Giving Angela Carter her due
By Richard Rayner
“A good writer can make you believe time stands still. Yet the end of all stories, even if the writer forbears to mention it, is death,” wrote the English writer Angela Carter, who died 16 years ago this month. At the time Carter was only 51, and her career was in a strange place; she’d won smaller literary prizes while still in her 20s, notably for her gorgeous coming-of-age novel “The Magic Toyshop” (Penguin: 208 pp., $15 paper), but her triumphant and carnivalesque later novels, “Nights at the Circus” (Penguin: out of print) and “Wise Children” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 240 pp., $14 paper), were marginalized in England, failing even to make the Booker Prize shortlist.
Like her friend J.G. Ballard, Carter was regarded by the British literary establishment as weird and beyond the pale. She combined fantasy with down-to-earth observation and high-flown intellectual ideas. She was influenced by Surrealism and Roland Barthes and other dubious French fads; she was brilliant, yes, but distinctly odd.
Times have changed. Since Carter’s premature death, her reputation has soared. Most of her work is in print, and she features on so many university syllabuses it sometimes seems she’s swamped by feminist theory. More important, perhaps, her brash brilliance helped crack open the middle-class conventions that had dominated the British novel. She played fairy godmother to younger generations of talent. Without her, Salman Rushdie and Jeanette Winterson wouldn’t be the writers they are; likewise David Mitchell and Zadie Smith. Carter had a hand in changing the direction of fiction. She was an immensely generous person and a dangerous and inspiring writer, always throwing off sparks.
Carter was born in the south of England but spent her childhood in Yorkshire, growing up among the coal-mining communities around Doncaster. She felt an affinity, perhaps surprisingly, with D.H. Lawrence, a writer whose background and sexual oddities she understood. “Lawrence,” she announced in her mischievous way, “was a stocking fetishist.” Time spent in Japan gave her a cool eye that she applied to British and American culture, while commitment to feminism provided the tools to play with, and explode, the literary conventions that she inherited.
Central to her achievement is the amazing 1979 book “The Bloody Chamber” (Penguin: 128 pp., $13 paper) in which she mines the content of traditional fairy stories to create something new and exotic, hybrid tales of the voluptuous and the snarling, glittering portraits of desire and perverse sexuality. “His wedding gift, clasped round my throat. A choker of rubies, two inches wide, like an extraordinarily precious slit throat,” says the narrator of the long title story, which is Carter’s riff on the tale of Bluebeard. “I saw him watching me in the gilded mirrors with the assessing eye of a connoisseur inspecting horseflesh, or even of a housewife in the market, inspecting cuts on the slab.” The lush and ornate style owes more to Isak Dinesen’s “Seven Gothic Tales” and the fin de siècle decadence of Baudelaire than to Charles Perrault or Hans Christian Andersen. The writing tingles with violence and intensity as Carter takes us deep inside these familiar but utterly re-imagined fantasy worlds, examining and subverting ideas of sexual power. She deconstructs masculine evil and is intrigued, inevitably, by the figure of the femme fatale. In the story “The Lady of the House of Love,” she spins a fierce and erotic version of the vampire myth:
“The Countess herself is indifferent to her own weird authority, as if she were dreaming it. In her dream, she would like to be human, but she does not know if that is possible,” Carter writes. “The Countess wants fresh meat. When she was a little girl, she was like a fox and contented herself with baby rabbits that squeaked piteously as she bit into their necks with a nauseated voluptuousness, with voles and field mice that palpitated for a bare moment between her embroideress’s fingers. But now she is a woman, she must have men. If you stop too long beside the giggling fountain, you will be led by the hand to the Countess’s larder.”
The prose here seems turbo-charged, and the best of these stories (“Company of Wolves,” filmed by Neil Jordan from a script that Carter co-wrote) sizzle with an intensity that both shocks and excites: “She sinks her teeth into the neck where an artery throbs with fear.” Such writing does indeed make time stand still.
Carter was an exuberant dandy, but she was in the business of revealing women, and men, to themselves. Even great writers can’t be good all the time, and she’s more uneven than most. The nature of her high-wire enterprise risks being over-elaborate and precious on the one hand and cute and twee on the other. As Rushdie, her friend and one of her greatest champions, has observed, words like “eldritch” pop up in her work a little too often.
But when Carter does descend into whimsy, it’s never for long. She dealt in the concrete and was a wonderful nonfiction writer. Her aphoristic study of the marquis de Sade, “The Sadeian Woman” (Penguin: out of print), in some ways a companion piece to “The Bloody Chamber,” was also published in 1979. “Sade remains a monstrous and daunting cultural edifice; yet I would like to think that he put pornography in the service of women, or, perhaps, allowed it to be invaded by an ideology not inimical to women,” she writes. Small wonder that some attacked her, though she countered: “I really can’t see what’s wrong with finding out about what the great male fantasies about women are.”
Her journalism, collected in “Shaking a Leg” (Penguin: out of print), is similarly forthright. Viewing a portrait of Elizabeth I, Carter sees a woman “stiff as an ironing board and stuck with pearls like lice.” She wonders why Simone de Beauvoir “wasted time sucking up to boring old Jean-Paul Sartre.” On Clark Gable in “Gone With the Wind,” she muses on “his ears rampant, as if ears were secondary sexual characteristics.”
Readers new to her work might want to start with “The Bloody Chamber” or “Burning Your Boats: The Collected Short Stories” (Penguin: 480 pp., $17 paper), or the Shakespearean romp that is “Wise Children,” or that haunting early novel, “The Magic Toyshop.” Great wonders await. Carter had a poet’s flair for language combined with irreverent humor and a wild sensuality; she enchants.
Richard Rayner’s Paperback Writers column appears monthly.
THE SHORT LIST: ALSO NEW IN PAPERBACK
“The Kreutzer Sonata” by Leo Tolstoy (Penguin)
This tale of sexual frustration leading to murder was banned by the U.S. Post Office in 1890 and caused President Theodore Roosevelt to call its author “a sexual and moral pervert.” Tolstoy suggested that the most poignant tragedies of all are tragedies of the bedroom. Better at taking us inside the skin of his characters than maybe any writer ever has been, he does this in a way that has piercing force, even when, through the voice of a half-mad narrator, he appears to be advocating abstinence. “The Kreutzer Sonata” is one of a series called “Great Loves,” neat little books from Penguin that are beautifully designed and so small they fit in the palm of your hand. Virgil, Casanova, Stendhal, Thomas Hardy, Turgenev and Kierkegaard are among the other writers featured: We get stories of first love, doomed love, advice on love, love analyzed, love turned into aphorism and, in Tolstoy’s case, love considered as disputatious moral argument.
“Bambi vs. Godzilla” by David Mamet (Vintage)
“A couple of guys in a coffee shop set out to write a gag; a couple of guys with a camera set out to film a gag; a couple of guys in a cutting room set out to make sense of the trash that’s been dumped on their desk. That’s movie-making in its entirety -- anything else is just ‘the suits.’ ” Thus writes -- who else? -- David Mamet, in his latest prose collection, a series of brilliant, savage, rueful and occasionally even affectionate essays about film and Hollywood. More often than not, he seems to wind up writing about writing: “Storytelling is like sex. We all do it naturally. Some of us are better at it than others.” Needless to say, Mamet is better at it than nearly everybody.
“Anansi Boys” and “Smoke and Mirrors” both by Neil Gaiman (HarperCollins)
Fat Charlie, a timid London clerk, journeys to Florida, where he learns that his flamboyant and dodgy father, recently deceased, was in fact the incarnation of an African trickster god. Complications, as they will in such circumstances, ensue in “Anansi Boys,” the latest novel from fantasy superstar Neil Gaiman. Also reissued is Gaiman’s splendid career-spanning collection “Smoke and Mirrors,” in which he offers notes and mini-essays on each story, revealing the range of his erudition and interests. Gaiman can do horror and he can do comedy and he can do tweaked realism. His school story, “One Life, Furnished in Early Moorcock,” sparkles with wit and charm.
“Get Down” by Asali Solomon (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
“Get Down” is a debut collection of stories about young African Americans, set in 1980s Philadelphia. “Talking to Frances was like pushing a heavy grocery cart with a trick wheel,” observes the narrator of “Twelve Takes Thea,” a carefully judged and nuanced story of girl-teen angst that carries real punch at the end. Solomon’s observations are quiet, but they’re fresh and true. She’s good on social and racial dynamics, but she also gets inside her characters: “William is dancing, and it is not a good experience.” Spot on.
“The Beast Within” by Émile Zola (Penguin)
A jealous railway station master forces his wife to help him murder her lover. Unfortunately, the act is witnessed by a man who is himself a serial killer who then falls in love with the wife. Disaster is as inevitable as the steam locomotives that belch and roar in the background. Jean Renoir and Fritz Lang both filmed this novel, and James M. Cain was inspired by it. Zola shades in a portrait of 19th century French society while telling an intimate family drama. His startling ferocity blazes off the page in this new translation by Roger Whitehouse.
“All God’s Children” by Fox Butterfield (Vintage)
“We all descend from the past and no individual exists free from his or her own patriarchy,” writes Fox Butterfield in this contemporary classic of American reportage, echoing a sentiment that Zola explored in “The Beast Within.” Butterfield’s subject is also murder. He tells the story of Willie Bosket who, at only 15, with a genius-level IQ and a history of 250 armed robberies and 25 stabbings behind him, shot and killed two strangers on the New York subway. Butterfield digs deep into Bosket’s family background, discovering there a lineage of abuse and violent death, a series of human train wrecks that pose tough questions about race and social, as well as familial, paternity. Butterfield’s style is straightforward, but the linked narratives build with heartbreaking force.
“Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky” by Patrick Hamilton (New York Review Books)
While still a young man, Patrick Hamilton achieved wealth as a playwright, penning “Rope,” based on the Leopold-Loeb murder case, and then “Gaslight,” two hugely successful melodramas that were both made into famous films. His real gift, though, was for fiction, as the chronicler of twisted urban hope and desperate urban humiliation. The three novels collected here, in this famous trilogy, center on a pub, the Midnight Bell, and the lives of the characters who meet there and become ensnared in their creator’s tortured version of love, much more pain than gain. Hamilton is great on the perils of drink -- a subject he understood only too tragically well -- and, especially, on the shiftless anomie of lower middle-class life in pre-World War II London, a milieu he evokes with more tenderness and accuracy than even Graham Greene. His novels have a feel that is unique. Newly introduced here by Susanna Moore.
“More Than Night” by James Naremore (University of California)
There are hosts of books about film noir, but this is a really good one. James Naremore is excellent both in his analysis of specific films, including Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” and Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive,” and in his laying out the various social, literary and iconographic streams that came together to form an indelible style. “Is there any way to win?” Jane Greer asks Robert Mitchum in “Out of the Past.” “No. But there’s a way to lose more slowly,” Mitchum replies. There you have it. Naremore gets into his subject with academic rigor and a thankfully uncluttered style.
“The Diving Pool” by Yoko Ogawa (Picador)
“If I could have one of the tragic histories so common at the Light House,” muses Aya, the young narrator of “The Diving Pool,” one of three novellas collected here, “then I would have been a proper orphan.” Aya is neglected by her parents, who run the orphanage, and she obsesses about the handsome and good-natured Jun, who has grown up with her. Ogawa writes in a lean, muscular way that goes deep, exploring how malevolence co-exists with everyday impulse. This is her first book appearance in English, although the bleak and mysterious “Pregnancy Diary,” another of the novellas, appeared in the New Yorker a couple of years back. She’s a disturbing writer; she creates a memorable unease.
“The Underground City” by H.L. Humes (Random House)
H.L. “Doc” Humes was a co-founder of the Paris Review and, in short order, published two novels in the late 1950s. Then he went off the map, and off the rails, for the remaining 30 years of his life. The coruscatingly brilliant and egotistical Humes, who died in 1992, is now the subject of an excellent and moving documentary, directed by his daughter, the filmmaker Immy Humes. Prompted by the occasion, Random House has reissued the novels, the punchier “Men Die” and also this one, Humes’ first -- a huge, sprawling, monstrously ambitious story of an American’s involvement with the French Resistance in World War II. It’s an uneven fiesta of writing, sometimes boring, often dazzling and inspiring. Now we know what the fuss is about.
-- Richard Rayner
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