Sunday, November 23, 2003

poetry or pretension?

My Life As a Fake by Peter Carey. Knopf. $24

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in November 2003).

THERE ARE NO MORE interesting characters than the genius and the fraud. Of the two, the fraud--who abhors messy perspiration, preferring instead a single, bold, elegant stroke of inspiration--is of course the more compelling. Just such a trickster is the central figure of My Life as a Fake, the latest novel from Man Booker Prize winner Peter Carey, a tale based on a literary hoax that occurred in Australia in 1944.

In the real story, two clever writers opposed to the abstruse direction taken by modernist poetry set out to prove the ignorance of its proponents. To this end, they cobbled together a fake poem from the flotsam and jetsam of some famous poets, titling it The Darkening Ecliptic. They submitted their work to an avant-garde Australian literary magazine called Angry Penguins under the pseudonym Ern Malley. The magazine's editor, who accepted and published the poem, was not only humiliated when the trick was revealed, but in a bizarre twist of events, he was taken to court for violating Australia's obscenity laws.

In Carey's fictional version, a lone poet named Christopher Chubb had perpetrated his hoax long before the novel begins. Chubb conjured up a rustic autodidact called Bob McCorkle and submitted his poem to an imaginary Australian magazine named Personae, hoping to show once and for all that the editor couldn't tell poetry from pretension. But Chubb's spiteful hoax proved more disastrous than he intended. Disgraced in print and in court, the editor of Personae killed himself. After the suicide of his pilloried victim, Chubb drops off the map for decades.

Enter London poetry magazine editor Sarah Wode-Douglass, the book's narrator, who discovers Chubb while she is on holiday in Kuala Lumpur. He now works as a bicycle mechanic--the career he facetiously devised for McCorkle. Chubb is covered in scabs and possesses a single, threadbare suit. But he still has something to hook Wode-Douglass with. He tempts her with a page of poetry that promises it might just be the real thing: literary genius.

"It was a poem, or part of a poem, composed in those thick rhythmic downstrokes which would later become, if only briefly, so familiar," Wode-Douglass explains. "I read with a full consciousness of the old man's history. I approached those twenty lines with both suspicion and hostility, and for a moment I thought I had him. It was a sort of Oriental Tristan Tzara, but that was too glib a response to something with very complicated internal rhymes . . . It slashed and stabbed its way across the page, at once familiar and alien. I wondered if the patois--Malay, Urdu--was disguising something other than cod Eliot. But that did not fit either, for you really cannot counterfeit a voice. All I knew now, in my moment of greatest confusion and suspicion, was that my heart was beating very fast indeed."

As coy as any poet's mistress (and certainly more so than any poet), Chubb refuses to show Wode-Douglass the entire poem until she listens to the story of its origin. He insists that it was not he who wrote it, but the real Bob McCorkle--a Frankenstein's monster who literally stepped into the world fully grown from the hoaxer's imagination. Wode-Douglass is wary of becoming the victim of a second, more astonishing, scam, but no matter who the author is, the brilliance of the page of poetry she has seen is undeniable. Perhaps Chubb is a madman, but she must know if he is a genius. She must read the entire work. And for that reason, she must listen to the trickster's tale, the heart of My Life as a Fake.

Like the monsters of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Bob McCorkle seems at once his creator's true self and his worst nightmare.

Though Chubb ostensibly fashioned the pseudonym to expose the stupidity of Australia's search for its "authentic" poet, in doing so he discovered and set free from the rigid confines of his Anglophile's body the very Australian voice he'd denied existed. In Wode-Douglass's words, Chubb's own poems are "priggish, self-serving, snobbish," while McCorkle's have "wildness," "nasal passion" and "the sense that nothing on earth can matter but a poem."

Imagine Chubb's horror. A literary snob, an exposer of fake artists, and he brings to life an alter ego more talented than himself, a genuine prodigy! Writers--notorious for their envy--shudder at the idea. They know the difficulty of the struggle for a real, honest, new voice, as well as the mixture of torture and joy in discovering that another has triumphed in it. But Chubb's trial is not limited to burning jealousy. His nemesis, hating his creator as monsters will, kidnaps Chubb's daughter and leads him into exile in the jungle, eventually forcing him to take on the working class penury he mocked with his hoax.

Carey, who won Booker prizes for Oscar and Lucinda and The True History of the Kelly Gang, is one of those rare writers whose works are greeted with nervous anticipation, for fear he might one day falter. But My Life as a Fake does not disappoint and Carey once again proves his formidable talent. Though the novel's pace bogs down a bit in the last third, this intelligent and playful work combines a witty reflection on the nature of art and a compulsively readable colonial adventure story with look-Mom-no-hands virtuosity.

One can hardly escape the impression that the author has staked his claim to being his country's Bob McCorkle and its Christopher Chubb: An unpretentious, genuine Australian voice and a clever, deceitful magician. This is very fine work--truth at its most feigning--and Carey performs without a net.

faltering footsteps

The Long Strider by Dom Moraes and Sarayu Srivatsa. Penguin-Viking, 2003. ISBN: 0670049751. Price: US$9, 359 pages.

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Asia Times in November 2003).

In the early stages of researching The Long Strider with co-author Sarayu Srivatsa, Dom Moraes discovered from doctors that he suffered from cancer. The prognosis was not good. The old poet was dying. Perhaps inspired by the eccentric subject of the book, Thomas Coryate, a dwarf and writer and sometime buffoon who walked from England to India in the year 1613, Moraes decided not to undergo radiation treatment to prolong his life, but to spend his final days completing a last project.

As he told Srivatsa: "I don't have a lot to do. I want to go to London for one last time. I want to be able to finish writing the Coryate book. And if there is some time left after that, I want to work on my collected poems." When the two collaborators were left alone by his doctor, the grand old man added, "What I need immediately is to get as pissed as is humanly possible." Moraes brings that irrepressible pluck and humor to this, likely his last book, and his wry, sometimes baudy wit finds the perfect foil in the earnest, sometimes priggish Srivatsa.

The Long Strider tells the story of the remarkable, foolhardy walk of Thomas Coryate, a would-be Marco Polo whose writings were mostly lost in transit from East to West. Coryate, whose thirst for fame bordered on madness, enjoys a no-more curious reputation today than in his own time (though his 15 minutes were up centuries ago). Though he is credited with popularizing the use of the fork in England and inventing the word "umbrella", Coryate is best known as the first Englishman to make the "Grand Tour of Europe", which eventually became an essential part of the gentleman's education.

But he made that journey less as a gentleman than as the butt of a gentleman's jokes, say scholars. After the death of his father, a country parson, Coryate managed to secure a place in the retinue of the young Prince of Wales, where he was both wit and buffoon, a wise fool not unlike the jesters of Shakespeare. He made a name for himself with comical orations, full of pseudo-scholarly words and ludicrous circumlocution, that parodied the posturing, courtly repartee popular at the time.

No doubt unsatisfied with making and rebutting insults, however, Coryate set out to make a name for himself by walking across Europe in 1608 and writing a first-person account of his adventures, called The Crudities. In what Charles Nicholl calls a triumph of self-promotion in a compelling piece in the London Review of Books, Coryate's book became something of a sensation in 1611, a year in which Ben Johnson's Alchemist and William Shakespeare's Tempest were on the stage and John Donne was writing the Holy Sonnets.

But the book's success was due not only to its merits. Having received a copy of the travelogue to review (and edit), the Prince of Wales called for the addition of a compendium of fulsome, mock praise from Coryate's ostensible friends - Johnson and Donne among them. While other writers, such as Tim Moore, the author of The Grand Tour: The European Adventure of a Continental Drifter, view this facetious preface as detracting from - and even obscuring - the literary and anthropological merits of the Crudities, in The Long Strider, Moraes credits Coryate himself for this development, suggesting that the tenacious self-promoter used the scorn of his literary betters to create buzz for his offbeat tract.

But whether or not Coryate was satisfied with the reception that his Crudities received, one thing is certain: He was not content to let his notoriety end there. In what Moore interprets as a desperate reaction to the reception of Coryate's first book and what Moraes and Srivatsa spin as a bold quest for ever greater fame, Coryate set off on his long, eventually fatal, walk to India. That he made it to the Moghul court alive is remarkable enough. Without maps or the writings of other travelers to work with, he set out with little money and nothing more than a copy of the Christian Bible as his guide.

Coryate left England in 1612, first sailing to the Holy Land and then leaving from Jerusalem for India in 1614 on foot. He made the first part of his walk with a caravan, crossing the Euphrates and Tigris and finally the Indus rivers with a motley horde of traders and their numberless, groaning camels. He made Agra, then the capital of the Mughal Empire under Emperor Jahangir, and then Ajmer, now a pilgrimage site for Indian Muslims, in 1615.

In India, usually clad in filthy rags and without a penny in his purse, Coryate met Britain's earliest trade representatives, including the East India Company's agent at the Mughal court, William Edwards, and the ambassador of England's first official embassy to India, Thomas Roe. With characteristic audacity, he also insisted on delivering one of his pompous orations to the Emperor Jahangir, whom he fantasized would finance a further tromp to China and beyond.

How his faulty Persian was received is a mystery, but like his mad street tirades against Islam, it was amusing enough or insane enough or incomprehensible enough that it did not get him killed. On the other hand, it lost Coryate the sympathy of ambassador Roe, who found the man's appearance disgraceful. Unlike his European tour, Coryate's walk to India did not become a publishing success. A handful of letters he sent home via other travelers eventually went to press as Thomas Coriate, Traveller for the English Witts: Greeting in 1616, and some were reprinted in Sir William Foster's Early Travels in India in 1921. But he failed to deliver the enduring masterpiece he had set out to write.

Moraes and Srivatsa tell Coryate's story in alternating chapters. Moraes writes the more imaginative, novelized sections that recreate Coryate's thoughts and adventures on his journey, while Srivatsa supplies diary entries cataloguing the pair's efforts to retrace the dwarf's steps (by jet plane, mostly).

The idea of the dual narrative is to show the contrast - interesting in its continuities - between ancient and modern India. The authors rely on their readers to see the parallels, however, and the juxtaposition of chapters is not often illuminating enough. Part of the problem is that while Moraes' novelization of Coryate's journey is entertaining, particularly for the humorous appearances made by Ben Johnson and other literary and historical figures, Srivatsa's diary entries are too concrete, too pedestrian, to measure up.

As in their previous collaboration, Out of God's Oven: Travels in a Fractured Land, (See Asia Times review of March 22, A cynical, idealistic melange) the urbane and poetic writing of Moraes, a veteran poet and journalist, makes the workmanlike contributions of Srivatsa seem all the more clunky.

"People here, Hindu or Muslim, are still religious and they believe what their ancestors did. People here were terrifyingly poor then and they still are. What's interesting is that their attitudes toward religion and poverty are slightly different now," Moraes tells Srivatsa as they follow Coryate through India. He must be right, but simply telling readers to be on the lookout for these similarities is no substitute for a thoughtful reflection on them, and that neither author provides.

There is another parallel here, however: that of two men coming to the end of a journey. Perhaps because of his own outsider's status in both India and England, perhaps because of his own failing health, Moraes displays a remarkable sympathy for his fascinating subject that carries the book, flaws and all. Maybe there's another reason. Though in life he was mostly a teetotaler, in his dying moments, the author of the Crudities made a final request for his liquor of choice, white wine, with last words that Moraes must envy: "Sack! Sack! I have not tasted sack these many months. Give me some sack."