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.

On the bright side

Candide: or, Optimism
by Voltaire
translated by John Butt

This wasn’t as intimidating to read as I feared but it’s definitely intimidating to write about! On the one hand a short picaresque novel about the many adventures of a young German, it’s also a study of philosophy, humanity and life itself.

The story is ridiculous and the characters entirely wooden, but that’s not the point here. Voltaire is witty, ironic, sometimes subtle and sometimes blatant, always clever. Briefly, Candide is the ward of a rich baron who is thrown out when he is discovered kissing the baron’s beautiful daughter, Cunégonde. As his tutor Pangloss had always taught him that “all is for the best” he approaches his series of misadventures with a sort of naïve cheeriness and hardy resilience. He travels the world making his fortune over and over, only to lose it again and again. He is repeatedly arrested, robbed, cheated, whipped, banished and otherwise mistreated. His beloved companions die or are otherwise taken from him, yet to the last page he is determined to find a man who is truly happy and dogmatically discusses his philosophy with anyone who will join in.

One of the many ironies of the story is that Candide actually finds a true paradise in South America – Eldorado – but chooses not to stay because he is restless and because he is concerned for Cunégonde, who last he knew was in the hands of a dastardly king.

The story reminded me of Tom Jones, Gulliver’s Travels and The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia. A lot happens but even the worst (rape, disembowelment, hanging) is dealt with matter-of-factly. A running joke is Candide’s challenge to find a man who does not think he is most ill-treated man alive. Everyone he encounters has a terrible back story.

Voltaire mocks every religion, nationality and philosophy, which makes the moral message a bit unclear. Is he saying life is inherently awful and we should have no hope? But then why have a hero who survives through so much and remains optimistic?

Definitely worth reading but I still prefer more recent prose style-wise.

First published 1759.
This translation first published 1947 by Penguin.

Two worlds, one book

I’ll Never be Young Again
by Daphne du Maurier

This is an odd book, in some places brilliant and beautiful, in others disjointed and, frankly, a little far-fetched. Ever since I read Rebecca I have been making my way through the rest of du Maurier’s works and this is a typical example – a great writer not at her best but still captivating.

The book is divided into two distinct halves and they are so different they could almost be separate novellas. What they have in common is their narrator, an incredibly believably voiced Englishman called Richard. He is young, very young, and full of restless spirit. The book opens with him contemplating throwing himself off a bridge into the Thames. He is stopped by Jake, an older man who has just been released from prison and believes that life is for living. Together they travel around Europe. Richard veers wildly from enthusiasm to boredom, passionate about something one minute, the next whining that anything else would be better. Jake is greatly amused by Richard’s mood swings and youthful passion and teases him about them, so that gradually Richard becomes aware of himself, though it fails to change him.

This first half is essentially a picaresque adventure, with the men running away to sea, trekking through mountains on horseback and by foot, choosing where to go next one day at a time. It’s spirited and a little wild, with Jake’s constant assuredness the perfect foil to Richard’s naivety. In many ways it seemed unrealistic that a directionless, penniless youth would get to have this great adventure but maybe that reaction has more to do with how times have changed since this was written.

In the second half Richard settles himself in Paris to write a novel and meets a girl who he falls headlong in love with. His thoughts about her are so very familiar, such as his fear of commitment and desperation to spend every second with her, while not seeing how those might be contradictory. There’s an air of gentle mocking in these passages, it’s so clear to the reader that Richard is being ridiculous a lot of the time, but by this point you know him so well and he notices his own stupidity often enough that certainly my reaction was to smile at the follies of youth rather than be annoyed with him.

The relationship is followed very closely, with the ins and outs of Richard’s everyday life detailed, from what he eats for breakfast to how he copes with the cold or the heat at his desk. Paris and its changing seasons are described with great affection, even when Richard is in one of his more negative moods. What really stood out in this half was the realness of the narrative voice. Maybe that’s because it was a woman’s perspective of a young man during his first romance, subtly using his voice to express all the frustrations a woman feels. Maybe a man would be less impressed.

The end is very well done, delicately balanced between comedy and tragedy, and ties together the two parts in theory, but in practice I still felt they were worlds apart. Perhaps they were intended that way.

First published in 1932 by William Heinemann Ltd.