Jack Maggs and Peter Carey's Fiction as a World

By Allahyari, Keyvan | Antipodes, December 2017 | Go to article overview

Jack Maggs and Peter Carey's Fiction as a World


Allahyari, Keyvan, Antipodes


In October 1999, as the University of Queensland Press (UQP) was preparing for the publicity campaign of Peter Carey's Booker Prize winner, True History of the Kelly Gang (2000), the Sydney Morning Herald sketched an impassioned exchange between Germaine Greer and Laurie Muller, UQP's general manager:

Germaine Greer's shoe-maker might have to make a pair big enough to fit into her mouth. Recently she lambasted another Australian author, Peter Carey, for alleged spelling and grammatical errors in his novel Jack Maggs. She particularly objected to his spelling of Moreton Bay. "Moreton Bay should be etched on the heart of anybody who says that's his history," she said. Now we have a letter from Carey's Australian publisher, Laurie Muller of University of Queensland Press: " The omniscient Germaine Greer must have dulled her Australian sensitivities during her long stay in England. Any well-read Australian will know that the careful English explorer James Cook named the waters into which the Brisbane River flows, Morton Bay (without an 'e') after James Williams, when in 1775 he issued Cook's Account of Two Voyages . . . who slipped in the 'e' and fooled Germaine. Mr Peter Carey through his normal assiduous research, has corrected this gratuitous 1775 error in his greatly praised novel Jack Maggs. . . . It's just as well Ms Greer has spent her life teaching English and not History." ("Other Boot")

This droll column filters an earnest struggle over the authority of representing Australia between two of its most renowned expat intellectuals. The interaction evokes what Vilashini Cooppan dubs as the desire to exemplify an "organic symmetry of soil and character" (2), a state of embodiment of the nation evident in Greer's utterance that Moreton Bay must be "etched on the heart" of any Australian who has a claim to belonging to the country. The surfacing of such patriotic language in the very thinker who has promoted accepting "unbelonging as a humanity thing" is noteworthy in its own right (Greer ix). It is also interesting to mention that Greer advocates embodying a geographical space that Carey describes as "hellish" in Jack Maggs (202), possibly as a reference to the history of atrocities occurred against the Aboriginal people of the area in the 1830s around the time in which the novel is set. More importantly, such disagreement is echoed in relation to the fact that Carey and Greer have spent a considerable amount of time away from Australia-respectively, in the United States and in England-which, in the case of Greer, Muller derides, "must have dulled her Australian sensitivities."

What is at stake is how writing about Australia from afar has affected these intelligentsias and if such distance impacts their dispositions toward the country ("their Australian sensitivities") and consequently compromises the legitimacy of their positions as prominent cultural commentators. Muller is a third actor in this scenario; in defending the accuracy of Carey's version of Australia in Jack Maggs, he manages to safeguard the interests of an established publishing company, a cultural institution with a long vested interest in Carey; however, in doing so, he ends up policing the critique of Carey's novel in a rather abusive manner. The unidentified reviewer, also, exercises his or her contribution to the author's defense by coarsely disdaining Greer for her allegedly ill-informed statement against Carey. This competition of Australian cultural agents over what it means to be an Australian writer shapes a dialogue about who is sanctioned to talk about the country and who, due to lack of accurate knowledge, ought to remain silenced. As this short excerpt might illustrate, belonging to nation is deemed as a strong form of symbolic capital that empowers those who do belong to exert exclusion on those who do not. But to determine who has that privilege is to exercise what Pierre Bourdieu and Loïc Wacquant call "symbolic violence" (167) against other agents, which, in this case, is unsuccessfully initiated by Greer. …

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