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.

Big ideas for a big story

The Magus
by John Fowles

This is a crazy book that plays with concepts of humanity, deceipt, morality, psychology and storytelling, all wound up in a thoroughly enjoyable adventure that is packed full of suspense, action, beautiful scenery and romance. It’s full of big ideas but it’s also a great fun rollercoaster of a story with so many twists and turns that I often felt as confused as the hero.

Said hero is Nicholas Urfe, a young Englishman who doesn’t know what to do with his life and is generally miserable. He narrates the story and makes for a very interesting perspective on events. He is shallow, naive and quick to change his mind. On many a page he says “I knew for sure…” or “I understood now…” only to be proved wrong a few lines later.

Not that he can be entirely blamed for changing his mind about certain things. The central premise is that Nicholas goes to teach English on a remote Greek island and there meets an old man, Conchis, who lures him into a bizarre game in which nothing and no-one can be trusted. There were times when the situation got so dark or confusing that I found it far-fetched that Nicholas would continue going back for more, but on the other hand he’s a selfish young man who’s been placed at the centre of a millionaire’s play – that’s got to be good for the ego – and, of course, there’s a young lady involved. Actually, more than one. It’s
complicated.

There are so many layers of lies or potential truths that I constantly reached passages that read like a conclusion was about to come and at first I’d think “But hang on, there’s 400/300/200 pages left” but by the end you’re not ready to trust anything, even the last sentence.

And of course there’s the element of belief – what is real and what is imagined? Nicholas is in a foreign country where he didn’t speak the language before he arrived, the weather is relentlessly hot, the people are very different from those he’s used to spending time with, the landscape is obviously foreign – nothing is familiar. That must take a toll on the way a person reacts to events they are confronted with. Not to mention the question of what and who we trust and why. As a middle class intellectual, Nicholas is pre-conditioned to believe obviously educated, well read, well spoken people. As a womaniser he’s inclined to believe anything a woman who flirts with him says. And this is clear and obvious to anyone who wishes to take advantage of his gullibility.

The morality of the story is the thing I found hardest to get on with. This was written in the 1960s but set in the 50s and, though in some ways it’s surprisingly modern (yes, women can separate sex from love and use their bodies accordingly) it’s also harshly judgmental of Nicholas, who is really just a bit of a drifter and a womaniser who never pretended to be anything else. He is put through the mill to perportedly make him a better person and yet, with all of the questions that this long book asks, it is never suggested that maybe Nicholas doesn’t need to be changed, that he’s basically decent from the start. In fact I think I liked the original Nicholas who was sure of what he was and good enough to be honest about it, though he was generally unhappy with his life, more than the Nicholas at the end of the book who has been frightened into doing nothing, trusting no-one, fearing everything.

Despite my standing up for him, there were times – many of them – when I wanted to shout at Nicholas. He is so obviously wrong at times and just plain stupid at others. I even figured out a perfect line of work for him so he woudn’t need to drift/teach any more (if you’ve read this give your ideas in the comments below and we can compare!). But where with some books that would be frustrating, with this one it felt good to engage so fully, to get emotionally involved in bits that weren’t a love story (though it is one of those as well).

And yet, though I was fully engaged and the story is definitely eventful, I found this was a slow read. I read every day, often far later into the night than I should and it still took me weeks to get through. It is a long book but I think it’s also one that requires you to pay attention to every detail. There’s so much talk of clues and hints that I often re-read passages in case I’d missed something important. I found that I even read the descriptive passages closely where I would often skim the lengthier ones in other novels. Fowles’ descriptions of Greece are spellbinding and more than once I found myself looking up holidays to Greece when I put the book down.

Many a long essay has been written about this book and I can see why, but from a personal point of view I will conclude with: this is a good read, an extremely good read, that makes you think and yet doesn’t feel at all ‘worthy’. Highly recommended.

First published 1966 by Jonathon Cape. Revised by the author 1977.