
and I was his. Real life, I always avoided his assistant. Now, her lipstick was smeared
and her mouth folded like an ugly sock. Where is he? She sobbed. What an awful, awful question.
Not understanding yet, I asked again. Catherine, he is dead, and thus set herself off into
a second fit of bawling. I marched into his office, as if to prove her wrong. This was
not the sort of thing one did. My secret darling was a big deal, the head curator of metals. PC: There was the photo of his two sons on
the desk. His silly, soft, tweed hat was lying on the shelf. I snatched it. I don’t know
why. And of course, she saw me steal it, but I no longer cared. I fled down the Philips
stairs into the main floor. And on that April afternoon in the Georgian halls of the Swinburne
Museum, amongst a thousand daily visitors, the eighty employees, there was not one single
soul who had any idea of what had just happened. Everything looked the same as usual. It was
impossible that Matthew was not there, waiting to surprise me. He was very distinctive, my
lovely. There was a vertical frown mark just to the left of his big high nose. His hair
was thick. His mouth was large, soft and always tender, and of course, he was married. Of
course. Of course. He was 40 when I first noticed him and it was seven years before
we became lovers. PC: I was by then just under 30 and still
something of a freak, that is, the first female horologist the museum had ever seen. Thirteen
years, my whole life. It was a beautiful world we lived in all that time, SW1, the Swinburne
Museum, one of London’s almost-secret treasure houses. It had a considerable horological
department, a world-famous collection of clocks and watches, automata and other wind-up engines.
If you had been there on the 21st of April 2010, you may have seen me, the oddly elegant
tall woman with the tweed hat scrunched up in her hand. I may have looked mad, but perhaps
I was not so different from my colleagues, the various curators and conservators, pounding
through the public galleries on their way to a meeting or a studio or a store room where
they would soon interrogate an ancient object, a sword, a quilt, or perhaps an Islamic water
clock. We were museum people, scholars, priests, repairers, sandpaperers, scientists, plumbers,
mechanics, train-spotters really, with narrow specialities in metals and glass and textile
and ceramics. We were of all sorts, we insisted, even while we were secretly confident that
the stereotypes all held true. A horologist, for instance, could never be a young woman
with good legs. It must be a slightly nerdy man of less than five foot six, cautious,
a little strange, with fine blond hair and some difficulty in looking you in the eye. PC: You might see him scurrying like a mouse
through the ground floor galleries, with his ever present jangling keys, looking as if
he were the keeper of the mysteries. In fact, no one in the Swinburne knew any more than
a part of the labyrinth. We had reduced our territories to rat runs, the routes we knew
would always take us where we wanted to go. This made it an extraordinarily easy place
to live a secret life and to enjoy the perverse pleasures that such a life can give. In death,
it was a total horror. That is the same, but brighter, more in focus. Everything was both
crisper and further away. How had he died, how could he die? PC: I rushed back to my studio and Googled
“Matthew Tindall,” but there was no news of any accident. However, my inbox had an email
which lifted my heart until I realized he had sent it at 4 PM the day before. “I kiss
your toes,” it said. I marked it unread. There was no one I dared turn to. I thought I will
work. It was what I had always done in crisis. It is what clocks were good for, their intricacy,
their peculiar puzzles. I sat at the bench in the workroom trying to resolve an exceedingly
whimsical 18th century French clock. My tools lay on soft grey chamois. Twenty minutes previously,
I had liked this French clock, but now it seemed vain and preening. PC: I buried my nose inside Matthew’s hat.
“Snuffle,” we would have said. “I snuffle you.” “I snuffle your neck.” I could have
gone to Sandra, the line manager. She was always a very kind woman but I could not bear
anyone, not even Sandra, handling my private business, putting it out on the table and
pushing it around like so many broken necklace beads. My German grandfather and my very English
father were clock-makers, nothing too spectacular. First Clerkenwell, then the city, then Clerkenwell
again, mostly, good solid English five-wheel clocks. But it was an item of faith for me,
even as a little girl, that this was a very soothing, satisfying occupation. For years,
I thought clock-making must still any turmoil in one’s breast. PC: I was so confident of my opinion and so
completely wrong. The tea lady provided her depressive offering. I observed the anti-clockwise
motion of the slightly curdled milk, just waiting for him, I suppose. So when her hand
did touch me, my whole body came unstitched. It felt like Matthew, but Matthew was dead.
And in his place was Eric Croft, the head curator of horology. I began to howl and could
not stop. He was the worst possible witness in the world. Crafty Crofty was, to put it
very crudely, the master of all that ticked and tocked. He was a scholar, a historian,
a connoisseur. I, in comparison, was a well-educated mechanic. Crofty was famous for his scholarly
work on “Sing-songs” by which is meant those, sorry, which is meant those perfect imperial
misunderstandings of oriental culture we so successfully exported to China in the 18th
century, highly elaborate music boxes encased in the most fanciful compositions of exotic
beasts and buildings, often placed on elaborate stands. PC: This was what it was like for members
of our caste. We built our teetering lives on this sort of thing. The beasts moved their
eyes, ears and tails. Pagodas rose and fell. Jewelled stars spun and revolving glass rods
provided a very credible impression of water. I bawled and bawled and now I was the one
whose mouth became a sock puppet. Like a large chairman of a rugger club, who has a Chihuahua
as a pet, Eric did not, at all, resemble his sing-songs, which one might expect to be the
passion of a slim fastidious homosexual. PC: He had a sort of hetero gung-ho quality
“metals” people are supposed to have. “No, no,” he cried. “Hush.” Hush? He was not rough
with me, but he got his big hard arm around my shoulder and compelled me into a fume cupboard
and then turned on the extractor fan which roared like 20 hairdryers all at once. I thought,
I’ve let the cat out of the bag. “No,” he said. “Don’t.” The cupboard was awfully small,
built solely so that one conservator might clean an object with toxic solvent. He was
stroking my shoulder as if I were a horse. “We will look after you,” he said. In the
midst of bawling, I finally understood that Crofty knew my secret. “Go home for now,”
he said quietly. I thought, I’ve betrayed us. I thought, Matthew will be pissed off.
“Meet me at the greasy spoon,” he said. “10 o’clock tomorrow, across the road from the
annex. Do you think you can manage that? Do you mind?” PC: “Yes,” I said, thinking, so that’s it.
They are gonna kick me out of the main museum. They are gonna lock me in the annex. I had
spilt the beans. “Good,” he beamed and the creases around his mouth gave him a rather
cat-like appearance. He turned off the extractor fan, and suddenly, I could smell his aftershave.
“First, we’ll get you sick leave. We’ll get through this together. I’ve got something
for you to sort out,” he said. “A really lovely object.” That’s how people talk at the Swinburne,
they say object instead of clock. I thought he’s exiling me, burying me. The annex was
situated behind Olympia where my grief might be as private as my love. So he was being
kind to me, strange, majeure Crofty. I kissed him on his rough sandalwood-smelling cheek.
We both looked at each other with astonishment and then I fled, out onto the humid street
pounding down toward the Albert Hall, with Matthew’s lovely, silly hat crushed inside
my hand. Thank you, thank you. [applause] GP: One of the things that I kind of always
believe to be sort of true in my life is a bit of wisdom that my father often imparted
to me, which was if it… It’s all about common sense which is that if it quacks like a duck,
and it walks like a duck then it’s probably a duck. And your book comes along and says
no, it’s not really a duck at all among very many other things as we’ll get into in a moment.
The interesting thing about the reading from the book is that it would in no way obviously
indicate where the book is about to go. And the journey that is about to be taken by Catherine.
The encounter that she is going to have with someone undergoing a similarly intense emotional
experience in another century involving the construction of an automaton of great intricacy
that is not a duck after all as it is and first used to be. So I’m very interested in
finding out in particular where this book begins for you in terms of inspiration. You
wanna start… Is it that emotional violence that you want to begin with and see where
it goes from there or at what point, where do… PC: The whole emotional life of the book is
true. If this is the question, what’s happening here is totally discovered. When I… I normally
tend to begin novels with ideas that are a little bit like diagrams or cartoons or something.
So that when I began Oscar and Lucinda, it wasn’t thinking about Oscar or Lucinda or
their strange love affair or the fact that they would never do it. But that I was imagining
a box full of Christian stories, in fact a church floating through a landscape filled
with indigenous stories. And I was thinking how the Christian stories killed the indigenous
stories and how in that particular circumstance that even the church wasn’t wanted anymore.
So that’s sort of where I begin and so then I begin to ask myself why this, why that,
who would do such a stupid thing? Why would you put a church on barge. I mean that is
a ridiculous thing to do, but I liked the ideas, and so I found reasons for that to
happen. And in this particular case, it’s not quite… This book I think has got a lot
more threads in it, but one of the things that I started with which in the end becomes
the belief that… In a book full of many unstable characters. GP: Many. PC: The least stable of them all has this
particular idea which is where I started, and I was really thinking about, well I was
thinking about the internal combustion engine particularly. Which in my family, I come from
a long line of car salesmen and women, and my family loved Henry Ford. My father loved
Henry Ford so much that I had to give him this book when I was about 20 called, “Working
For Ford,” and he said, “What a bastard he was.” So then I destroyed my father’s belief
in Henry Ford, but that’s something different. [chuckle] So we all loved the internal combustion
engine and then I thought yeah well here we are now, and if you wanted to think what was
destroying the planet, you’d have to put the internal combustion engine pretty high on
the list. I mean it’s big list and there’s a lot of competition. GP: Yes. Television and [inaudible] temperature.
Yeah. PC: And they want to look at this whole land
mass of thread with all these black lines of bitumen, stone and how… And I thought
if you really wanted to destroy… If you were say hostile space aliens wanting to destroy
the people on planet Earth and make it suitable just for yourself then maybe all you had to
do was deliver the plans for the internal combustion engine and come back in 200 years’
time, and it would have been mostly done for you. [laughter] PC: And so I… And of course it’s a ludicrous
idea but my books often start with sort of ludicrous ideas. I’ve learnt to trust them
in a way and my only safety lies in risk I suppose. So I really tried all sorts of ways
to make that idea work. And in the end that is an important thread of the argument of
the book, but that particular thread of argument is carried by the least stable character in
the book whose clearly nuts. But the idea itself it seems to me to still have an enormous
poetic pattern. So then I start to think about sort of a notion that the internal combustion
engine… I should leave, shouldn’t I… Anyway the internal combustion engine might have
been… Might be this other engine which might be more interesting and that this might build
inside… There is a planet inside this other engine and I started to get really interested
in the incredible creativity and the inventiveness, you know, 18th, 19th centuries particularly.
And although nothing is ever innocent, you could sometimes look at the invention of that
time as being a little more innocent than… Maybe a little less corporate for instance. PC: And looking at this, I came across this
amazing cross-section of an automaton, which was a duck invented by a man who did all sorts
of very serious work including inventing knitting machines and so on which you can still see
in museums, but although the duck itself seems to have lived no longer than a human being. GP: Yes. PC: And the duck was meant to eat and shit
and what a miracle that was. GP: Mm-hmm. PC: Because it’s life, right? And of course
it was fraudulent but having… I began to have the notion of somebody, somebody going
to Europe on a quest to have this thing made by a clock-maker. So I begin to invent Henry
Brandling, and at the other end of it, I begin to think about somebody who might be assembling
this same automaton after many, many years, and I start to think about Catherine. And
in all of this, there is not a drop of the emotion. I swear to God. It’s just to make,
you know, just to… But then I start to think about who Catherine might be, and I’ve heard
a story about a woman working in a legal firm actually who’s had a long affair with a partner,
and he died suddenly and no one knows he’s married like this and therefore… And the
whole business of having to tell someone, going through deleting the emails and all
the… And I thought like that was an interesting story, and I really wasn’t thinking very carefully
about what the implications of this were, which is typical of me. I carelessly plunge
ahead with something like this. PC: And because… And so what comes together
is the woman is grieving and kind of expresses her grief who’s death has taken her lover
from her. She’s dealing with life and death and pain and suffering and life after death
or not and so on, and there that their dear crafty Crofty, and his particular slightly
self-obsessed sort of why I’d been kind gives her a job to do this thing, to work on this
machine which will simulate life and then of course raises the question of life, what
is life? What is the human life? And then just into or comes into all of these things
which always fascinate me, is in the greater which the body is a machine and which of course
it is. I felt not the tiniest distress in thinking that their bodies are machines and
that their feelings are produced by the great factory of their bodies, and it doesn’t feel
a tiny bit less mysterious or amazing or wondrous to me. So it’s not depressing. But that’s
what… PC: So she’s sort of like that, but there
is another whole argument in the book which comes from the Germans particularly which
is what suggested all that it is ridiculous to have that sort of view of anything ’cause
how can you possibly know. So there’s a notion that we are like flies buzzing against the
glass of the cathedral not knowing where we are. So what I’m finding as I go into this
is a dialogue and an argument about these things where I started and where I will stay
is the issue I’ve been concerned about the invention, machines, the environment and the
threat to a planet and that will stay there, but this other more emotional canvas will
become more, will be the discovery for me in the book. GP: So you’re saying that for a large part
though the process for you is a rather intuitive and organic one. It begins with the combustion
engine and after that you just kind of follow where it takes you? PC: Well, I don’t know… I mean I don’t know
whether intuitive is the right word. I think it’s sort of more pursuing a sort of abstract
logic, you know, which says, “If this is so therefore it follows that.” GP: Right. PC: And that’s what I would think what gets
called creativity. For me, it is sort of figuring out what the consequences are and if I want
something to happen to ask what sort of person would do it really… GP: Right. PC: Not just ’cause you want to be the puppet
master. GP Yes. Yes. Is it, is it a process that comes
which you describe it as a process that comes fairly easily to you once you have settled
on a notion and how to pursue it? PC: Writing is the easiest thing in the world. [laughter] GP: Two Bookers. PC: That’s right. GP: Yeah. PC: Well, you know, it’s… You know it’s…
It comes easily. Certain things do come easily. GP: Yes. PC: I mean I think the… I’ve never… Finding
the voice of a character you know is something I seem to do relatively intuitively and quickly,
but other things of course one slaves over forever and gets halfway through a book or
three-quarters of the way through a book and think it’s all falling to bits and it’s crap
and that it can never work, and I found myself sitting there and like I’m writing little
notes to myself. “What is this about” and then say, “This is a book about… ” And then
I write, “Yeah, so could somebody write this book?” “Yes. Then why don’t you do it?” So… [laughter] PC: So like that. But I think very… If you
knew you had to do it, it would be very boring and if you… If it wasn’t full of… If you
weren’t going where you’ve never been before, it wouldn’t be an interesting thing to do.
I mean what’s great about the novel for me is so I start with an idea like that, a rather
slight sort of idea in a way and two years later then there’s this world, there are these
people I’ve never met whose pain I am aware of and whose joys I am aware of and who are
not, I guess, like anybody I know, and there they are. And they have been born out of this
process with the ideas in their contradiction and different layers, still being there. GP: How do you imagine the book, for example,
might have turned out differently if you hadn’t come across the picture of the duck, of Will
Constance’s duck? PC: Well, something else would’ve happened.
I don’t know. [laughter] GP: I’m wondering if the idea of the internal
combustion engine, the alien, the Trojan horse might have found another vehicle. PC: Oh! Yes, I had been going at this for
quite a while in different ways, and I think a lot of ways sort of I’m an unreliable witness
because I think I’ve occasionally said I had the idea quite recently and then I realize
actually I had the idea years ago. And I was certain, I spent a lot of time thinking about…
Was thinking about Ford, Henry Ford and the space aliens, which I am gonna do a book about
alien abduction one of these days, but I just haven’t got past the probes for the moment. [laughter]

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