Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Echoes of a Literary Master

Jack Maggs
Jack Maggs

"With that [Maggs] hugged him, wrapping his arm tight around his shoulders and pulling Toby’s face into his breast, thus forcing him to inhale what would always thereafter be the prisoner’s smell — the odour of cold sour sweat"   (p 265) 

Have you ever read Great Expectations? The main character Philip Pirrip ,known as Pip, runs into a convict in the opening scene of the novel. The convict is Abel Magwitch who meets young Pip at a graveyard. Magwitch tricks the seven-year-old boy into believing that he has an accomplice who is a terrible young man who would tear out and eat Pip's heart and liver if Pip did not help them. Pip, terrified, steals a pork pie, brandy and a file from his house and brings them to Magwitch the next morning. The relationship between Pip and Magwitch is integral to the development of this famous novel.
Undoubtedly inspired by Magwitch's story in Dickens, the modern-day Australian novelist Peter Carey has in Jack Maggs imagined a retelling of Magwitch's tale. Returning to the historical territory--19th-century Australia and England--of his Booker-winning Oscar and Lucinda (1988), he focuses on 1830s London, where an exiled convict has returned to breathe the air of home and to see his beloved son. Pardoned and prosperous in New South Wales, but still under penalty of death if discovered in England, the fearless Jack Maggs steps out of a coach one evening in London to search for Henry Phipps, the boy he had left behind years before. He discovers Phipps's house, but, finding no one home, Maggs seeks employment as a neighbor's footman in order to keep an eye out for his son's return. He writes letters almost incessantly to explain his past to his boy. In the meantime, at a literary dinner hosted by his new employer, Maggs makes the acquaintance of an up-and-coming young writer, Tobias Oates, whose skill as a mesmerist is needed to cure Maggs of a "fit." Oates, penetrating his "patient's" ruses, recognizes a motherlode of material waiting to be tapped, and offers the man a deal: the name of someone who can locate Phipps in exchange for two weeks of demonstrating his ability to engage Maggs's fit-inducing demons through hypnosis. As they meet, however, other forces conspire to alter the scheme of things. The story includes subplots about love affairs involving Phipps and others, but more importantly secrets about Phipps whereabouts are revealed. Carey's complexities of plot also demonstrate gradually that Maggs is honest, fierce, and fabulously deluded. This complicated story benefits from the author's ability to bring the London of Dickens alive and with it characters who echo those first created in the imagination of that literary master's mind.

Jack Maggs by Peter Carey. Alfred Knopf, 1998 (1997)


wwhidden said...

Hello Jim,

I enjoyed Jack Maggs very much, as much as The True History of the Kelly Gang. I plan to read Illywhacker one day as well. I feel that Carey's strong suit is creating characters that are fully formed and knowable.

James said...

Thanks for your comment. I share your view of Carey ever since I read Oscar & Lucinda many years ago.

Jim H. said...

I did not love Jack Maggs. Something about Carey does not sit. I long ago posted my displeasure w/ Kelly Gang. Though I will revisit Oscar &...

Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones, otoh, does Dickens proud & really deserves a read.

James said...

Thanks for your comment Jim. Carey can be uneven so your comment is well taken. I will look for Mister Pip as my list grows.