Love-Words Written in Blood

October 31, 2009 § Leave a comment

Finished: Nights at the Circus.

As I mentioned in my last post, exuberance, digression, and deliberate inefficience (sometimes to a fault) are major keys to Angela Carter’s style, and ways in which her style reflects her message.  The third chapter of the “Siberia” section is a more or less perfect example of how Angela Carter works.

In terms of simple plot development, this chapter is almost completely extraneous: its only purpose in connection to the main narrative is to introduce the characters who will rescue Walser from the train wreck.  Instead of simply having some Siberian hunters or peasants find him, or the rescue crew take him to the next town, Carter introduces the tale of the Countess P.’s asylum/penitentiary for husband-murderers.

This and other self-contained backstory chapters are the best parts of Nights; they make me think that, from my limited experience, Carter is a better short-story writer than novelist.  The story here, of the inmate Olga Alexandrovna discovering ways to subvert and, ultimately, bring down the Countess’s cruel panopticon from the inside, is moving and almost perfectly constructed for Carter’s feminist, humanist, and (perhaps) magical realist purposes (what it is not is at all necessary in this novel).

The paragraphs in which we learn the method by which Olga begins to communicate with the guard who delivers her food are another classic Carter passage — one that, while I still quibble with its word-by-word execution, I admire very much for its brilliant embodiment of Carter’s ideas:

That evening, after a free if surreptitious exchange of looks as supper was served, Olga Alexandrovna found a note tucked into the hollowed-out centre of her bread roll.  She devoured the love-words more eagerly than she would have done the bread they replaced and obtained more nourishment therefrom.  There was not a pencil nor pen in the cell, of course, but, as it happened, her courses were upon her and — ingenious stratagem only a woman could execute — she dipped her finger in the flow, wrote a brief answer on the back of the note she had received and delivered it up to those brown eyes that now she could have identified amongst a thousand, thousand pairs of brown eyes, in the immutable privacy of her toilet pail.

In her womb’s blood, on the secret place inside her cell, she drew a heart.

I mean… wow!  That’s just a brilliant example of imaginative, utterly unrealistic, even antirealistic, fiction’s power to connect readers to difficult ideas in a way polemics or criticism cannot, as is this whole chapter.  (Do I even need to read Foucault after this?)  The opposition to institutional schemes of surveillance and enforced penitence; the discovery of lesbian love (female companionships, sexual and/or friendly, recur throughout the work); the brilliant, earthy, purely human, believably and powerfully symbolic method by which Olga replies, with its echoes of “Satanic” pacts written in blood, its message of totalitarian inability to overcome the physically and basically human and female, its touching example of the human need for connection and love; and the surprising romance of the last sentences — these are the essence of Angela Carter.

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