Monday, May 22, 2017

Writer's rooms / Hilary Mantel

Writer's rooms: Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel
Friday 2 February 2007 17.50 GMT
I write in the main room of our flat, at the top of a former Victorian asylum in Surrey. My desk was made in Norfolk in serviceable pine. It is arranged in layers, as a working model of my mind. The surface is dull, plain and tidy. The only ornament is a tiny, chipped pottery cat in a basket, which I hold sometimes if I am feeling bleak. In the upper drawers are half-used notebooks, fossils, crystals, seashore pebbles, a pack of tarot cards, my five-year diary, a steel measure, a stop watch and a last letter from a dead friend. The lower ones contain nothing but solid slabs of blank paper, and office wet-wipes which boast they "remove dirt and grime".
Insights don't usually arrive at my desk, but go into notebooks when I'm on the move. Or half-asleep. If I feel travel would broaden the mind, I take my laptop up a spiral staircase, to a little room under the asylum clock. Some preliminaries happen at the huge notice board in the kitchen, where I am building my new novel about Thomas Cromwell. It helps me structure a book if I can see what I'm doing. The chronological line and the flashbacks get worked out on postcards. As I narrow the focus, each postcard comes to represent a scene, and behind it I pin everything that belongs to it - tiny observations, descriptions, statistics, lines of dialogue. Then I can take it to the computer and work it through.
Some books are like singing, but this one is like fight arranging. It has to look natural but it's tightly controlled. I never stop thinking about it. All the world's a desk.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Writers´rooms / Sarah Waters

Photo by Eamonn McCabe

Writers' rooms: Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters
Friday 26 January 2007 17.45 GMT

I spend more or less all day at my desk, so I'm always resolving to lavish loads of money to make it the absolutely perfect work-station. But the truth is, I think all I need in a study is a flat surface, a computer, and a closable door; a large wardrobe would probably do. So my desk is a bit of a mish-mash. The glass-topped table looked sexy in the shop, but is only really interesting when you're underneath, gazing up at the wonderful Rachel Whiteread-style silhouettes of everything that's on it. The phone's a bit nasty, but has a panel showing who's calling, so I can choose when to pick up. The chair is a proper ergonomic one: I don't really like it - it's so big, it feels like an extra person in the room - but it's keeping at bay some awful back problems I developed last year. The hideous spongy wrist supports also help with that. When aspiring writers ask me for advice, I always want to say: "Make sure your desk and chair are set up properly! Don't get RSI!"

The map of the world is to improve my sense of geography; it came in handy at World Cup time, too. The map of London I could pore over for hours, and it was especially useful when I was writing The Night Watch, when I needed to plot my characters' movements through the city during the war. At the moment I'm working on a book set in 1940's Warwickshire, and I've got some old Ordnance Survey maps of the Midlands which I frequently spread out on the floor. Really I'd like a room full of maps, preferably with little pins and movable flags - something like the Cabinet War Rooms.
I'm rather a fretful writer - there's a bottle of Rescue Remedy under the pile of papers on the right - and the "Keep Calm and Carry On" poster is something I focus on in moments of crisis. They're such wise words, and so soothing. I'm thinking of having them done as a tattoo.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Granta / Pedro Páramo / The Best Book of 1955


By Louise Stern

The Mexican writer Juan Rulfo produced two books – a short story collection, The Plain in Flames, and a novel, Pedro Páramo. Both books are brilliant, but Pedro Páramo is an exquisitely singular work.
Rulfo preceded the magical realists and inspired them, but for me he is very different. Their work, while beautiful, seems to me often indulgent and chimerical. The world Rulfo opens up to us is undeniably heightened, but every word he uses is something of great substance – whether it’s of an earthly or an emotional reality. Because my first language is sign language, this physical way of addressing the world feels familiar to me.
Like the ancient Greek writers, Rulfo’s terrain is the unexplainable forces and their effect on frail humanity. The primordial energies that continually shift below the narrative in Pedro Páramo are not masked in any way. Mysteriously, Rulfo has found a natural-feeling way to make his characters move faithfully with these rhythms without ever attempting to explain what can’t truly be. His book works viscerally on the nervous system. It is a book that will be real no matter what ideologies are dominant at the time that it is read. Often, it is so immediate that it feels more like a work of visual art than a literary achievement. It makes sense that Rulfo moved on to photography and film after it was published.
I’ve read that Rulfo wrote the story of Juan Preciado and his hunt for his father, then deleted everything that could be. He wanted to inject as much silence as possible into the narrative, which works seamlessly with the particular way he chooses to express how he sees. That is true literary elegance to me – to reach beyond language into everything that lies beyond, rather than to use words in a way that is ultimately self-reflexive. It is a generous authorship, because Rulfo’s creation seems to exist without him at its centre.


Friday, May 19, 2017

Books blog Sarah Hall: sex, death and the short story

Sarah Hall: sex, death and the short story

Sex and death are the most fascinating aspects of life, fiction’s greatest challenge – and the short story is perfectly adapted to explore difficult subjects

Sarah Hall
Friday 19 August 2016 14.00 BST

he Sex & Death anthology began – as projects of odd passion frequently do – from a pub chat. The pub in question is long forgotten – The Undertaker’s Arms, or The Brewer’s Droop, let’s say. My co-editor, Peter Hobbs, and I were talking about why the short story form is so difficult to master, why, when it’s done properly, it has such vitality and power, and what the best short stories are really about.

I’d recently read an interview with James Salter in which he mentioned that sex and death, as primary themes, were reasons the New Yorker had rejected his, and his fellow writers’, stories. But aren’t they essential human topics, I asked Pete, aren’t they critical to short fiction? They’re also the trickiest to get right, Pete noted, and then rolled out a pithy Alice Munro quote. When asked why so much of her work was about these two subjects, she replied, “Why wouldn’t it be? It’s all that matters.”

Life can indeed be reduced to these two standards, especially around closing time. And, once you’ve invoked the Nobel-winning Munro, author of collections such as Runaway and The Love of a Good Woman, short story projects suddenly seem like serious business. After sobering, and cajoling a handful of writers we knew could handle such strong meat to “agree in principle” to contribute, off we went with our pitch to the publishers.
There’s much woofing about the poor state of the short story in the UK, its economic viability and readers’ preferences for long form, but this wasn’t too hard a sell. Sex and death are the most fascinating and vexing aspects of our lives, fiction’s greatest challenge to get right. And the short story is a literary device peculiarly suited, or perhaps perfectly adapted, to host what often seems to matter most – our comings and goings, what Faulkner called the front and back doors of the world.
But how can this be? It’s a diminutive vessel compared with the magnitude of such existential contents, such forces. How can a small thing be capable of immense holding?
Short stories are strange, almost impossible language systems. They are acts of compression, without seeming to compress. They concentrate, without clotting. They provide a focused view of an expanse, and, in the best examples, the weight of the exterior world, a universe even, can be seen or sensed outside the narrative frame.
On one level, short stories are handy for creating disquiet and excruciation in the reader, so subjects that unsettle us and render us vulnerable – our mortality, our sexual intrigues – are well showcased. The form is very good at unzipping the mind’s fly, so to speak. Brevity is the key: not having to keep up the suspense and the strategy for too long; getting under the skin and leaving an indelible, if sometimes enigmatic, impression on the reader. A window in, rather than the full picture, can often provide the most poignant, inviting and repelling vision. As readers, we do the work of intuiting and interpreting. In doing so, we are analysed.
To delve a little deeper into the psychology, short stories seem especially suited to cognitive dissonance, and management of conflicting attitudes and behaviours. How characters act, and what they say, is often not how they should act or what they should say. Normality and abnormality, rightness and wrongness, often run in tandem. This is not easy for us to metabolise, but short stories aren’t about consolation, explanation or solvency, they don’t tell us all will be well; that’s not their job. To use a classic cognitive dissonance metaphor, they invite us to smoke and also to know that we shouldn’t smoke, because it’s lethal.
Stories such as “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” by Flannery O’Connor and “The Babysitter” by Robert Coover are powered by the counterintuitive; both are toe-curling in their unfolding of an everyday uncanny. In the former, the threat of death remakes the meaning and intensity of life; in the latter, it’s impossible to distinguish between what is sexual fantasy and what is real; both propositions are presented identically.
Short stories like these seek sophisticated, adult responses from readers, an assessment of philosophical and social complexity, personality duality, and imperfection, rather than juvenile mental “splitting” (she’s all good, he’s all bad). They perform little narrative experiments on our morality, our sense of propriety and safety; they ask us to consider our realistic whole.

This is not something we’ve mastered. Humans, as advancing, medicalised, prophylactic-donning beings, have become experts at neutralising our temporal states and our urgeful natures, through medication, television and soft pornography. Our conscious animal natures mean we exist somewhere in between what we imagine and what we bodily are. The base unalterables and outcomes – of the march of cancer through the bones, of the rip in the condom – thrill, horrify and disrupt our civilised symmetry more than anything else, fundamentally irreconcilable as they are. Throughout its history, one particular literary form circles around these themes, and nails them.
The best short stories are masterful, not just by virtue of their testing, exclusive format – fewer words and greater significance – but because they deliver vital existential prescriptions. They un-simplify. They let us know we aren’t fully in control, even if we pay the mortgage on time, try not to look at the postman’s apple-ish buttocks, and take our multivitamins. They don’t problematise life’s choreography to make reading sustainably interesting, as novels often do, but remind us that life is inherently problematic. Not because we’re hypochondriacs or idiots, but because our bodies and our minds still vie; we’ve not reconciled that particular war, and perhaps we never will.
The greatest short stories are a tonic for our complacency, our narcissism and our denial, a succinct way to tell the truth about our selves, if truth can ever be told. They don’t simply deal in epiphany, twists or contradiction, and judging the form on such basic apparatus misses the point. Short stories are bafflingly stable literary worlds through which to consider the instability and mutability of creating and ending, of sex and death, of it all. As the killer notes of the grandmother in O’Connor’s tale: “She would of been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
 Sex & Death edited by Sarah Hall and Peter Hobbs is published by Faber.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes

Peter Bradshaw
Friday 17 February 2006 00.11 GMT

he Quay brothers' stately new arthouse film has plenty to dismay the unconverted; the title alone is supremely annoying. With some indulgence, however, this film can be diverting, and its mythologised, exoticised sexuality revives the memory of Angela Carter - though that, too, may not be a selling point for everyone. It takes place in a soft-focus dreamscape and is derived from Jules Verne's short story The Carpathian Castle. A piano tuner arrives at a secluded island ruled over by a charismatic Dr Droz, to be told that what he must tune is the doctor's collection of bizarre musical automata. Scenes are played out on shadowy studio sets with glowing light sources, and there are animated dream-glimpses of subconscious fears and desires. The film's poetry, playfulness and pictorial contrivances would perhaps work better in a short film, or sequence of short films. Conventional feature length somehow robs them of their lightness and digestibility. A partial success only - but how dull the cinema marketplace would be without the Quays.


Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Chamber of Secrets / The Sorcery of Angela Carter

Chamber of Secrets:

The Sorcery of

Angela Carter

by Marina Warner
October 17, 2012 

Fairy tales were reviled in the first stirrings of post-war liberation movements as part and parcel of the propaganda that kept women down. The American poet Anne Sexton, in a caustic sequence of poems called Transformations, scathingly evokes the corpselike helplessness of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, and scorns, with fine irony, the Cinderella dream of bourgeois marriage and living happily ever after: boredom, torment, incest, death to the soul followed. Literary and social theorists joined in the battle against the Disney vision of female virtue (and desirability); Cinderella became a darker villain than her sisters, and for Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, in their landmark study The Madwoman in the Attic, the evil stepmother in “Snow White” at least possesses mobility, will, and power—for which she is loathed and condemned. In the late sixties and early seventies, it wasn’t enough to rebel, and young writers and artists were dreaming of reshaping the world in the image of their desires. Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan had done the work of analysis and exposure, but action—creative energy—was as necessary to build on the demolition site of the traditional values and definitions of gender.

In this context, Angela Carter made an inspired, marvelous move, for which so many other writers as well as readers will always be indebted to her: she refused to join in rejecting or denouncing fairy tales, but instead embraced the whole stigmatized genre, its stock characters and well-known plots, and with wonderful verve and invention, perverse grace and wicked fun, soaked them in a new fiery liquor that brought them leaping back to life. From her childhood, through her English degree at the University of Bristol where she specialised in Medieval Literature, and her experiences as a young woman on the folk-music circuit in the West Country, Angela Carter was steeped in English and Celtic faerie, in romances of chivalry and the grail, Chaucerian storytelling and Spenserian allegory, and she was to become fairy tale’s rescuer, the form’s own knight errant, who seized hold of it in its moribund state and plunged it into the fontaine de jouvence itself. Her first collection of tales, Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces (1974), was followed, five years later, by The Bloody Chamber, which has now become a classic of English literature, far beyond the moment and historical circumstances of its origins.

Yet these stories provided a powerful catalyst. Irreverence and anarchy, skepticism and nonconformity were qualities Carter shared with fellow Londoners in the reverberating force field around the Beatles, the Stones, satirists like Lenny Bruce and the founders ofOz magazine. Curiosity about possible sexualities was a central theme, reflected in the cult status of Jean-Luc Godard’s films of that time. “The Company of Wolves” first appeared in Bananas, the literary magazine that the novelist Emma Tennant began and edited from 1975 to 1979, where several reworkings of myths and fairy tales by other writers—Sara Maitland, Michelene Wandor, and Tennant herself—also appeared. The methods of attacking the genre’s deathly conformity were multiple: inverting them was one strategy, and Angela Carter does so, again and again—especially in the enthralling close of “The Tiger’s Bride.” Reclaiming abuse was another (Carmen Callil, Angela Carter’s close friend and, later, publisher, named her publishing house Virago, where neglected women’s fiction was brought out again; in America, there was another, called Shameless Hussy Press); Carter’s fairy-tale heroines reclaim the night. She rewrites the conventional script formed over centuries of acclimatizing girls—and their lovers—to a status quo of captivity and repression, and issues a manifesto for alternative ways of loving, thinking and feeling. Another American poet and champion of women’s liberties, Adrienne Rich, coined the term ”revisioning” for such writings; Carter herself sometimes called them ”reformulations.”

In this collection, first published in 1979, the title story was directly inspired by Charles Perrault’s fairy tales of 1697: his “Barbe bleue” (“Bluebeard”) shapes Angela Carter’s retelling, as she lingers voluptuously on its sexual inferences, and springs a happy surprise in a masterly comic twist on the traditional happy ending. Within a spirited exposé of marriage as sadistic ritual, she shapes a bright parable of maternal love. Another tale from Perrault’s canonical collection, “Le Petit Chaperon rouge”(“Little Red Riding Hood”), is unforgettably transfigured in “The Company of Wolves” and returns in “The Werewolf,” again with a fine twist, this time startlingly Gothic. Carter’s version of “Puss-in-Boots” also takes off from Perrault, spliced and spiced with opera and pantomime and commedia dell’arte motifs to create a far more exuberant, amorous and freewheeling tale than its source. The fairy tale of “La Belle et la bête”(“Beauty and the Beast”), first composed by Mme de Villeneuve and later reshaped by Mme Leprince de Beaumont, was roundly condemned by Carter: Beaumont was a French governess working in England, and she was bent only on “house-training the id.” But Angela also loved the theme of Beauty meeting Beast, and Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la bête (1946) remained one of her favorite films. The grace, shimmer and seductive innuendoes of Cocteau’s vision suffuse two of Carter’s tales, “The Courtship of Mr Lyon” and “The Tiger’s Bride,” yet with a difference, because Carter wants us to feel what it is like to be Beauty from the inside. She warns of the greater danger of wolves who are “hairy on the inside,” but the knowledge of what it is like to be there, to be on the inside, was her goal and her achievement, and it has enthralled her readers, discovering themselves to themselves.
Alongside the aristocratic fairy-tale tradition, Gothic gives the stories in The Bloody Chamber their particular flavor. The beast of the courtly south meets the ravenous wolf of more northerly folklore in “Wolf-Alice” and “The Lady of the House of Love,” as well as “The Company of Wolves.” Many of these figures and motifs appear in the Grimms’ collection of Children’s and Household Tales (1812–57), and Carter sharpened the laconic chill of the Brothers’ cruel fairy tales like “Snow White” with her splintering fable of jealousy and incest, “The Snow Child.” But she also cast nursery fairy tale on the warp of American horror—Edgar Allan Poe, whom she admired greatly, also conjured landscapes of ice and snow. They made her shiver, and shiveriness was always a mysterious pleasure, captured by her in an early, unpublished poem:
My cat is a snow queen ...
White as starlight, twice
As cold.
She eats
For breakfast, hearts;
For supper, northern lights.
Concurrently with writing these fairy tales, Angela Carter was making a translation of Perrault; she followed both books with her most contrary and uncompromising essay,The Sadeian Woman (1979), which forms a diptych with The Bloody Chamber. Carter once remarked, “For me, a narrative is an argument stated in fictional terms,” and her writing fulfils that unexpected definition. In this counterblast to the virtuous claims of feminism, Carter identifies the Marquis de Sade as an honest witness to the conditions of bourgeois marriage, the economics of sexual relations, and the collusion of women with their own enslavement and subjugation. While as a writer she clothes herself in sparkling ornament and sensuous fantasy, she continues to operate surgically, with Enlightenment fury against hypocrisy and accommodations. The Sadeian Woman makes a Swiftian “modest proposal” about pornography, and it provides a valuable gloss on themes in The Bloody Chamber: “In his diabolic solitude,” she writes, “only the possibility of love could awake the libertine to perfect, immaculate terror. It is this holy terror of love that we find, in both men and women themselves, the source of all opposition to the emancipation of women.” The essay still has a starkly clarifying ethical force today, but it cost Angela Carter many friends and supporters, especially among U.S. feminists, and marked her out as someone for whom nothing is sacred (echoed in the title of her 1982 selected essays), who never toed the party line, not even the party line of her natural allies. Like her friend J. G. Ballard, and her own Red Riding Hood, she was nobody’s meat. Yet the same readers who are shocked by her acclaim of Sade’s “moral pornography” are enthralled by the way her stories explore similar themes, for The Bloody Chamber also quests for emancipatory erotics, beyond subjugation, beyond prejudice: Red Riding Hood finds bliss with the wolf; Beauty is transformed into a fabulous Beast.

This classic decalogue—ten stories, none of them very long, and some of them microfictions, haiku-like in their compression—was assembled for publication from disparate writings, and the perfection of the sequence as they follow one from the other happened by chance, chance created by the logic of Angela Carter’s quest for a new, contemporary romance literature fired by erotic imagination. “The Lady of the House of Love,” eighteen pages of enthralling, seductive frissons, began as a radio play, Vampirella, for BBC Radio 3 in the summer of 1976. It included lots of material about the nature of vampires and their literary history and sources; this has been cut from the tale on the page, in order to release the full, sweetly perverse melodrama without the containing frame of the meta-commentary. But the story’s origin in radio reveals a crucial element in Angela Carter’s writing: its acoustic weave of voice and sound effects. In her writings, her voice speaks from the page, addressing you, talking to you: “See! sweet and sound she sleeps in granny’s bed, between the paws of the tender wolf.” Very few writers use the imperative as she does—conspiratorially. Carter wanted to practise the atavistic lure, the atavistic power, of voices in the dark. “The writer who gives the words to those voices,” she wrote, “retains some of the authority of the most antique tellers of tales.”

The voice isn’t on its own, ringing in a hollow space. Open any page and a full score rises from its word-notes, of winds howling, teardrops falling, diamond earrings tinkling, snapping teeth, sneezing, and wheezing. Storytelling for Angela Carter was an island full of noises and sweet airs, and like Caliban, who heard a thousand twangling instruments hum about his ears, she was tuned to an ethereal universe packed with sensations, to which she was alive with every organ. Acoustics are not the only means, however, that she draws on to convey the lucid dreams she creates in her fiction. Her imagination is spatial, an architect’s axonometric vision, as she moves us through palaces and castles, forests and tundras, dungeons and attics, tracking with us down pathways towards her various sealed depositories of secrets, those bloody chambers. What reader does not explore with her these passages and woodland tracks? Who does not feel the Beast’s dark carriage like a hearse rumbling towards his eerily uninhabited domain? And who does not sense, through her powerful evocations, the pricking of thorns, the jaw-cracking stringiness of granny, the jangling of bed springs, the licking of a big cat’s tongue, the soft luxurious furs and velvets and skin, and the piercing contrasts with ice, glass, metal? Cognitive theorists of language have identified such travelling movements and embodied presences in narrative as prime conductors of readerly empathy, replicating the motions of thought itself as it models scenes and experiences in the mind’s eye. Carter’s mastery of these effects brings about a quality of hallucinatory reality, dreamlike in its close-up intensity, that wraps the products of her unleashed fantasy. She knew what word power could do in this regard: “No werewolf make-up in the world can equal the werewolf you see in your mind’s eye,” she wrote.

Her highly wrought prose, especially in these fairy tales, gorgeously elaborates on states of desire and discovery, but it skirts the perils of overblown romance through its poise, always on the edge of a delicious humour. The last Christmas before she died, Angela Carter wrote the script for a television film, The Holy Family Album; it is a characteristically mischievous piece, flagrant in its quiet way, the author’s dry sallies underlaid with serious intent to create a shapely fable. The first and last shot zooms in on a tiny golden key turning in the lock of a tooled, embossed Victorian scrapbook or photograph album, to reveal inside the dark secret at the heart of the life of Jesus: that the Oedipal complex has the facts of the matter topsy-turvy, that it is the father who wants to kill the son, because (here Angela Carter’s voice drops to a whisper) he knows that he is the one she—mother, wife, Virgin Mary—loves “best of all.” The Holy Family Album is a Pythonesque montage of images and music, comically, fiendishly blaspheming to a degree unimaginable today, especially in the festive season: Jesus is a conjuror and solemnly turns a baguette into a gigot d’agneau inside his top hat. Angela narrated the film herself in voice-over, a confiding quiet storyteller’s murmur that draws you into complicity with the speaker’s viewpoint and keeps promising to break into ironic laughter, to cackle at the transgressiveness of what it is daring to say. She had a famous laugh, and in her fiction many of her huge characters, such as Fevvers the giant aërialiste from Nights at the Circus, explode with laughter.

The scale of her extraordinary achievement has been recognised by the thousands of readers who find in her writing something they know inside themselves but have never encountered expressed in that way before. Often these readers are counterparts of the writer herself at the age she was when she was writing these stories—my students, for example, have to be restricted to writing one essay on her a year, otherwise they would spend their entire English Literature degree working on early Carter. For a while after her death, she became the subject of more Ph.D. theses than any other English author. But not all of her readers are young women—her work bridges frontiers, gender and, above all, eras. She seemed to be writing for her generation out of concerns that dominated children brought up in post-war Britain, but her influence has grown, and grown stronger year on year, with a wide-ranging following among singers, artists, filmmakers, dramatists, producers, graphic novelists, all drawing inspiration from her work, especially the fairy tales. She would be astonished at her success and her fame now, since such acclaim eluded her during her lifetime (scandalously, no Booker Prize nomination, for example).

The Bloody Chamber resuscitated fairy tales for today and picked up a dropped thread of English literature of enchantment, as visible in the work of Salman Rushdie and Jeanette Winterson (both openly pay homage to Carter) and, since then, in the creations of myriad others in every medium—Carteresque fabulism has become part of the artistic and literary weather. Recognition from readers at this pitch of intensity has the quality of one of the many enchanted mirrors that appear in Angela Carter’s stories: it makes palpable a face, a state of being previously obscured and inchoate, in the same way that Wolf-Alice returns the Duke to his human form by the light of the moon striking his reflection in her rational glass, a glass which is love and knowledge, faith and doubt all combined.

Excerpted from Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber: And Other Stories. The book, with illustrations by Igor Karash, is available from The Folio Society.

Marina Warner, cultural historian and critic, is Professor of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies at the University of Essex, UK. Her latest book is Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Angela Carter / Flight entertainment

Angela Carter
Angela Carter by Jane Bown for Observer Review. 

Angela Carter

Flight entertainment

For Angela Carter, to write was to perform. She saw herself as a highwire artiste, filling her novels with the vivid colours of the circus and the energy of carnivals. Now one of her stories is being staged - and not before time, says Lisa Appignanesi

Wednesday 21 December 200509.18 GMT

hortly before she died in February 1992, far too soon at the age of 51, Angela Carter wrote a preface to a collection of her book reviews wickedly entitled Expletives Deleted. Here she teased out the game with time that all writers and storytellers play. The thought makes a poignant message-in-a-bottle when read after her death:

"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, which is where our time stops short. Scheherazade knew this, which is why she kept on spinning another story out of the bowels of the last one, never coming to a point where she could say: 'This is the end.' Because it would have been. We travel along the thread of narrative like high-wire artistes. That is our life."
Carter's very own high-wire artiste, her Scheherazade who trumps the time Carter couldn't, is the irresistible Fevvers, the Cockney Venus of Nights at the Circus. A larger-than-life bottle blonde, "winged barmaid" and illusionist extraordinaire, Fevvers is an aerealist who spins out the reality-defying tale of her own life before leading us on a picaresque romp with the circus from St Petersburg to Siberia and back to London again at the butt end of the 19th century.
The circus, that most popular and painted of all belle-époque entertainments, is a wonderful vehicle for Carter's exuberantly witty and layered fiction. In its rings, artful performers can enact life and magic in great bawdy strokes. Run by one Colonel Kearney, a cigar-smoking American entrepreneur and hog-loving dreamer, who owes not a little to Uncle Sam, Carter's circus is a vast "ludic game". Her tragic clowns grow into their masks. Her trained apes become professors and write their own contracts. Her wild beasts, tamed by their lesbian trainer's music, are ever ready to pounce or shatter. Her strong man, once just a woman-beating drunk, learns sentiment through song. And in the midst of it all is Fevvers, the femme fatale with a difference.
Carter was always intrigued by the femme fatale and the "performance" of femininity - hardly for her a universal, but a construct made up of a time's assumptions and wishes. She translated the German playwright and cabaret artist Frank Wedekind's plays Earth Spirit and Pandora's Box, where Lulu, that original turn-of-the-20th-century fatal woman, is born. Fevvers' sensational journey, the clowns and strong men of Nights, the lesbian lover and the waif, not to mention Fevvers' ribald enactment of sexual wiles and the predatory grand duke who tries to turn her into a toy, owe something to Lulu.
Carter's winged aerialist is a bold late-20th-century woman's response to the myth of the femme fatale: the woman who is both mysterious and fatal because she is made the repository of the male's forbidden desires. Writing about Louise Brooks, the great silent film incarnation of Lulu, Carter notes: "Desire does not so much transcend its object as ignore it completely in favour of a fantastic re-creation of it. Which is the process by which the femme gets credited with fatality. Because she is perceived not as herself but as the projection of those libidinous cravings which, since they are forbidden, must always prove fatal."
Lulu may just be a good-hearted girl, whore or not, but Wedekind and her suitors would have her embody mystery and become the instrument of vice. The femme fatale's punishment for sex without apparent love of the wifely variety is death at the hands of Jack the Ripper. (If this seems extreme and out of date in our enlightened times, the recent responses to the survey on rape, where one in three believed a woman was to blame for it if she had been flirtatious, should make us sit up and take notice.) Fevvers, while everyone's larger-than-life femme, is no one's victim. And she'll stay in charge of her own mystery, thank you very much, no matter how much the male may want to pierce it.
Hatched from both earth and air, the mundane and the mythic, Carter's brazen femme fatale is, like all good metaphors, a creature of all kinds of doubleness. She can give you a good dose of speculation. She's not bad on Marx or Freud, when it comes to what women may want; or French theory, if it's a matter of the arts of narration. But she can also be as crude as they come and camp up femininity a la Mae West.
"'Lor' love you sir!' Fevvers sang out in a voice that clanged like dustbin lids. "As to my place of birth, why, I first saw light of day right here in smoky old London, didn't I! Not billed the Cockney Venus for nothing, sir, though they could just as well 'ave called me Helen of the High Wire, due to the unusual circumstances in which I come ashore - for I never docked via what you might call the normal channels, sir, oh, dear me, no, but just like Helen of Troy, was hatched."
Double entendres and double meanings are the very stuff of life for this self-confident "virgo intacta" of the erotic gutter. Describing her trajectory, Carter's language dances, soars and plays tricks with any notions of fictional realism. Orphaned by who knows what combination of Ledas and swans and brought up in a brothel, Fevvers posed for "winged victory" while the whores turned their tricks. Her foster mother-cum-pragmatic Sancho Panza, the always-savvier-than-thou Lizzie, carries a voodoo bag of tricks and a clock that can stop time. This is just what she does at the witching start of the novel when Fevvers is being interviewed in her theatre dressing room by the sceptical American journalist Jack Walser.

Walser wants to puncture the grandiose illusion that is this winged giantess, and prove her humbug: the brightly coloured appurtenances that grow out of the shoulders of this "voluptuous stevedore" have got to be fake, whatever lazy semblance of flight she seems to perform on her trapeze. Instead, with a little help from the champagne Fevvers pours from bottles kept cold in a chamber pot and the endless midnight of story, Jack finds himself both stumped and entranced. Incognito, he joins Fevvers in Kearney's travelling circus, and becomes a clown. Soon he has his own feathers.
In one of her many references to other stories in which femmes fatales feature, Carter gives Walser the chicken clown act of Professor Unrat (Unreason) in the Blue Angel Cabaret where Lola Lola (alias Marlene Dietrich) presides. Like Unrat, Walser cock-a-doodle-dos his way through love, but Carter generously lets Jack's madness skirt masochistic self-destruction. Nor is he a Jack the Ripper to Lulu-Fevvers. Instead, after a trial by hallucination, and wearing a Siberian shaman's dress, he comes together with the Cockney Venus. She's on top, of course, and she laughs her pleasure right into the new century. Laughs and laughs because he has also believed in her. At the very end, she marvels: "To think I really fooled you! ... It just goes to show there's nothing like confidence."
The "spiralling tornado" of Fevvers' laugh is also Carter's own. It's we, the readers, who have been taken in to the very end by her high-wire narrative act. And we'll never know whether what Fevvers has fooled Jack about is her wings or her virginity. Whichever it is, the performance has given pleasure and that's what matters. This is a night at the circus, after all.
But if Fevvers is the incarnation of the laughing, fearless woman poised to take flight in the new emancipated century, for Carter that's no simple matter of just turning the tables on the man. Flight of any kind is a precarious act, a star turn that needs the gaze of the male (or the enraptured reader). It takes two to tango, or to create a performance of any kind.

What is so heady in the brew of Nights at the Circus, and indeed in the best of Carter's fairytales, stories and essays, is her sense of fun, what the literary call the "carnivalesque". She loved the popular because it was just that - the demotic. She loved the dirty joke, the lewd and rude, the anonymous in art and spectacle, that which hadn't been canonised, that which, like women, lay at the margins and not at the centre of culture. It was her particular feat to be able to marry the high with the low, the erudite with the bawdy. Her glee in mingling philosophy and the circus, realism and fantasy, knowledge and kitchen gossip, is positively impish. In her last novel, Wise Children, the Chance sisters high-kick their way through Shakespeare - irreverent, like Carter, to the last.
Angela Carter punctured myths, the old ones of male power and the new ones of female goodness. In her vocabulary, "serious" never extended to earnest. The only po-face she knew was the high gothic of the American Poe. In her reworking of Beauty and the Beast, Beauty herself becomes a furry desiring animal. Carter understood the surrealist logic of desire and dream and gave it great lashings of quintessentially English humour.
I knew Carter well and miss her class act. I don't think I'll ever forget the sound of her inimitable laugh - warm, exuberant, ribald, pausing as if time stood still, only to swoop like a rush of brightly coloured fevvers.