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Peter Carey on True History of the Kelly Gang: ‘At 56, I wrote what my younger self could not have managed’ | Books

In 1961 I failed my first-year science exams at Monash University in Melbourne. In the aftermath I got a job in advertising and read Joyce’s Ulysses. I was surrounded by copywriters who would soon be novelists. One of them, Barry Oakley, took me to see Sidney Nolan’s series of Ned Kelly paintings. It was 1964, around the time when Gabriel García Márquez was writing: “The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.” I was 21. All of art was new to me and nothing was not interesting.

True History of the Kelly Gang

I had been reading William Faulkner and Flann O’Brien. Now I obsessed about Nolan, followed my nose from his paintings to the letter Kelly had written in 1879 before he robbed the bank in Jerilderie, southern New South Wales. You can Google it these days. Please do. I hope you see what I saw: Ned Kelly is on fire. “In or about the spring of 1870 the ground was very soft a hawker named Mr Gould got his wagon bogged between Greta and my mother’s house on the eleven mile creek, the ground was that rotten it would bog a duck in places.”

Why had no one told me about this? Had no one else seen what I saw, that the famous bushranger was an avant-garde artist with hardly a comma to his name?

I was still drunk on Joyce, and mad with ignorant ambition. I had read not very much. I had written one unpublished story but was not shy to think that I might write a novel that would transform everyone’s idea of that bearded Australian bushranger. “I dare not strike him,” Kelly had written about Constable Hall, “or my sureties would loose the bond money I used to trip him and let him take a mouth full of dust now and again as he was as helpless as a big guano after leaving a dead bullock or a horse. I threw big cowardly Hall on his belly I straddled him and rooted both spurs onto his thighs he roared like a big calf attacked by dogs and shifted several yards of the fence I got his hands at the back of his neck and trid to make him let the revolver.”

I did not fix the spelling. I did not add a comma. I transcribed the letter and carried it on my person like a holy cross. And yet my first novel shows none of Kelly’s influence. Samuel Beckett took his place. When I lost the Jerilderie letter in a pub I did not bother to replace it.

Peter Carey.

‘I walked them around the 27 paintings as if they were stations of the cross’ … the writer Peter Carey. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images

It was over, so it seemed. I published nine novels without a nod to Kelly. I became old. I left Australia. I arrived in New York and then, just when my friends all feared I had left my country far behind, I wandered into the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and there they were: Nolan’s magnificent Kelly paintings looking very good indeed. One by one, I brought my new Manhattan friends uptown and walked them around the 27 paintings as if they were the stations of the cross. I explained why, while we had no Thomas Jefferson, our imaginary founding father was a convicted murderer named Ned Kelly.

This was in 1994, exactly 30 years since I first read the Jerilderie letter. At 56, I sat down and wrote what my younger self could not have managed: “I lost my own father at 12 yr. of age and know what it is to be raised on lies and silences my dear daughter you are presently too young to understand a word I write but this history is for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false.”

My thanks to all my publishers who did not try to add a single comma.

True History of the Kelly Gang is being reissued by Faber.

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