Damaged Beasts

James Wood

  • Theft: A Love Story by Peter Carey
    Faber, 269 pp, £16.99, June 2006, ISBN 0 571 23147 0

Last year, Louis Knickerbocker, a meat distributor from Newport Beach, California, bought a Picasso drawing from the online service of Costco for $40,000. Knickerbocker thought it a steal: ‘They just sell the top quality,’ he told the New York Times, ‘whatever you buy at Costco, whether it’s a washing-machine or a vacuum cleaner. I just thought, if it’s a Picasso, you can’t go wrong.’

But it may have been a steal too far. The drawing had been verified by an art appraiser in Florida, and it came with a certificate of authenticity signed by Picasso’s daughter Maya Widmaier-Picasso. When the Times contacted her, however, Picasso’s daughter promptly denounced the certificate as a forgery. She explained to the paper that a real certificate was marked with one or more of her fingerprints and then embossed with her seal. Here there were errors of French, and the handwriting wasn’t hers. Yet the buyer seemed cheerfully undeterred: ‘Seeing as she signed a lot of those things, who knows how many years ago,’ he told the newspaper, ‘I’m not surprised if she’s going to say that it’s fake unless she has it in front of her.’ In this delicious transference, from the authenticity of the drawing to the authenticity of the authenticator, why shouldn’t the final verdict lie with the buyer, who in a Stanley Fishy way has simply asserted his right to authenticate? Floreat emptor.

Or as Peter Carey ends his new novel, ‘How do you know how much to pay if you don’t know what it’s worth?’ Theft: A Love Story, is about just such issues of authenticity and fraudulence in the international art world. As he did in his last novel, My Life as a Fake, about the Ern Malley hoax, Carey delights in stripping authorship of authority, and in floating the heretical notion that the reader – or the market – may be the final author of the work. If poems written to parody Modernism are determinedly read by an editor as great Modernist poems, are these poems parodies any longer? Is a faked painting, authenticated by the painter’s estate and swooned over by the market, still a fake? What does intention matter if your audience doesn’t care about it?

Michael ‘Butcher’ Boone, one of the two narrators of Theft, is a once famous Australian artist, newly divorced and down on his luck. His work is now very unfashionable, and he has retreated to a rustic house in New South Wales owned by his patron. Here, Michael is looking after Hugh, his large, backward brother, and painting vivid new canvases. Like many of Carey’s scarred, ebullient narrators, Michael is a performer, and his language is a tough dramatic alloy, delicate and robust at once:

This paint was from Raphaelson’s, a small Sydney outfit who are amongst the best pigment makers in the world. In the five years I had been really famous I would use nothing else and now they had some new, very serious acrylic greens: permanent green, earth green, Jenkins green, titanium green, Prussian green, a phthalo green so fucking intense that just a teardrop of this stuff could colonise a blob of white.

Michael Boone’s father was a butcher in the small town of Bacchus Marsh near Melbourne – hence his son’s moniker – and Michael is a provincial rebel, determined to remind the metropolis of his raggedness. In Bacchus Marsh, a German art teacher inducted the young savage into the mysteries of art, and told him to get out (‘Blue Bones’ is his father’s nickname):

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.

This ‘raging pig’ with his shaven bullet-head is surprised one day by a glamorous visitor, a 28-year-old American sophisticate called Marlene Leibovitz. She is the wife of Olivier Leibovitz, whose father, Jacques Leibovitz, was a great Cubist painter, and one of the heroes of Butcher Boone. Marlene is beautiful, charming, and reeks of bad news. She tells Butcher that she is in the area because his neighbour Dozy Boylan owns a major Leibovitz painting, Monsieur et Madame Tourenbois. Butcher is astounded: ‘I had first seen Monsieur et Madame Tourenbois at Bacchus Marsh High School, or at least a black and white reproduction in Foundation of the Modern.’ The painting has recently fallen under suspicion, Marlene tells Butcher, and she has come to authenticate it: her husband has inherited the droit moral, which means that he is the one ‘who gets to say if the work is real or fake’.

Most of this turns out to be untrue. Marlene is not American; like Butcher, she is a provincial, from the tiny town of Benalla, north-east of Melbourne (where, it turns out, she burned down the high school). Dozy Boylan’s painting is not a major Leibovitz, but a canvas ‘completed’ in the 1940s after Leibovitz’s death by his second wife, and passed off as a great early work. Olivier Leibovitz has authenticated it, apparently unaware that its previous owner, MoMA, had decided that it was suspect and had deaccessioned it. So Marlene has come not to re-authenticate the now dubious painting but to steal it, in order to preserve the financial value of their droit moral: she and Olivier could not afford to buy it back from Boylan, yet if the painting were simply left with him, an X-ray device would inevitably reveal the fake work on top of the unfinished original.

Propelled by love and desire, Butcher is speedily entrapped by the belle of Benalla. Marlene is vivacious, and knows how to look after Butcher’s damaged brother, and says she reveres Butcher’s paintings. These are reasons to love her. Butcher is soon aware that Marlene is an amoral scoundrel, but he is also deeply attracted by their shared provinciality, and by the idea that this criminality and hoaxing is the proper revenge on all those posh dealers, critics, curators and buyers: what a lark that the whole of Manhattan, where Butcher has never been, has been dazzled by this con-artist. Sure enough, Marlene leads him to Manhattan, where Butcher becomes her partner in crime and passion, using his talent to fake another Leibovitz painting. After many plot-windings, Butcher manages to disengage from Marlene just in time, and returns to Australia, where he earns a quiet living mowing lawns. But Marlene has the last word. Thanks to her intervention, a German gallery has acquired two Michael Boone paintings: his stock is rising again. Invited to visit the gallery, he sees his paintings and a new acquisition, a Jacques Leibovitz. It is the fake that he painted in Manhattan.

Carey likes these intricate, spangly plots, with their outrageous truancies from verisimilitude and their lizard-like velocity; he is one of the most fantastical storytellers in the language, and yet the stories are not unreal, and this is partly why readers can never decide who he is like: is it Dickens, or Joyce, or Kafka, or Faulkner, or Nabokov, or García Márquez, or Rushdie? Two of the realisms that ground these dense fantasies are Carey’s ability to animate even minor characters with a flick of novelistic attention, and his great interest in the warped reality of spoken language. One of the great familiar pleasures of his new novel is the way the language recklessly mixes different registers into a vivid democracy, now high and now low, but always interestingly rich: ‘the covered walkway suspended between house and studio, a whippy ticklish little structure some ten feet above the ground’. Butcher has a meaty patois, smelly with ‘fucking’ this and ‘shitty’ that, but also capable of dilation: ‘and there were many days in East Ryde when we had been all three silently engaged in the sweet monotony of such housekeeping, hours punctuated by not much more than the song of blackbirds in the garden or a loud friarbird with its wattles hanging like sexual embarrassments on its ugly urgent face’.

Characteristically, Carey’s prose, usually spoken by a narrator, desires to turn itself into a private language, a customised slang: The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith and True History of the Kelly Gang are examples of that Joycean urge, the latter stupendously so. In Theft, proper names are always losing their integrity, and being privatised by the narrator. Michael’s father’s shop, Boones Butchers, was once vandalised into ‘Bones Butchers’, and thereafter the menfolk were all called ‘Bones’: Blue Bones, Butcher Bones (Michael), Slow Bones (Hugh). These names are taken up by the text and promulgated; Michael is sometimes addressed by his brother as Mr Bones, like John Berryman’s alter ego in The Dream Songs (‘Oh how lovely, Mr Bones, how bloody lovely’). The German art teacher becomes the German Bachelor, and the Bauhaus, where he said he once worked, becomes the Bower House. Later in the book, Butcher will refer to the German Bachelor as ‘dear little queeny Bruno Bauhaus’. Clement Greenberg is Clement Dickberg. Language, streaked in ’Strine, rolls in its disorderliness, its holiday from obvious reference: ‘Imagine. All the VICE SQUAD with their big fat woodies come to have a Captain Cook.’

The most accomplished speaker of this private language, and the great enricher of the novel, is its second narrator, Hugh Boone, or Slow Bones, who alternates narration with Michael. Carey has said that As I Lay Dying had a great influence on him, and Hugh is a Faulknerian monologist, who speaks a barbarous, spoiled poetry, sometimes weirdly funny and slangy and sometimes manically vatic and biblical, with frequent crescendos into capital letters. He is envious of his brother’s devotion to his art, and resentful of his own isolation: ‘Bald shiny shaven Butcher Bones said look at my works etc but nowhere did he confess Hugh Bones was his helper.’ But he also allows us to see Michael in greater complexity, and provides the provincial family history that might explain Michael’s criminality. His riffs are moving, twisted, and sometimes sublime in their sudden shifts. A remarkable reminiscence of his father’s hysterical attitude towards sand in the family car quickly mutates into the metaphysical, as sand becomes the sand in an hourglass and then the million grains of sand of eternity:

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.

Lest this seem a bit windy, it should be said that more usually, Hugh’s commentary uses poetry to cut through ‘poetry’, a proper Careyesque paradox:

In the Marsh life was very slow as I recall although no BOWL OF CHERRIES, bitter wind from the Pentland Hills then cold rain all winter, also my neck four times bruised with hailstones not to mention the frost on the windscreen of the Vauxhall Cresta like crushed diamonds in the freezing light. This last was Butcher’s observation and he was never forgiven his POETIC EXPRESSION which was immediately deemed to have come from the German Bachelor.

The jovial cynicism of Theft, and its poststructuralist scepticism about the necessary presence of the author in a work of art, seem rather easy achievements for Carey, not least because he dealt with them so nimbly in My Life as a Fake. As in that book, the real subject – Carey’s abiding subject, addressed in novel after novel – is the hoax of Australian identity, and its self-tortured relationship with the rest of the world. The narrator of Illywhacker, Herbert Badgery, is a self-confessed liar and conman who discovers, while in prison, a history of Australia by M.V. Anderson (Carey’s invention). This history, an extract from which is reproduced, seeks to expose the lie of the country’s origins:

Our forefathers were all great liars. They lied about the lands they selected and the cattle they owned. They lied about their backgrounds and the parentage of their wives. However it is their first lie that is the most impressive for being so monumental, i.e. that the continent, at the time of first settlement, was said to be occupied but not cultivated and by that simple device they were able to give the legal owners short shrift and, when they objected, to use the musket or poison flour, and to do so with a clear conscience.

That novel is much consumed with the question of Australian self-hatred. Herbert argues against the Australian ‘cringe’ towards Europe and America, the relationship of ‘a child serving a parent’. But his wife, Phoebe McGrath, rails against the mediocrity of her smalltown Geelong-Bacchus Marsh life, only to reach Sydney, where she starts a literary magazine called Malley’s Urn, a jokey homage to the famous hoax. In My Life as a Fake, the literary hoaxer, Christopher Chubb, ‘came from the dreary lower-middle-class suburbs. I would say he loathed where he came from.’ The motive for his will-to-hoax is laid at the door of this frustrated provincialism – which is to say, at the door of frustrated Australianism. In that novel, a brilliant rewriting of Frankenstein, Chubb sends a series of parodies to a literary magazine under the name Bob McCorkle, only to find that he is being stalked by a monstrous giant of a man, a brutish yokel who claims that he is Bob McCorkle and the true author of the parodied poems. (The real Ern Malley affair of 1944 had such elements of Frankenstein, as rewritten by Nabokov: the duped literary editor later said that he still believed in the existence of a poet called Ern Malley, despite the evidence, which he accepted, that Ern Malley’s poems were written by two anti-Modernist pranksters, Harold Stewart and James McAuley. ‘I believed in Ern Malley,’ he wrote: ‘I can still close my eyes and conjure up such a person in our streets.’)

So what has Chubb bodied forth? The monster McCorkle recites some of the verse to Chubb, its actual creator, who is appalled by the poetry’s new authenticity: ‘This was and was not the poem Chubb had written. It had been conceived as a parody and the first key to the puzzle of the hoax, but this lunatic had somehow recast it without altering a word. What had been clever had now become true, the song of the autodidact, the colonial, the damaged beast of the antipodes.’ And now Theft, which, in Butcher Bones and Slow Bones, exhibits a prize pair of damaged antipodean beasts. Like Christopher Chubb, Butcher stresses the limitations of his provincial life – as a youngster, he saw only pictures in reproduction. Sympathetically, he can taste the miserable little house that Marlene Leibovitz was escaping in Benalla, ‘the shitty ersatz coffee made from chicory, the canned beetroot staining the boiled egg white in the deadly iceberg salad’:

If you are American you will never understand what it is to be an artist on the edge of the world, to be 36 years old and get an ad in Studio International. And, no, it is in no way like being from Lubbock, Texas, or Grand Forks, North Dakota. If you are Australian you are free to argue that this cringing shit had disappeared by 1981, that history does not count, and that, in any case, we were soon to become the centre of the fucking universe, the flavour of the month, the coalition of the willing etc, but I will tell you, frankly, nothing like this had been conceivable in my lifetime.

The danger with Carey’s last two books is that the distinction between exploring or dramatising the condition of Australian cultural self-hatred and rather awkwardly embodying it can look thin. The real Bob McCorkle, after all, is a genius poet but also a monster, a ‘brutish genius’; Butcher Bones, the once famous and famous again painter, is another brutish genius, but he owes his later success to his own criminality. Among a heap of Calibans, the Prosperos can be hard to find. And there is the piquancy that Carey’s new novel seems to deepen the urgency of this self-argument by letting Butcher’s biography so closely resemble its author’s: Carey was born in Bacchus Marsh in the same year as Butcher, had Australian success first, and has lived for years in the same area of Manhattan that Butcher settles in. There again, the Calibans are always very eloquent – in this book none more so than Hugh Boone, an artist of words. And Carey, after all, is the great Prospero and creator of Calibans, and in this new novel seems, quite explicitly, to find in Butcher’s devotion to his art an analogue of his own creative drive. Like Butcher, Carey is passionately serious about his work, indentured to the highest standards. Yet he is also the son of the secondhand car dealer from Bacchus Marsh, the raw writer who used to delight in telling newspaper interviewers that he had read no books until he was 18, an Australian incapable of false aestheticism or preciousness, devoted to the hygienic stringencies of scepticism and year-round bullshit-detection. Some of this novel’s finest passages are moments of brutal lyricism when Butcher describes art-making, and his language voyages out magically, but yet must take its plain bloody oaths with it, as necessary ballast. For what is the following if not the sweetest artistic confession?

Then I invaded ultramarine blue with a force of sweet burnt umber, thus giving birth to a new black as warm as a winter blanket for a twenty-thousand-dollar horse, and then I stained my cotton duck with a very fucking diluted dioxane purple, so watered-down it was a pearly grey . . . On the last day, very early on a dew-bright morning, I made a series of washes, 9/10 gel, and these I lay, lighter than a river mist across the blacktop. As for the work itself, you can see it, finally, years later, in a serious museum, and I will not treat you like some dickhead day trader in an aeroplane who wants to know ‘Should I know your name?’