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A Dance to the Music of Eternity : OSCAR & LUCINDA<i> by Peter Carey (Harper & Row: $18.95; 516 pp.)</i> Reviewed

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We have a great novelist living on the planet with us, and his name is Peter Carey. To be “great,” to be “major,” Dame Helen Gardner reminds us in an essay on T.S. Eliot, the writer’s work “must have bulk; he must attempt with success one or the other of the greater . . . forms, which tests his gifts of invention and variation . . . his subject matter must have universally recognized importance, and he must treat it with that imaginative authority we call originality; he must have something at once personal and of general relevance to say on important aspects of human experience.”

To these lofty criteria, let me add--with perfect certainty--a great novelist must open up the reader’s heart, allow the reader to remember the vastness and glory--and shame and shabbiness--of what it is to be human. Those novelists who try to be great, grunt and strain at this project; it is like lifting weights to them: “I have vaulting ambition,” a “great” American novelist told me once, as dandruff dusted his shoulders and his throat swelled--as if writing were the high jump, and a gold medal would prove him great.

But the purest, safest, surest mark of greatness in a novelist is ease. Stendahl danced. Melville danced. Carey dances.

“Oscar & Lucinda” is Carey’s third novel. His first, “Bliss,” unfolded silken bolts of lustrous prose, took man and the land as its theme, was set in the present, and made you heartsick when you finished, because you could never read it again for the first time. “Illywacker” grandly summed up the history of Australia through generations of scalawags; it dealt with romantic love, obsession, racism, the twin urges to build and to destroy. Images from “Illywacker"--a girl mating with a goanna, for instance--stick in your mind like flies to flypaper. It’s not a terribly lovable book. But Milton wasn’t terribly lovable, although he was great.

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“Oscar & Lucinda” exponentially expands Carey’s material across oceans and continents to England. His hero and heroine--like John Donne’s “Stiffe Twin Compasses"--are destined to be together, even as they are apart. Carey doesn’t set his envisioned “England” in competition with “Australia"; he merely takes a look and sets in motion an extraordinary dance that involves splendid, layered swirls of image and metaphor, and amazing feats of prose style. (Since this begins in Victorian England, the first sections are written--as by a master forger--in the purest Victorian-novel form. Then, in the second half, as coarse, vital, bright, sinful Australia impinges on events, the prose coarsens but becomes, itself, more vital . . . .) Finally, Carey dances with the very greatest issues of now or any other time; our relationship with the divine.

Does all this sound too pretentious to tackle? Too profound to read? No, it is easy, easy, beautiful beyond words. Young Oscar Hopkins grows up in 19th-Century Devon. He’s a pinched, motherless boy whose father is a preacher of the Plymouth Brethren--and yet a great, sweet, meticulous lover of nature. The elder Hopkins is so close to his God, and yet so debased in his beliefs, that he nearly strangles his son when he takes a bite of forbidden Christmas pudding. That Christianity which forbids all pleasure--is that what we are meant to follow? Young Oscar, having tested that fruit, becomes an Anglican, then a clergyman, and we are with him, deep in the concerns of Victorian England.

Across oceans and continents, in rural Australia, Lucinda grows up fatherless; her mother, an intellectual, and friend of Marianne Evans/George Eliot, broods over her lot. Lucinda’s mother loathes farming, but stays after her husband’s death, despite the condescending farmers around her. When she dies, she has sold off her land and leaves Lucinda a fortune. (Stolen money, of course, since the land belongs to the blacks, and Lucinda knows her fortune is filthy lucre.)

The plot? Oscar and Lucinda are secret, compulsive gamblers. They meet on shipboard in a cunning, lovely set-piece, where she confesses to this incredibly lovable clergyman all the times, places and ways in which she hab had occasion to commit the sin of gambling, to which he answers: “Our whole faith is a wager . . . we bet that there is a God. We bet our life on it. We calculate the odds, the return, that we shall sit with the saints in paradise . . . we must gamble every instant of our allotted span. We must stake everything on the unprovable fact of His existence.”

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From then on, this pair of soul mates devote themselves, together, to poker, to fan-tan, to horse racing, to dice--and to the bringing of Christianity and civilization to a land where the country is “thick with sacred stories more ancient than the ones he carried in his sweat-slippery leather Bible.” Through heroism, idealism and murder, Oscar brings Christian stories that an aborigine will later (not unkindly) remember: “My aunty . . . saw Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Paul and Jonah--all that mob she never knew before.”

Oscar and Lucinda’s great enterprise is based on misunderstanding, and some of that “vaulting” ambition. Lucinda has acquired a glassworks (and the passages on the properties of glass rival Melville’s reflections on the whiteness of the whale). Her whole thought is to build a monument, a structure, something different. She has constructed a model of a glass church. Oscar, believing his beloved to love another clergyman upcountry, offers to deliver it to that Godforsaken outpost.

But outside their idealism and self-absorption, great, growing Australia exists, humming its own tune. And the men who must guide Oscar are murderous brutes. His idealistic quest or errand becomes an excursion into hell: Earlier, when he has first seen Lucinda’s model for that church, he’d asked, “Do you not imagine that our Lord laughs together with his angels?” And Lucinda knew herself helplessly in love. But out on parched flats, Oscar is faced with another dreadful surmise: ". . . He had bet there was a God. He had bet on Goodness. He had bet he would be rewarded in paradise. He had bet he would carry this jewel of a church through the horrid bush and have it in Boat Harbor by Easter. . . . Then he saw, in the corner of his mind, the possibility that the glass church was just the devil’s trick.” Oscar knows, horribly, that his life is “riddled with sin and compromise.”

There’s so much richness here. The sweetness of the star-crossed lovers. The goodness within the stifled English clergyman. The perfect irrationality of human behavior as it plays itself out in minor characters. The splendid narrative strategy, in which the Victorian device of the author speaking over the heads of the reader, turns, by the end, into something entirely different and surprising. . . .

But, mostly, if you liked Julien Sorel climbing that ladder, if you liked Ishmael clinging to the wreckage and understanding human friendship, if you wish that you too, along with Proust, could conjure up the taste of a madeleine as it melts, deliciously in your mouth, you’re going to read “Oscar & Lucinda,” you’re going to love it; you’re going to remember it forever.

Great novelists, like the saints, don’t all live in the past. They’re here, now, and they’re smiling.


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