The artist is always for himself alone, allegedly a MONK, a PRIEST or KING, in spite of which assertion he was always seeking a woman who would let him lie with his BUG IRISH face between her breasts.
My love affair with Peter Carey continues unabated. In fact it has intensified considerably as a result of this wonderful, funny, profane, profound novel. Like the other two I've read recently, The Chemistry of Tears and Parrot and Oliver in America, Theft has a pair of narrators, and what a pair they are. Michael Boone is a painter, once hugely celebrated and now completely out of fashion. The son of a butcher in Bacchus Marsh, Australia (Carey's own birthplace, apparently) he is a big, angry, heavy-drinking man with the most wonderful eye for and sensitivity to art. Here's his account of how he ended up studying art:
I abandoned my mother and my brother to the mercies of Blue Bones and went down to Melbourne on the train, a bruiser, unlettered, with white socks and trousers to my ankles. I had no choice but to play the cards I had been dealt, and I tried to make a virtue of them, deliberately arriving at life class with blood still on my hands. For what was I judged to be but a kind of raging pig? I had not read Berenson or Nietzsche or Kierkegaard but still I argued. Forgive me, Dennis Flaherty, I had no right to knock you down. I had no right to speak. I knew nothing, had seen sweet fucking all, had never been to Florence or Siena or Paris, never studied art history. At lunch break at William Anglis’s wholesale butchery, I read Burckhardt. I also read Vasari and saw him patronise Uccello, the prick. Poor Paolo, Vasari wrote, he was commissioned to do a work with a chameleon. Not knowing what a chameleon was, he painted a camel instead. Well fuck you, Vasari. That was the level of my response. I thought, You went to the finest schools all right but you are nothing more than a gossip and a suck-up to Cosimo de Medici.
Nicknamed Butcher Bones for obvious reasons, he is suffering from the effects of an acrimonious divorce in which his ex wife ('the plaintiff') managed to acquire all his paintings. And in his care he has his brother Hugh, sometimes known as Slow Bones, who is one of the most remarkable literary creations I have ever had the pleasure of reading (or, in this case, listening to). Butcher sometimes calls him an idiot savant, and certainly he is mentally challenged in some ways -- but in other ways, he is more perceptive and intelligent than anyone else in this complex story. A whole essay could be, and probably has been, written about Hugh and his quirks -- his love of the great Australian childrens' story The Magic Pudding, and of sausages, and of his own folding chair, carried everywhere with him so he can sit in streets and watch the world go by. Most wonderful of all, though, is his speech, of which you can see a sample at the top. Although I listened to this rather than reading it, the reader, Stan Pretty, conveyed really well the brilliant way that the printed text has many words in upper case, which I take to be terms that Hugh has had to learn and that don't come entirely naturally to him. Hugh may be autistic, but he is also a poet.
As the novel begins, Butcher and Hugh are living in isolation in a house belonging to Butcher's last remaining patron. One stormy night, a visitor turns up at the door -- a GAMINE with tiny boobies and a silk dress you could have fitted in your pocket with your hanky according to Hugh -- the exquisite Marlene Leibovitz, whose husband's father was a hugely celebrated painter. Marlene has come to validate a painting by Jacques Leibovitz which is in the possession of one of Butcher's neighbours. But soon afterwards, the painting is stolen, and Butcher comes under suspicion by the art police. Moving to Sydney with Hugh, he meets Marlene again and the two begin a passionate affair. Marlene soon arranges for all Butcher's recent paintings to be exhibited in Japan, where they are all bought by a collector. But as they travel first to Tokyo and then to New York, it becomes increasingly clear that there's a major scam going on, though the full details emerge only slowly.
So as the subtitle proclaims, this is a love story, though perhaps it would be better said to be several love stories -- Butcher and Marlene, of course, but also Butcher and Hugh, and Butcher and art. Some of the most wonderful passages in the novel are those when Butcher describes his own process of painting, from choosing the colours to applying them to the final painstaking business of picking out the dead insects and bits of detritus that have fallen into the drying paint. It's also about the meaning of art, the true value of art, the pretentiousness of the art world and its inability to detect the real from the fake. It's about scams, and crimes, and questions how long you can go on loving someone who you come to perceive as not only immoral but possibly deranged.
I was completely happy all the way though this glorious, mad novel, and sorry when it came to an end. Let's finish with another bit of Hugh, musing on his childhood and about the eventual fate of all mankind:
Our father Blue Bones was much the same and we brothers cowered before his fury when TRACKED-IN SAND was detected on the carpets of the VAUXHALL CRESTA and then there were such threats of whippings with razor strops, electric flex, greenhide belts, God save us, he had that mouth, cruel as a cut across his skin. As a boy I could never understand why nice clean sand would cause such terror in my dad’s bloodshot eyes, but I had never seen an hourglass and did not know that I would die. None shall be spared, and when my father’s hour was come then the eternal sand-filled wind blew inside his guts and ripped him raw, God forgive him for his sins. He could never know peace in life or even death, never understood what it might be to become a grain of sand, falling whispering with the grace of multitudes, through the fingers of the Lord.
Thanks to Audible for this excellent recording, and to Stan Pretty for reading it so superbly.