From the Publisher
“As big and bold as [America] itself. . . . Carey at his finest. . . . He is a sheer magician with language.” —The Miami Herald
“A brass-band burlesque of literature and history. . . .Provokes a reader’s delighted applause. . . . Matchlessly robust.” –The New York Times Book Review
“Outrageous and witty. . . .Another feat of acrobatic ventriloquism, joining Carey’s masterpieces, Jack Maggs and True History of the Kelly Gang.” –The Washington Post
“Gorgeously entertaining and moving. . . . This is a novel of fierce attachments, charting the proximity of beauty and terror in the human soul.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
“Delicious. . . .A comic historical picaresque. . . .[This] book has an eighteenth-century robustness, a nineteenth-century lexicon, and a modern liberality.” –James Wood, The New Yorker
“Re-imagines Alexis de Tocqueville’s American journey with a verve that is nothing short of captivating. . . . A rollicking debate about America and its opportunities, its society and class distinctions.” —The Denver Post
“Carey is as various, often as brilliant, and always as irreverent as they come.” –The Boston Globe
“An exuberant, entertaining, incisive novel, full of attitude and incident.” —Dallas Morning News
“Amusing and wise and graceful to a degree that we almost don’t deserve.” —Salon
“An energetically intelligent novel. . . . It bristles like a hedgehog with all of Carey’s spiky ideas. . . . There’s enough to snag your imagination on, and to spare.” —The Christian Science Monitor
“Carey braids his story carefully, lovingly. . . .At its heart, Parrot and Olivier in America is a western; the simplest story in history, sculpted down to a twinkle in a philosopher’s eye: Man’s search for freedom.” –Los Angeles Times
“Parrot and Olivier [is]. . . . Peter Carey’s celebration of his marvelous discovery of how to write about—this time around—our own past.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“A dazzling, entertaining novel. . . . The language is vivid, forceful and poetic.” —The Guardian (London)
“Parrot offers Carey an excellent occasion to create swaggering 19th century brogue—and a new vantage to explore the transformative power of America.” —Chicago Tribune
“Peter Carey is one of today’s best writers of literary historical fiction. . . . The novel is full of lush detail, period lingo, and plenty of Dickensian coincidence and excitement.” —The Charlotte Observer
“Extraordinarily allusive and joyously inventive. The numerous themes are spiced with his gutsy carnality. . . . A great deal of pleasure.” —The Daily Telegraph (London)
“Cranks its energy, like Don Quixote, out of the friction between two antipodal characters. . . . Hums with comic adventure.” —New York Magazine
“A comic, well-observed and meticulously crafted narrative. . . . Carey deftly and humorously brings debate into the narrative but seamlessly and organically within an immersive depiction of life 180 years ago.” —Buffalo News
“One assumes it was no simple thing for Peter Carey to give birth to this masterful, sprawling epic. But oh, the reader is so pleased that the effort succeeded.” —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Even fuller than its predecessors of allusion, contrast, and comic contradiction. . . . It demands and repays repeated reading.” —The Times Literary Supplement (London)
“Exquisitely written. . . . It’s a surprising, stimulating, sad, and side-splitting deconstruction of social class, no less ‘real’ because it springs from Carey’s imagination.” —Tulsa World
“Elegant prose conveys the newness of America. . . . As usual with Carey, echoes of Dickens resound.” —Bloomberg News
“Smart, charming and original. . . . [Carey] finds comedy in unexpected places.” —NPR.org
Sentence for sentence, Carey's writing remains matchlessly robust.
The New York Times
Tocqueville, recast here in garish tones as Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Garmont, strolls out of his famous Democracy in America and into the pages of this kaleidoscopic story along with the whole grasping, bragging, bargaining cast of our ravenous nation. It's another feat of acrobatic ventriloquism, joining Carey's masterpieces, Jack Maggs, which pulled on a loose thread in Dickens's Great Expectations, and True History of the Kelly Gang, which blasted through the life of a legendary Australian outlaw.
The Washington Post
The eminently talented Carey (Theft) has the gift of engaging ventriloquism, and having already channeled the voices of Dickens’s Jack Maggs and the Australian folk hero/master thief Ned Kelly, he now inhabits Olivier-Jean-Baptist de Clarel de Barfleur, a fictionalized version of Alexis de Tocqueville, whose noble parents are aghast at his involvement in the events surrounding Napoleon’s return and the reigns of Louis XVIII and Charles X. To remove him from danger, they send him to America, where priggish snob Olivier inspires Carey’s humor during his self-centered adventures in New York, New England, and Philadelphia. Olivier can’t shake his aristocratic disdain of raw-mannered, money-obsessed Americans—until he falls for a Connecticut beauty. More lovable is Parrot, aka John Larrit, who survives Australia’s penal colony only to be pressed into traveling with Olivier as servant and secret spy for Olivier’s mother. Though their relationship begins in mutual hatred, it evolves into affectionate comradeship as they experience the alien social and cultural milieus of the New World. Richly atmospheric, this wonderful novel is picaresque and Dickensian, with humor and insight injected into an accurately rendered period of French and American history. (Apr.)
Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Garmont is French nobility, son of survivors of the French Revolution. Olivier has had every privilege and is acutely aware of his relative social position. Imagine his surprise and discomfort when he is banished, for his own safety, to newly emerging democratic America. Son of an itinerant English printer, with a colorful and varied past, Parrot proves an unlikely companion. Parrot is sent to accompany Olivier as his servant and secretary, with the secret mission of reporting Olivier's activities back to his mother in France. The story alternates between Parrot and Olivier, who narrate from their widely different points of view. Featuring well-developed and multifaceted characters (the novel was inspired by the life of Alexis de Tocqueville), this book is rife with humorous details and turns of phrase, and the language is sophisticated (readers might want to have a dictionary handy). VERDICT Written by a two-time Booker Prize winner, this engaging book will be particularly appreciated by readers interested in early 19th-century American history, the French aristocracy, and emerging democracy. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 12/09.]—Sarah Conrad Weisman, Corning Community Coll. Lib., NY
A New World historical novel from Carey, the two-time Australian-born winner of the Man Booker prize. We start in the Old World. When the nobleman Olivier de Garmont is born in 1805, post-revolutionary France is still volatile. Olivier lost a grandfather to the guillotine. His parents remain in exile until the Bourbon Restoration. Olivier's liberal sentiments endanger him during the next revolution (July 1830), and his ultra-royalist mother decides he should be sent out of harm's way, to America. She acts through her confidant, the one-armed Marquis de Tilbot, and his middle-aged servant, known as Parrot, a most undeferential Englishman. Parrot's story: As a boy in England, he was rescued by de Tilbot after his father's wrongful arrest for forging banknotes, sent to Australia where he married and had a child, then was plucked away again by the Marquis. (All this dribbles out in flashbacks.) Olivier is drugged and put aboard a vessel to New York, together with Parrot. Now the nobleman has transplantation in common with his thrice-uprooted new servant. His cover story in America will be that he is investigating their prison system, as did another French nobleman, Alexis de Tocqueville, the inspiration for this novel. Carey's nobleman is a playful distortion of de Tocqueville, for Olivier is a nincompoop, myopic both literally and figuratively, with zero interest in prisons and slow to realize the resourcefulness of his savvy Parrot. Carey exploits this comic material only fitfully, though he cooks up some adventures for the odd couple and a romance for Olivier, who falls for the daughter of a Connecticut landowner ("I had arrived, quite unexpectedly, in Paradise.") Their starry-eyedcourtship distracts attention from a more interesting development: the budding friendship between the principals ("in a democracy . . . both parties know that the servant may at any moment become the master"). Quirky and erudite, but the payoff in human-interest terms is meager. First printing of 100,000
Peter Carey's eleventh novel, an "improvisation" on the life of Alexis de Tocqueville, offers no serious revelations about that nineteenth-century French aristocrat's views on democracy in America, and for that we should be grateful. What a crashing bore that would be. Instead of a novel of ideas, Parrot and Olivier in America is a big, trippy, often strangely beautiful novel of observations, with proper focus on the interplay between the two self-absorbed personalities doing the observing.
Carey is a two-time Booker Prize-winning Australian writer who's lived in America for twenty years, and while many of his novels feature characters torn between two countries -- most notably Jack Maggs and Oscar and Lucinda -- his latest book expands that displacement, ranging extravagantly over early nineteenth-century England, France, Australia, and America. Carey's two fugitives here are the 26-year-old nobleman Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Barfleur de Garmont (to be loosely confused with the real-life Comte Alexis-Charles-Henri-Maurice Clérel de Tocqueville) and his fiftyish English valet, John "Parrot" Larrit.
What yokes this most unwilling master and servant, each of whom instantly detests the other, is the authority of the Marquis de Tilbot, a formidable presence in both their lives. "Big and ruddy as a side of beef," and operating without the benefit of his left arm ("presumably sliced away by some horrid machine"), Tilbot is a dear friend of Olivier's mother, the staunchly royalist Comtesse de Garmont, who reveres Tilbot for his heroic leadership in a peasant uprising against the Revolution back in 1793. Semi-retired now in 1831 but still an enthusiastic meddler, the Marquis expresses concern for Olivier's safety during the precarious early days of the July Monarchy, and advises the Comtesse, who's still reeling from revolutionary post-traumatic stress, to send the young man to America.
Asthmatic, headachy, and prone to nosebleeds, Olivier is less than delighted about this voyage, during which he is ostensibly to make a study of American prisons. He's unhappier still with the forced loan of Tilbot's longtime servant Parrot -- a "common clown" with a gift for both mimicry and illustration whom Tilbot engages to serve as Olivier's secretary but also to report secretly on his whereabouts to Olivier's anxious maman.
For his part, Parrot is even crankier about his compulsory journey to America in the service of the effete little aristocrat whom he dubs Lord Migraine. His complex history with the Marquis, his "frightening benefactor," which spans decades and continents and unfolds gradually throughout the narrative, has caused in him an aversion to wandering. Coerced by Tilbot to abandon one household after another in England, Australia, and France, middle-aged Parrot now wants only to be settled, and to pursue his dreams of working as an artist alongside his current amour, a comely French painter called Mathilde.
This is only Carey's set-up, yet already he's developing his intention to blend the cinematic with the picaresque: it's a fish-out-of-water and a buddy story, with un poco Quixote, a dash of Jeeves and Wooster, and a soupçon, naturally, of Tocqueville, some of whose biographical dates and details here are faithful. (Parrot, though, is entirely Carey's invention.)
During the course of their American sojourn, these two will take turns being dazzled, appalled, bored, and moved beyond imagining by the rough-hewn, dizzyingly alien democratic panorama, which includes pig stampedes in New York's Hudson Square; nascent displays of housing foreclosures, insurance fraud, and art-market inflation; "the American autumn, in all its drunken wildness"; and the fidgety push of buyers and sellers on Broadway, who "banged against one another like marbles in a lottery barrel." The pair will bicker, separate, reunite, rescue each other, and, because everything is possible in the land of the free, they'll occasionally exchange roles as master and servant.
It's in this fluidity that Carey's novel reaches for something a bit deeper than mere entertainment. While Olivier and Parrot are both prisoners of their stations and their pasts, and agree about virtually nothing, they do manage to loosen into sympathy for each other. "A person like my servant was a foreign land," admits Olivier, "so although I might very sincerely wish to imagine him, how might I begin?" First, by acknowledging that both were traumatized children: Olivier grew up bedeviled by the specter of the Revolution, in which many of his relatives, and very nearly his parents, had their heads shorn by the guillotine; Parrot was torn away from his father, an itinerant Dartmoor printer with radical leanings, to be indentured to the sinister Marquis. And second, by their mutual recognition that "the great lava flow of democracy," with all its vulgarity and potential misuse, is civilization's best way forward. In the New World, Parrot might never quite attain liberty, and Olivier might always distrust equality, yet by believing in America's possibilities they lurch toward an unlikely fraternity.
But don't mistake this fuzzy sentimentality for an attempt at conventional novelistic tidiness. Although several reviewers have already called Carey's book Dickensian -- as so many long, vaguely antic novels are inevitably mislabeled -- its slyly off-kilter, hallucinatory sensibility places it more accurately in the picaresque postmodern tradition, hacked from the same big lumber as Thomas Pynchon's Mason and Dixon or Stephen Wright's The Amalgamation Polka. And there is also, unmistakably, an inflection here of Australia, whose often-lethal landscapes and haunted colonial past have generated the extreme fiction, also frequently hallucinatory, of writers like Patrick White, Janette Turner Hospital, and David Malouf.
That an Australian novelist who now lives in New York might be drawn to Tocqueville is hardly a surprise. In fact, it would be tough to find an American with a generally sunny view of democracy who doesn't claim to love Tocqueville -- including those, like Carey, who have actually bothered to read him. What's more surprising is the fact that Parrot and Olivier in America manages to be a successful novel without truly being about Tocqueville, or America, at all. Vibrant and accessible, funny and often quite stirring, it only makes sense within the confines of its own loopy universe; yet the world it creates is gratifying. In creating characters that are both lifelike and original, Carey proves that, while a novel's jurisdiction is unlimited, its allegiance is only and always to itself.
Read an Excerpt
I had no doubt that something cruel and catastrophic had happened before I was even born, yet the comte and comtesse, my parents, would not tell me what it was. As a result my organ of curiosity was made irritable and I grew into the most restless and unhealthy creature imaginable—slight, pale, always climbing, prying into every drain and attic of the Château de Barfleur.
But consider this: Given the ferocity of my investigations, is it not half queer I did not come across my uncle’s célérifère?
Perhaps the célérifère was common knowledge in your own family. In mine it was, like everything, a mystery. This clumsy wooden bicycle, constructed by my uncle Astolphe de Barfleur, was only brought to light when a pair of itinerant slaters glimpsed it strapped to the rafters. Why it should be strapped, I do not know, nor can I imagine why my uncle—for I assume it was he—had used two leather dog collars to do the job. It is my nature to imagine a tragedy—that loyal pets have died for instance—but perhaps the dog collars were simply what my uncle had at hand. In any case, it was typical of the riddles trapped inside the Château de Berfleur. At least it was not me who found it and it makes my pulse race, even now, to imagine how my mother might have reacted if I had. Her upsets were never predictable. As for her maternal passions, these were not conventionally expressed, although I relished those occasions, by no means infrequent, when she feared that I would die. It is recorded that, in the year of 1809, she called the doctor on fifty-three occasions. Twenty years later she would still be taking the most outlandish steps to save my life.
My childhood was neither blessed nor tainted by the célérifère, and I would not have mentioned it at all, except—here it is before us now.
Typically, the Austrian draftsman fails to suggest the three dimensions.
Could there be a vehicle more appropriate for the task I have so recklessly set myself, one that you, by-the-by, have supported by taking this volume in your hands? That is, you have agreed to be transported to my childhood where it will be proven, or if not proven then strongly suggested, that the very shape of my head, my particular phrenology, the volume of my lungs, was determined by unknown pressures brought to bear in the years before my birth.
So let us believe that a grotesque and antique bicycle has been made available to us, its wooden frame in the form of a horse, and of course if we are to approach my home this way, we must be prepared to push my uncle’s hobby across fallen branches, through the spinneys. It is almost useless in the rough ground of the woods, where I and the Abbé de La Londe, my beloved Bébé, shot so many hundreds of larks and sparrows that I bruised my little shoulder blue.
“Careful Olivier dear, do be careful.”
We can ignore nose bleeding for the time being, although to be realistic the blood can be anticipated soon enough—spectacular spurts, splendid gushes—my body being always too thin-walled a container for the passions coursing through its veins, but as we are making up our adventure let us assume there is no blood, no compresses, no leeches, no wild gallops to drag the doctor from his breakfast.
And so we readers can leave the silky treacherous Seine and cross the rough woodlands and enter the path between the linden trees, and I, Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Barfleur de Garmont, a noble of Myopia, am free to speed like Mercury while pointing out the blurry vegetable garden on the left, the smudgy watercolor of orchard on the right. Here is the ordure of the village road across which I can go sailing, skidding, blind as a bat, through the open gates of the Château de Barfleur.
Hello Jacques, hello Gustave, Odile. I am home.
On the right, just inside, is Papa’s courthouse where he conducts the marriages of young peasants, thus saving them military service and early death in Napoleon’s army. It does not need to be said that we are not for Bonaparte, and my papa leaves the intrigues for others. We live a quiet life—he says. In Normandy, in exile, he also says. My mother says the same thing, but more bitterly. Only in our architecture might you glimpse signs of the powerful familial trauma. We live a quiet life, but our courtyard resembles a battlefield, its ancient austerity insulted by a sea of trenches, fortifications, red mud, white sand, gray flagstones, and fifty-four forsythias with their roots bound up in balls of hessian. In order that the courtyard should reach its proper glory, the Austrian architect has been installed in the Blue Room with his drawing boards and pencils. You may glimpse this uppity creature as we pass.
I have omitted mention of the most serious defect of my uncle’s vehicle—the lack of steering. There are more faults besides, but who could really care? The two-wheeled célérifère was one of those dazzling machines that are initially mocked for their impracticality until, all in a great rush, like an Italian footman falling down a staircase, they arrive in front of us, unavoidably real and extraordinarily useful.
The years before 1805, when I was first delivered to my mother’s breast, constituted an age of inventions of great beauty and great terror—and I was very soon aware of all of this without knowing exactly what the beauty or the terror were. What I understood was drawn solely from what we call the symbolic aggregate: that is, the confluence of the secrets, the disturbing flavor of my mother’s milk, my own breathing, the truly horrible and unrelenting lowing of the condemned cattle which, particularly on winter afternoons, at that hour when the servants have once more failed to light the lanterns, distressed me beyond belief.
But hundreds of words have been spent and it is surely time to enter that château, rolling quietly on our two wheels between two tall blue doors where, having turned sharply right, we shall be catapulted along the entire length of the long high gallery, traveling so fast that we will be shrieking and will have just sufficient time to notice, on the left, the conceited architect and his slender fair-haired assistant. On the right—look quickly—are six high windows, each presenting the unsettling turmoil of the courtyard, and the gates, outside which the peasants and their beasts are constantly dropping straw and fecal matter.
You might also observe, between each window, a portrait of a Garmont or a Barfleur or a Clarel, a line which stretches so far back in time that should my father, in the darkest days of the Revolution, have attempted to burn all the letters and documents that would have linked him irrevocably to these noble privileges and perils, he would have seen his papers rise from the courtyard bonfire still alive, four hundred years of history become like burning crows, lifted by wings of flame, a plague of them, rising into a cold turquoise sky I was not born to see.
But today is bright and sunny. The long gallery is a racetrack, paved with marble, and we swish toward that low dark door, the little oratory where Maman often spends her mornings praying.
But my mother is not praying, so we must carry our machine to visit her. That anyone would choose oak for such a device beggars belief, but my uncle was clearly an artist of a type. Now on these endless stairs I feel the slow drag of my breath like a rat-tail file inside my throat. This is no fun, sir, but do not be alarmed. I might be a slight boy with sloping shoulders and fine arms, but my blood is cold and strong, and I will swim a river and shoot a bird and carry the célérifère to the second floor where I will present to you the cloaked blindfolded figure on the chaise, my mother, the Comtesse de Garmont.
Poor Maman. See how she suffers, her face gaunt, glowing in the gloom. In her youth she was never ill. In Paris she was a beauty, but Paris has been taken from her. She has her own grand house on the rue Saint-Dominique, but my father is a cautious man and we are in exile in the country. My mother is in mourning for Paris, although sometimes you might imagine her a penitent. Has she sinned? Who would tell me if she had? Her clothes are both somber and loose-fitting as is appropriate for a religious woman. Her life is a kind of holy suffering existing on a plane above her disappointing child.
I also am sick, but it is in no sense the same. I am, as I often declare myself, a wretched beast.
Behold, the dreadful little creature—his head under a towel, engulfed in steam, and the good Bébé, who was as often my nurse as my tutor and confessor, sitting patiently at my side, his big hand on my narrow back while I gasped for life so long and hard that I would—still in the throes of crisis—fall asleep and wake with my nose scalded in the basin, my lungs like fish in a pail, grasping what they could.
After how many choking nights was I still awake to witness the pale light of dawn lifting the dew-wet poplar leaves from the inky waters of the night, to hear the cawing of the crows, the antic gargoyle torments of country life?
I knew I would be cured in Paris. In Paris I would be happy.
It was the Abbé de La Londe’s contrary opinion that Paris was a pit of vile miasmas and that the country air was good for me. He should have had me at my Catullus and my Cicero but instead he would drag me, muskets at the ready, into what we called the Bottom Hundred where we would occupy ourselves shooting doves and thrush, and Bébé would play beater and groundsman and priest. “You’re a splendid little marksman,” Bébé would say, jogging to collect our plunder. “Quam sagaciter puer telum conicit!” I translated. He never learned I was shortsighted. I so wished to please him I shot things I could not see.
My mother would wish me to address him as vous and l’Abbé, but such was his character that he would be Bébé until the day he died.
I was a strange small creature for him to love. He was a strong and handsome man, with snow-white hair and shrewd eyes easily moved to sympathy. He had raised my father and now I trusted myself entire to him, his big liver-spotted hands, his patient manner, the smell of Virginian tobacco which stained the shoulder of his cassock, and filled me with the atoms of America twenty years before I breathed its air. “Come young man,” he would say. “Come, it’s a beautiful day—Decorus est dies.” And the hail would be likely flailing your back raw and he would marvel, not at the cruel pummeling, but at the miracle of ice. Or if not the ice, then the wind—blowing so violently it seemed the North Sea itself was pushing up the Seine and would wash away the wall that separated the river from the bain.
The meek would not swim, but Bébé made sure I was not meek. He would be splashing in the deep end of the bain, naked as a broken statue—“Come on Great Olivier.”
If I became—against all that God intended for me—a powerful swimmer, it was not because of the damaging teachings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but because of this good priest and my desire to please him. I would do anything for him, even drown myself. It was because of him that I was continually drawn away from the awful atmosphere of my childhood home, and if I spent too many nights in the company of doctors and leeches, I knew, in spite of myself, the sensual pleasures of the seasons, the good red dirt drying out my tender hands.
And of course I exaggerate. I lived at the Château de Barfleur for sixteen years and my mother was not always to be found lying in her pigeonhole with the wet sheet across her eyes. There was, above my father’s locked desk, a large and lovely pencil portrait of my maman, as light as the dream of a child that was never to be born. Her nose here was perhaps a little too narrow, a trifle severe, but there was such true vitality in the likeness. She showed a clear forehead, a frank expression, inquiring eyes that directly engaged the viewer, and not only here, but elsewhere—for there would be many nights in my childhood when she would rise up from her bed, dress herself in all her loveliness, and welcome our old friends, not those so recently and swiftly elevated, but nobles of the robe and sword. To stand in the courtyard on these evenings with all the grand coaches out of sight behind the stables, to see the fuzzy moon and the watery clouds scudding above Normandy, was to find oneself transported back to a vanished time, and one would approach one’s grand front door, not speeding on a bicycle, but with a steady slippered tread and, on entering, smell, not dirt or cobwebs, but the fine powder on the men’s wigs, the lovely perfumes on the ladies’ breasts, the extraordinary palette of the ancien régime, such pinks and greens, gorgeous silks and satins whose colors rose and fell among the folds and melted into the candled night, and on these occasions my mother was the most luminous among the beautiful. Yet her true beauty—evanescent, fluttering, deeper and more grained than in the pencil portrait—did not reveal itself until the audience of liveried servants had been sent away. Then the curtains were drawn and my father made the coffee himself and served his peers carefully, one by one, and my mother, whose voice in her sickbed was thin as paper, began to sing:
A troubadour of Béarn,
His eyes filled with tears . . .
At this moment she was not less formal in her manner. Her slender hands lay simply on her lap, and it was to God Himself she chose to reveal her strong contralto voice. I have often enough, indiscreetly it seems now, publicly recalled my mother’s singing of “Troubadour Béarnais,” and as a result that story has gained a dull protective varnish like a ceramic captive in a museum which has been inquired of too often by the overly familiar. So it is that any tutoyering bourgeois and his wife can know the Comtesse de Garmont sang about the dead king and cried, but nothing would ever reveal to them Olivier de Garmont’s fearful astonishment at his mother’s emotions, and—God forgive me—I was jealous of the passion she so wantonly displayed, this vault of historic feeling she had hidden from me. Now, when I must remain politely at attention beside my father’s chair, I had to conceal my emotion while she gave away a pleasure that was rightly mine. Our guests cried and I experienced a violent repugnance at this private act carried out in public view.
His eyes filled with tears,
Sang to his mountain people
This alarming refrain:
Louis, son of Henri,
Is captive in Paris.
When she had finished, when our friends remained solemnly still, I walked across the wide rug to stand beside her chair and very quietly, like a scorpion, I pinched her arm.
Of course she was astonished, but what I remember most particularly is my wild and wicked pleasure of transgression. She widened her eyes, but did not cry out. Instead she tossed her head and gave me, below those welling eyes, a contemptuous smile.
I then walked, very coolly, to my bed. I had expected I would weep when I shut my door behind me. Indeed, I tried to, but it did not come out right. These were strange overexcited feelings but they were not, it seemed, of the sort that would produce tears. These were of a different order, completely new, perhaps more like those one would expect in an older boy in whose half-ignorant being the sap of life is rising. They seemed like they might be emotions ignited by sinful thoughts, but they were not. What I had smelled in that song, in that room full of nobles, was the distilled essence of the Château de Barfleur which was no less than the obscenity and horror of the French Revolution as it was visited on my family. Of this monstrous truth no honest word had ever been spoken in my hearing.
My mother would now punish me for pinching her. She would be cold, so much the better. Now I would discover what had made this smell. I would go through her bureau drawers when she was praying. I would take the key to the library. I examined the papers in my father’s desk drawers. I climbed on chairs. I sought out the dark, the forbidden, the corners of the château where the atmosphere was somehow most dangerous and soiled, well beyond the proprieties of the library, beyond the dry safe wine cellar, through a dark low square portal, into that low limitless dirty dark space where the spiderwebs caught fire in the candlelight. I found nothing—or nothing but dread which mixed with the dust on my hands and made me feel quite ill.
However, there is no doubt that Silices si levas scorpiones tandem invenies—if you lift enough rocks, you will finally discover a nest of scorpions, or some pale translucent thing that has been bred to live in a cesspit or the fires of a forge. And I do not mean the letters a certain monsieur had written to my mother which I wish I had never seen. It was, rather, beside the forge that I discovered the truth in some humdrum little parcels. They had waited for me in the smoky gloom and I could have opened them any day I wished. Even a four-year-old Olivier might have reached them; the shelf was so low that our blacksmith used it to lean his tools against. One naturally assumed these parcels to be the legacy of a long-dead gardener—dried seeds, say, or sage or thyme carefully wrapped for a season some Jacques or Claude had never lived to see. By the time I pushed my snotty nose against them, which was a very long time after the night I pinched my mother, they still exuded a distinct but confusing smell. Was it a good smell? Was it a bad smell? Clearly I did not know. Not even Montaigne, being mostly concerned with the smell of women and food, is prepared to touch on this. He ignores the lower orders of mold and fungus, death and blood, all of which might have served him better than his ridiculous assertion that the sweat of great men—he mentions Alexander the Great—exhaled a sweet odor.