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peter carey @ the south bank centre, purcell room 15.09.03

From: janet wang
Category: Other stuff
Date: 19 September 2003


I like attending events in the Purcell Room, not only because it is such a great, modern venue, but also as the stage is always set up in a smart way. There was podium in front of a large orange backdrop on the left-hand side, and on the right, two chairs, a low table and a plant. This play of formal against informal was visually pleasing and also served the purpose of adding structure to the evening’s event, offering a lovely separation between the conventional and conversational.

The chairperson of the South Bank Centre, Michael Lynch, took to the podium first for the formal introduction. Being an Aussie himself, he had specially requested that he be allowed to introduce his fellow Australian Peter Carey. In his remarks, he mentioned that he did not subscribe to cultural cringe (is this an Australian term?), and seemed pleased to have the illustrious Carey as an illustration of contemporary Australian literary culture. The audience seemed prepared to be entertained and Lynch remarked that if the happenings backstage were of any evidence, the evening should prove to be lively.

I have to beg ignorance of Carey’s books – "Oscar and Lucinda," "Ned Kelly," et cetera -I had not read them before and I am not sure how this blindness effected my take on his reading. He took the stage with Hermione Lee, Goldsmiths Professor of English Literature at Oxford, and they sat in the conversational space, stage right. A projected image of Carey appeared above their heads, a stern larger-than-life photo which seemed a bit ridiculous and pompous, but was easily enough ignored once the conversation got rolling.

Lee was an excellent choice of interviewer – she grilled Carey in a thoughtful, shaping way, keeping a good balance between academic and personal curiosity. Carey did not quite rise to her questions as much as he darted around them, picking up threads of her layered interrogations and carrying off into tangential, self-deprecating and humorous strands. This sense of witty self-deprecation carried into his reading. He strode over to the podium for the conventional bit, the reading, but rather than reading from his recently published "My Life as a Fake," which was to be expected, he read its false start. This was a clever ruse, not to mention self-satisfactory as he had to be pleased to make use of something that was personal failure. It gave the impression of allowing the audience a ‘behind-the-scenes’ look, which of course endeared him to us as we felt that we had been let in on a secret.

Question periods often annoy me, as one can expect the usual vague questions (which are really code for “how do I become a writer like you?”). One woman questioned the dominance of the male voice in Carey’s writing, while another person queried him on his take on cultural cringe. He fielded all questions quite graciously and in good humour. I was actually quite interested in the cultural history he laid out, which contextualized, to some extent, the aggression in his character’s voice.

As for him as a writer, I cannot say that I am overly fond of the aggressive, violent, male voice he used, which seems so much in contrast to the stuttering, fluttering and witty man that he actually is. However, he is accomplished and entertaining, and the set-up was well-defined and accessible. I thought that the overall evening was a very good accomplishment, again evidence of the South Bank’s quality programming.

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