The past was hard, cruel and especially inimical to women

angela carter fairy talesAngela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales

I started reading this book on 31 December and finished it this week. It’s not the smallest book, but 450 pages doesn’t usually take me several months. Especially not when it comes from one of the 20th century’s greatest authors, Angela Carter. So what gives?

Well, two things. One: this is a collection of more than 100 short stories, and I do like to spread out short stories by reading one or two per sitting, even when the shortest are less than a page long. Two: perhaps more pertinently, these stories were collected and curated by Carter, not written or even edited by her. So while they share her taste in the weird and feminist, they do not exhibit her writing skill – more noticeably so in some cases than others.

Carter spent many years collecting these stories for what was originally two separate books published by Virago. She sought translations into English, ideally transcriptions from oral storytellers, from all over the world and the result is truly the most international collection I have ever read. For example, the final chapter’s stories are labelled as: Yiddish; Norwegian; Africa: Bondes; USA; Africa: Hausa; Chinese; Surinamese.

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This elemental silence which could crush you to nothing

magic-toyshopThe Magic Toyshop
by Angela Carter

This book was not what I had imagined, having read two previous works by Carter, but it was equally wonderful and has cemented her as one of the great authors for me.

The title had suggested to me something a bit fantastical, which aligned with my experience of Carter (I’d previously read Nights at the Circus and The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman) but – on the surface, at least – this book stays within the realm of reality. And yet from the very first page, there is an air of dark fantasy pervading the background.

The story centres on 15-year-old Melanie. She and her two younger siblings have to move from the middle-class comforts of their country home to live in relative poverty with their Uncle Philip in London. He is a toymaker but in every way defies the expectations of that label – he is tall, broad, strong, dark and frequently violent. He shows no kindness or empathy for the uprooted children.

“His silence had bulk, a height and a weight. It reached from here to the sky. It filled the room. He was heavy as Saturn. She ate at the same table as this elemental silence which could crush you to nothing.”

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The dark afterlight of accomplished tragedy

the-infernal-desire-machines-of-doctor-hoffman

The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman
by Angela Carter

I have wanted to read more Angela Carter since I fell completely in love with Nights at the Circus a couple of years ago. So I enthusiastically added my vote when this was suggested for book club. It didn’t win me over quite in the same way but I still think it’s an amazing piece of writing.

This book can be pretty disorienting. It begins with a set-up so completely strange that it takes a while to understand what is happening. And throughout the book there are themes and incidents that are so shocking they disorient you all over again.

“I think I must have been one of the first people in the city to notice how the shadows began to fall subtly awry and a curious sense of strangeness invaded everything…Sugar tasted a little salty, sometimes. A door one had always seen to be blue modulated by scarcely perceptible stages until, suddenly, it was a green door.”

The story is narrated by Desiderio, a civil servant in the great unnamed capital city, and he describes the ongoing war with Doctor Hoffman, a physicist/magician who has declared a reality attack on the city. Apparitions and mirages fill the city, often with terrible consequences. Desiderio’s minister tries to stand up to this attack by becoming the Minister of Determination, his department responsible for figuring out what is real and what isn’t. But the real story begins when Desiderio leaves the city on a quest to find someone the minister believes will lead them to Doctor Hoffman.

So begins a journey with more than a touch of Gulliver’s Travels about it (in fact, Gulliver’s Travels is referenced multiple times) – in each chapter a new distinct territory is travelled to, with distinct people, always ending in near-misadventure for Desiderio, and of course for the reader there’s some serious political points being made.

“I must admit that all my guests enchanted me and I, in turn, enchanted them for, here, I had the unique allure of the norm. I was exotic precisely to the extent of my mundanity…They wondered at the masterpiece of sterility I remembered for them.”

The recurring theme, as the title suggests, is sex/desire. But sex in this book is never sexy, it is extreme, varied and frequently shocking in how matter-of-factly it is described, covering all manner of proclivites including paedophilia, rape, bestiality, violent sex, pornography and voyeurism. The sex, like the rest of the story, gets more fantastical as the book goes on, so although shocking things still happen, it gets less shocking because it’s less “real”.

“I see them all haloed in the dark afterlight of accomplished tragedy, moving with the inexorability of the doomed towards a violent death.”

Tied up with but some extent separate from the sex/desire theme is that of gender. This is definitely a feminist book but it makes its point in an odd way. Gender differences are made much of in every group of people/beasts encountered and women are always subjugated in some way. The satire is so stylised that some sections could be construed as hideously racist or sexist if you didn’t see the point being made (for instance, the “river people”, natives of this unnamed South American country, are eager to marry off their nine-year-old daughter and also suffer from the effects of in-breeding).

The 19th century travelogue style means that there is a certain distance maintained from all the characters, even the narrator, so that there is little psychological insight into the characters, but conversely there is plenty of psychological insight into human nature in general, albeit mostly about the nature of desire.

“None of these gobbets and scraps issuing from a mind blunted by age and misfortune made much sense to me. Sometimes a whole hour of discourse plashed down on me like rain and I would jot down from it only a single phrase that struck me. Perhaps: ‘Things cannot be exhausted’; or ‘In the imagination, nothing is past, nothing can be forgotten’.”

I know some at book group didn’t take to the florid language (which I’ll admit I love) but also pointed out what I hadn’t really noticed – the text is crammed full of references and could be analysed endlessly. It’s a cracking good adventure, but not a fast read thanks to all that detail in the language. It also describes itself as a love story, but I must admit I struggled to see the love buried under all the lust. Perhaps that was, after all, the point.

“We pursued one another across the barriers of time and space; we dared every vicissitude of fortune for a single kiss before we were torn apart again and we saw the events of the war in which we were enlisted on opposite sides only by the light of one another’s faces.”

There is so much more that could be discussed – the treatment of different languages and cultures; foreshadowing and even outright stating how things will turn out (on reflection the opening chapter tells the whole story, but it all seems so strange at that point that I had completely forgotten by the end of the book). I am definitely enthused to read more Carter but I’ll admit the disturbing nature of much of this one means I didn’t love it.

First published 1972 by Rupert Hart-Davis.

Source: I bought this from Foyles Bristol.

The fun of the fair

Nights at the Circus
by Angela Carter

This is one of those modern classics that keeps popping up in discussions on Radio 4, with nothing but praise directed its way, so I thought it was about time I gave it a go.

It is a beautiful, crazy book. Right from the start, Carter keeps us guessing: is anyone telling the truth? Is this the part fantasy/fairy tale that it seems to be or is it a story about some rather clever, even fantastic, people in “real” life?

The story switches between three narrators, sometimes third person, sometimes first, but always appearing to be one of their perspectives. First there’s Jack Walser, an American investigative journalist who, at the start of the novel, is in London to interview a woman who he thinks must be pulling some kind of trick on the British public. That woman is our second narrator, Sophie Fevvers, a six foot plus blonde with wings – yes, wings – who takes advantage of this strange growth by performing as a trapeze artist. She gladly tells Walser her story, or a version of it, with help from her rather less welcoming foster mother Lizzie, who seems to have tricks up her sleeve, has a way with words that belies her coarse cockney accent and is our third narrator/perspective.

Walser quickly falls for Fevvers, as she prefers to be known, to the extent that he signs himself up to join the circus that she is about to go on tour with; and so begins a cacophony of adventure and misadventure.

The story is set in 1899 so the circus is that old-fashioned kind that combined freak show, performing animals, and heavy superstition and tradition. This sometimes got hard to stomach. I have in my time campaigned for circuses to be animal-free and, frankly, this novel offers strong evidence in that campaign’s favour. However, it’s all part of the surreal menagerie that now includes Fevvers – part woman, part swan. And the chimps are completely brilliant.

Carter toys with her readers throughout, mixing reality with lore and perception so that it is never clear what the characters believe to be true and what actually is true:

“[They] did not live alone. There was a bear, a black one, not yet a year old, still almost a cub. This bear was part pet, part familiar; he was both a real, furry and beloved bear and, at the same time, a transcendental kind of meta-bear, a minor deity and also a partial ancestor because the forest-dwellers extended considerable procreational generosity towards the other species of the woods and there were bears in plenty on the male side of the tribal line.”

For all its rollicking, good humoured, wonderfully written storytelling, it did take me a while to get through this book. Mostly I think that was the language. This isn’t simple, accessible language. This is complex, crafted, allusion-heavy prose, with borrowings from the folklore and mythology of several European countries. I thought it was magnificent, but there was no rushing through it.

I also – and I hate to admit that this made a difference – took a while to warm to any of the main characters. Fevvers and Lizzie deliberately keep themselves at a distance, though they can talk for hours on end (and do so), so you’re always aware that they’re holding something back, even without the big mystery of Fevvers’ wings. And Walser starts out as a pure journalist, not letting his own character or history get anywhere near the story that he is unravelling, so it is a long time before his personality begins to show through.

In all, this is a magical, funny, adventure-filled read encompassing all sorts of colourful outsiders – prostitutes, freaks, clowns, murderers and more besides. The story travels from London to Siberia and evocatively captures each location as well as the daily lives of its huge cast of characters. Carter created something extraordinary here and I will definitely have to read more of her work.

First published 1984.
Winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.