An experiment in the understanding of grief

In Peter Carey’s The Chemistry of Tears an horologist mourns her dead lover by rebuilding an automaton. Sue Leonard spoke to him about the book

The Chemistry of Tears

Peter Carey

faber and faber, €23.75;

ebook €16.01

PETER CAREY wanted to be an industrial chemist. Studying chemistry at university, he couldn’t understand the lecturer. He failed his first-year exams, so became a copywriter for an advertising agency.

Carey loves the beauty of science; and he plays with it in his writing. “I once faked a physical experiment to the value of gravity. I was thinking, just last week, that when you start with 980 and you have to work backwards to get the readings and the weights and the this and the that, it’s a bit like writing a novel. You start with an ending and work out how to get to that ending,” he says.

The Chemistry of Tears ends with the notion that we can’t understand science and that all kinds of things might be possible that we don’t consider. He writes “You cannot see what you can see”.

The Chemistry of Tears opens in London in Apr 2010. Catherine Gehrig, an horologist at a fictitious London Museum, learns that her colleague, and lover of 13 years, is dead. Matthew Tindall was married, so Catherine grieves in private.

To help distract her from that grief, Erik Croft, her boss, asks her to piece together the mechanics of an extraordinary automaton.

It’s a clockwork puzzle in the form of a swan, and was commissioned in 19th century Germany by the English Henry Brandling in an attempt to save his consumptive son.

Drinking her way through her despair, Catherine becomes obsessed both with the swan and with Henry’s Brandings story, told in notebooks.

The result is an extraordinarily perceptive character study, and analysis of the grieving process.

Carey is now 69. Was this written from experience?

“I’ve never had grief like that; but if you can experience love it’s not really a big jump to imagine what grief would be like. She loves him and he’s gone.

“All the things I discovered about grief and life, and the ecstatic present, I hadn’t thought about at the beginning. Nor had I thought of the way the automaton echoes and comments on Catherine’s condition and grief. I’m asking myself questions the whole time I write to make the novel more interesting. When you’re asking this of yourself, you’re being given a kind of gift and you go far beyond what you knew in the beginning.”

Sometimes, Carey’s characters surprise him.

Amanda, Catherine’s posh, brilliant but slightly unstable assistant, becomes so passionate about the secrets contained in the automaton, that, thwarted, she scratches Catherine on the face.

“That really did come out of the moment,” says Carey. “The character forced the situation, and their action affects the way you think about their character.”

It came as somewhat of a surprise to Carey that Erik was a cocaine user. “But then I thought, ‘why not’?”

Erik’s importance grows with the plot. Annoying, but kind, he’s like a spy master, pulling the strings of the lives of his friends and colleagues in order to help them romantically, as well as to progress their careers.

“My wife suggested that I was really Erik.”

And is he? “Well, he does exhibit some characteristics of mine. I do want to fix everything for other people so that they’ll be happy.”

Carey strives to write the truth. He thinks through his observations of others, and his conclusions seep into the narrative.

Henry Brandling drives his grieving wife mad, with his constant assurances that their son will not die as their daughter had.

“I have friends who really are extreme eternal optimists,” says Carey. “Who, when you are in great despair and something awful has just happened, say, ‘It will be all right, really.’ It’s the last thing you want to hear, because it means they haven’t listened to what you said. You want to say, ‘No, it will not be all right’.”

Brought up in Australia, Carey has lived in New York for 22 years. He teaches a creative writing programme alongside Colum McCann. Yet he’s not altogether comfortable with the idea of writing as a career. He says many of his students feel compelled to publish too soon.

For Carey, it was a long road to publication. He’d written four, maybe five novels before publishing a short story collection, to instant success. In that, he says he was fortunate.

“It’s how I taught myself to write,” he says. “Part of my first novel was published in an anthology. Someone mentioned it in a review. Then I saw what was wrong with it, and I didn’t want it published.

“The next one was almost published, and so it went on.”

Carey is one of the world’s most highly regarded novelists. He’s won the Booker Prize twice, and been shortlisted several times more. Should he win again, he’ll be the first to have done so three times. But if, as last year, the Booker judges award the coveted prize on grounds of the books’ ‘readability’, Carey isn’t sure it would hold much relevance for him.

“What sort of person would use a word like ‘readability’?” says Carey. “And what were they doing on a prize committee? Just that use of such an ugly word should disqualify you. Really it was a code for pulp fiction. But the person who said that was mocked and derided for it, so maybe it will not be an issue anymore.”

Does such constant success make for greater pressure?

“The pressure has nothing to do with prizes,” he says. “It’s to make a book work. And that pressure is more intense than you can possibly imagine. I guess I think about failure. About how humiliating it will be to persist with this dud thing you are working on.

“I’ve never dumped a book, but some have made me unhappy. When I began The Tax Inspector — a dark book featuring childhood abuse — I didn’t realise what it was going to mean to me to follow through on the idea I had at the beginning. Every day I was being dragged into this dark place and was wondering did the world need these things imagined? It was a pretty bad time,” he says.

Does he still have an ambition?

“Of course. I want to astonish myself and do something that feels big and beautiful and hasn’t been done before; something that hasn’t existed in the world before,” he says.

Many would argue that he’s done that; and not just with this new book. As to his reading taste — he likes to reread classics like Joseph Conrad and Henry James. But he was hugely impressed, and jealous, of Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with the Amber Eyes.

“I think it’s an extraordinary book. And De Waal is a potter, for God’s sake. I mean he’s a great potter but he sat down and wrote this book. I don’t know how he did that. It’s seriously unbelievable and it’s not fair,” he says.

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