About the Author
Date of Birth:May 7, 1943
Place of Birth:Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, Australia
Education:Monash University (no degree)
Read an Excerpt
The Old Rectory, Thornton, Berkshire. August 1985
I have known John Slater all my life. Perhaps you remember the public brawl with Dylan Thomas, or even have a copy of his famous book of 'dirty' poems. If it's an American edition you'll discover, on the inside flap, a photograph of the handsome, fair-haired author in cricket whites. Dewsong was published in 1930. Slater was twenty at the time, very nearly a prodigy.
That same year I was born Sarah Elizabeth Jane to a beautiful, impatient Australian mother and a no less handsome but rather posh English father, Lord William Wode-Douglass, generally known as Boofy.
Slater's own class background was rather ambiguous, though my mother, a dreadful snob, had a tin ear, and I know she thought Slater very grand and therefore permitted him excesses she would not have tolerated from the Chester grammar-school boy he really was.
It was Slater who carved my father's thirtieth birthday cake with his bare hands, who rode a horse into the kitchen, who brought Unity Mitford to dinner during the period she was stealing stationery from Buckingham Palace and carrying that nasty little ferret around in her handbag.
I cannot say that I understood his role in my parents' marriage, and only when my mother killed herself in a spectacularly awful style did I suspect anything was amiss. In the last minutes of her life I saw John Slater put his arms around her and finally I understood, or thought I did.
From that moment I hated everything about him: his self-absorption, his intense angry good looks, but most of all those electric blue eyes which inhabited my imagination as the incarnation of deceit.
When my mother died, poor Boofy fell apart completely. He drank and wept and roared, and after falling down the stairs the second time he packed me off to St Mary's Wantage in Berkshire, which I did not like at all. I ran away, was returned in a post-office van, fought with the headmistress, and adopted the perverse strategy of writing with my left hand, thus making almost all my schoolwork illegible. I was so busy being a bad girl that no-one noticed that I also had a brain. But even while I was receiving D's in English I somehow managed to see that Slater's celebrated verses were nothing so much as bowers constructed by a male in order to procure sex. This was far from being my only insight and I was not reluctant to let the Great Man know exactly what I thought. Somewhere in his papers there may still be evidence of my close reading of 'Eastern Oriental,' with its impertinent corrections, its queries about his heavily enjambed lines, all of which I archly hoped might be 'helpful to him.'
I was, in short, a precocious horror and you will not be at all astonished that John Slater and I did not become friends. But, London being London, I did keep on running into him over the years, and as he continued to write poetry and I had ended up as the editor of The Modern Review, we knew many of the same people and had reason to sit at the same table more than once.
Time did not make the association easier. Indeed, as I grew older his physical presence became more and more disturbing. I will not say that I was obsessed with him, but I could not be in the same room without looking at him continually; I was drawn to him and repulsed by him all at once. He was an appallingly unapologetic narcissist and so full of iconoclastic opinion and territorial enthusiasms that there was not a dinner party, be it ever so packed with the Great and the Good, where one could escape his increasingly bardic presence. Of course I could not look at him without thinking of my poor unhappy mother.
In spite of the fact that we were so very intimately connected, it took all of thirty years for us to speak with more than superficial politeness. He was then sixty-two and while perhaps better known for his novels The Amersham Satyricon had been a huge bestseller he was still generally referred to as 'the poet John Slater.' Which was exactly how he looked: rather wild and windburned, as if he'd recently returned from tramping over the moors or following Basho's path all the way to Ogaki.
Slater does seem to have worked very hard at the social side of literature, and there was scarcely a British poet or novelist whom he could not call his friend, or for whom he had not, at some time, done a favour. The Faber crowd he cultivated particularly and it was at a Faber dinner party, at the home of Charles Monteith, where we finally came to talk to each other. Our conversation aside, I don't recall a great deal about the evening except that Robert Lowell the guest of honour had inadvertently revealed that he didn't know who Slater was. This, one could hypothesise, is why Slater chose to turn and talk to me so urgently, calling me 'Micks,' a name belonging to my family and all that lost time at Allenhurst at High Wycombe.
What he had to say was not in the least personal, but his use of the nickname had already touched me and his voice, perhaps as a result of the famous American's careless judgement of his life, took on a wistful, elegiac tone which I found unexpectedly moving. For the first time in years I looked at him closely: his face was puffy, its colour, uncharacteristically, a little grey. When he began to talk about revisiting Malaysia, a country where so much of Dewsong and its successors had their roots, it was hard not to wonder if he might be tidying up his affairs.
Come with me, he said suddenly.
I laughed sharply. He grasped my hand and held me with those damned eyes and of course he was such a Famous Crumpeteer that I looked away, embarrassed.
We should go, he said. Don't you think?
It was impossible to guess what he meant by 'we' and 'should.'
We must talk, he insisted. It is very bad that we never have.
This sudden intimacy was as off-putting as it was wished for.
I have no money, I said.
I have tons of it.
He watched me closely as I poured more wine.
You've got a boyfriend, he suggested.
I have a very jealous cat.
I adore cats, he said. I will come and talk to her.
And suddenly his cab arrived and he had to go on to a very glamorous party where he was expecting to meet John Lennon and as he rose there was a general clamour of farewells and it was my understanding that our conversation had been of no great moment merely a cover for his embarrassment at the hands of Robert Lowell.
But he telephoned me, at home in Old Church Street, at eight o'clock the next morning and it was very quickly clear that this journey was not at all impulsive. He had already arranged for the British Council to pay for one ticket, while two thousand words for Nova would fund another. He would be delighted to foot all of my expenses.
My father had died just the year before in circumstances that were not at all happy a sulky sort of estrangement on my part and it was not in the least dotty for me to think that John Slater was offering this trip as an opportunity for us to talk, for me to understand my own unhappy family a little better. Of course he never said so, and even now, all these years later, I cannot be sure what his intention was at the beginning. Certainly it was not sex. Let me dispense with that immediately. It was well known that I had no interest in it.
John, I said, I am an awful tourist. I have no intention of slogging through the bloody jungle with binoculars. I am an editor. It's all I do. I read. I have no other life.
You love to eat, he said. I saw you polish off that curry.
Well, it was very good curry.
Then Kuala Lumpur will be paradise for you. Darling, I've known K.L. for almost as long as I've known you.
Of course he did not 'know' me at all.
What's the worst thing that can happen? I'll make a pass at you? Micks, for God's sake it's a bloody week of your life. We'll all be mouldering in the ground soon enough. Do come.
That did it the mouldering. After lunch I burgled our safe and took the last of the magazine's petty cash. In the King's Road I purchased forty-five pounds in travellers' cheques, a pair of sandals, and a summer frock. So prepared, I entered that maze from which, thirteen years later, I have yet to escape.
In those days it was a thirty-hour flight from London to Kuala Lumpur, but we suffered a long delay in Tehran due to fog in Dubai, and then an interminable wait in Singapore. You would think that forty-two hours would be a sufficient opportunity for the two of us to begin our conversation, but it seemed that Slater liked to sleep on aeroplanes and he was so drugged with Phenobarb and whisky when we landed in Singapore that the air hostesses thought he was dead.
He passed through Malaysian Immigration in a wheelchair and so my very first memory of Kuala Lumpur involves the difficulties of transporting a large and meaty man into a taxi and from there into the extraordinarily kitsch foyer of the Merlin Hotel, and there his fame preceded him, thank God.
Apart from the awful gold and tartan decor of the Merlin, my only impressions of this foreign capital were heat and smells, sewage, floral scents, rotting fruit, and a general mustiness which seeped into my skin and permeated my large plain room where someone had written 'Fuck Little Duck' in grey pencil beside the toilet bowl.
The next day Slater did not answer his telephone and I became concerned that he really might have died. Then, on the off-chance, I checked with the desk and discovered he and his luggage had departed the hotel. No message. Just gone.
I immediately felt like someone who has been passionately seduced, fucked, and abandoned. This is not a pleasant feeling at the best of times and all my old animus against Slater came surging back. I was far too angry to read and far too agitated to sleep, and this was how I came to be inspecting the Indian haberdashers on Batu Road. I like to buy fabrics, but nothing pleased me here. The batik was rather coarse and opportunistic, not nearly as refined as the Indonesian fabrics, and yet I purchased a piece, as tourists do. From Batu Road I continued window-shopping, not liking anything, until I found myself in a noisy street of Chinese shophouses with the unlikely name of Jalan Campbell. I did not like it very much either, although the buildings offered a continuous colonnade and I was grateful for the shade, if not the interruptions offered by the shopkeepers who brought their chairs and hammers and plastic buckets out into the public thoroughfare.
It was here, glancing rather peevishly into one little store, that I saw in the gloom amidst a tangle of bicycles, next to a Chinese woman who was ladling bright red fish into plastic bags a middle-aged white man in a dirty sarong. He had lop-sided eyebrows and very close-cropped hair which made me think of both a prisoner and a monk. However, what struck me most particularly were the angry red sores on his sturdy legs. He was sitting in a broken plastic chair and gazing out into the street and did not, when I paused, show so much as the slightest flicker of what I can only call racial connection.
I briefly wondered how he had got to this place where his sores were not being treated, but really I was too hot and sweaty, too offended by those Asian fish-paste smells, and generally too bad tempered to wonder about anything for very long. I crossed the muddy Klang River and was soon back in the musty air-conditioned Merlin, again trying to deal with the work of adequately talented English poets. I was still at it at eight o'clock that evening when Slater finally rang.
Micks, he cried. Isn't it a wonderful city?
How could I tell him that I'd waited all day to see him? He made me feel pathetic, childish.
What have you done? Tell me everything.
I walked a little, I admitted.
Good, good, wonderful. Darling, he said, I was hoping we could have dinner on Tuesday, but I'm rather caught up here. Could you write me on your card for the Wednesday?
John, it's Monday.
Yes. You see, I'm in Kuala Kangsar. Really just arrived. Outstation, as they say.
You knew I was going to Kuala Kangsar.
He had said nothing about any such place. I know it. It was the first time I ever heard the words pronounced, and I was sure then and am positive now that as usual he had followed some opportunity, and not one of the mind. Recklessness and hedonism had fuelled the engine of his early genius, but they had also, ultimately, betrayed his promise. If he had written more and whored and sucked up just a little less, perhaps Lowell would've known exactly who he was.
Well, he said, I'll definitely be back for Wednesday dinner. Enjoy K.L. I really envy you discovering it.
And that was it. No apologies. No concern for my well being. As I hung up the phone I finally understood poor Lizzie Slater, the second wife, the one who ended up in St Bart's with alcoholic poisoning.
The thing is, poor ruined pretty Lizzie told me, the thing about dear old Johnno, dear, he always does exactly as he damn well likes.
I am not a good tourist, as I said, but that second night I was too angry to stay in my comical hotel. I forced myself to eat satay in a street market in what is called Kampong Baru, a Malay quarter five minutes' walk from the Merlin.
The next day, likewise, I grumpily stepped out to stare at the Batu Caves, the Moorish railway station, the stinking Chinese wet markets. The smells were the most challenging aspect of my tourism, not merely the wet markets, but also the alien mixture of smoke and spice and sewer and two-stroke exhausts and all the sweet mouldy aroma of those broad-leafed tropical grasses. I preferred walking the streets very early in the cool morning as the Sikh bank guards were eating sweet barfi and drinking their beloved cow's milk in the street. The rain trees were lovely, all of Jalan Treacher heavy with green leaves and yellow flowers. Only the sight of a boy cutting a banana tree with a machete reminded me that, not three years before, the gentle smiling inhabitants of Kampong Baru had been butchering their Chinese neighbours. Blood had run along those deep drains beside which I now walked.
Reading Group Guide
A New York Times Notable Book
“My Life as a Fake is so confidently brilliant, so economical yet lively in its writing, so tightly fitted and continuously startling.” –John Updike, The New Yorker
The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s reading of Peter Carey’s My Life as a Fake, a wonderfully conceived and cleverly executed novel about the relationship between art and artist, truth and fiction. Based on an infamous literary hoax in Australia in the 1940s, it is a telling and often hilarious look at how the act of creation holds surprises that fly in the face of rational thought and defy the expectations of creator, critic, and reader alike.
1. My Life as a Fake opens with a satirical description of London’s literary elite, placing the fictional John Slater within the company of such real-life figures as Robert Lowell, Dylan Thomas, and the “Faber crowd,” which establishes Sarah’s literary credentials as the editor of The Modern Review. How does this portrait set the framework and tone for the rest of the novel?
2. Is Sarah’s fascination with John Slater based solely on her suspicions about the role he played in her parents’ lives? Why, despite her antipathy to travel, does she agree to accompany him to Malaysia? What are his motivations for asking her?
3. Is Slater’s account of the McCorkle hoax [pp. 19–21] designed to pique or discourage Sarah’s interest in the scandal? What particular details support your answer?
4. At the end of her first meeting with Chubb, Sarah says, “Chubb appeared monstrous—malicious, anti-Semitic, so grotesque and self-deceiving in his love of ‘truth and beauty’” [p. 33]. What insights does this harsh evaluation offer into Sarah’s decision to pursue the poet and the manuscript he briefly shares with her?
5. In describing the Australian character and culture, Slater says, “Remember, this is the country of the duck-billed platypus. When you are cut off from the rest of the world, things are bound to develop in interesting ways” [p. 19]. Chubb, however, chooses to see his homeland as a victim of the “Tyranny of Distance” [p. 29]. What do these views reveal about differences between an outside observer (Slater) and a native? Is Chubb’s viewpoint shaped by his lack of recognition? In what ways does it color his description of David Weiss [pp. 30–31], a Jew whose privileged childhood and early success Chubb openly resents? What impact does it have on his account of the obscenity trial [p. 56]?
6. McCorkle’s rant against the prosecution of Weiss and his vow to exact justice “not just for the sake of David Weiss but of art itself, and for a country where we seldom understand that we must be prepared to fight for issues bigger than an umpire’s decision at the Melbourne Cricket Ground” [pp. 77–78] is an escalation of Chubb’s criticisms of Australian society. Why has Carey put these words into the mouth of the “phantom poet”?
7. When McCorkle recites one of Chubb’s contrived parodies, Carey writes, “This lunatic had somehow recast it without altering a word. What had been clever had now become true, the song of the autodidact, the colonial, the damaged beast of the antipodes” [p. 82]. What does this imply about the nature of literature? About the relationship between a writer and his or her audience?
8. How does Carey use minor characters–from David Weiss, the rival Chubb hopes to expose, to Noussette (who, Chubb declares, would “try anything . . . could be who she wished” [p. 93]) to Mulaha, the master of poisons Chubb encounters in the jungle—to explore the role of deception in human lives? In what ways do these incidental figures help define the moral universe of the novel?
9. “I went to bed with the disconcerting knowledge that almost everything I had assumed about my life was incorrect, that I had been baptised in blood and raised on secrets and misconstructions which had, obviously, made me who I was” [p. 133], Sarah writes after learning the truth about her mother’s death and her father’s dual life. Why do Slater’s revelations free her to divulge the story of her own long-term love affair? Does the relationship reveal something about her character that was previously hidden? Does it make her more or less appealing?
10. McCorkle quotes Milton’s Paradise Lost when he demands that Chubb give him a birth certificate [p. 95]. What other quotations or literary references extend the scope and resonance of the story? What purpose do they serve in the overall scheme of the novel? For example, what do they suggest about Carey’s feelings about “serious” literature and its acolytes?
11. The creature’s hold over Chubb reaches a climax when he kidnaps Nousette’s baby and raises her as his own. How does Chubb’s unrelenting pursuit of the pair—as well as the creature’s ability to convince the little girl that Chubb is an evil spirit [p. 208]—mirror the creative process and the fears, hopes, and ambitions that drive an artist?
12. My Life as a Fake is narrated by Sarah, but the voices of Slater, Chubb, and McCorkle take over at various crucial points. What effect does this have on your reactions to the events? Whose point of view seems the most reliable and why?
13. On his deathbed McCorkle gives Chubb a manuscript with the “fierce sarcastic title, My Life as a Fake” [p. 256]. In what ways does the title sum up not only McCorkle’s life, but also the life stories of each of the other three major characters?
14. While the Ern Malley scandal is familiar to Australian readers and students of literary hoaxes, it is probably unknown to most American readers. In what ways might this affect the reader’s response to the novel? Does it stand entirely on its own, or would knowledge of the actual events enhance the reading experience? Why do you think Carey chose to explain the sources of the novel in an afterword rather than in an introduction or a prologue?
15. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the monster destroys Victor Frankenstein, the brilliant scientist who created him. One of the major themes of that novel is the danger of unfettered scientific inquiry and experimentation. Are there similarities between Chubb’s motivations and those of Dr. Frankenstein? In drawing on the theme and structure of Frankenstein for My Life as a Fake, what is Carey saying about the nature of genius? Are superior minds and talents exempt from the ethical guidelines of ordinary society?
16. Carey appropriated and reanimated the plot of Dickens’s Great Expectations in his previous novel, Jack Maggs, and his Booker Prize–winning True History of the Kelly Gang retells the story of one of Australia’s most famous real-life legends. In My Life as a Fake, Carey exploits both literary devices, imposing the framework of a classic work of fiction on an historical event. How does the juxtaposition illuminate Carey’s definition of “creativity” and the role of the fiction writer? To what extent does the history of literature represent an ongoing endeavor to conflate reality and make-believe to give the world an utterly original creation?