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.

On Angela Carter’s Style

October 28, 2009 § 2 Comments

Just finished: Nights at the Circus.

Reading next: The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins.

Everyone has a different idea of what makes a “well written” book.  I try to avoid describing books as “well written” for precisely that reason, though when I find myself using the phrase it’s generally in reference to a book in which I admired the author’s use of language, inventive sentence structures, and control over plot, without necessarily making much of a connection to characters or themes.  Calling a book “well written” is a backhanded compliment, at least from me. It can be a matter of editing as much as writing, to some extent.

Nights at the Circus did not strike me as well written.  I was surprised by this, as I very much admired the writing in Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. This is a matter of some sloppiness — things that surely should have been pointed out in editing — but also of style.  Now, it is impossible to talk about Angela Carter for very long without talking about style.  Hers was showy, verbose, lyrical, passionate.  Flowery, even.  In this book, it struck me as excessively so.  Perhaps it is a matter of length.  I’m not sure. At any rate, for my taste, this book includes a few too many sentences like this:

The toil-misshapen back of the baboushka humbly bowed before the bubbling urn in the impotently submissive obeisance of one who pleads for a respite or a mercy she knows in advance will not be forthcoming, and her hands, those worn, veiny hands that had involuntarily burnished the handles of the bellows over decades of use, those immemorial hands of hers slowly parted and came together again just as slowly, in a hypnotically reiterated gesture that was as if she were about to join her hands in prayer.

Carter will often coin hyphenates like that “toil-misshapen,” and will also wedge parts of speech in where she pleases (she’s especially loose about adjectives and adverbs).  The writing consistently draws attention to itself, which is enough for some people to write it off as poorly written (and for others to praise it as well written).  I have no problem with intentionally heightened (or lowered, or otherwise self-evident) language; but it better be damned well done.  Sometimes it is here; sometimes it’s not, as in that turgid sentence about the baboushka.

Another matter of style is dealing with person and tense; Carter can also be loose with this, and I am appreciative of it to an extent.  There’s something to be said for taking on the voice and perspective the story demands without worrying overmuch about the internal logic of your text; and I think Carter comes down on the side of liberty in these matters as in all others, consistently.  I enjoyed the transition from the shifting third-person perspective of the second section to the introduction of the first person, in the mind of Sophie Fevvers, for the first time in the book, as we enter the third section, “Siberia.”  But suddenly, within the first chapter, we again shift out of Sophie’s mind.  It seemed capricious and unnecessary, in a book that has been rather free about letting us delve into minds and perspectives, nearly omnisciently, and has also been telling us back-stories and legends with some regularity.

All of which is not to say I didn’t enjoy the book — I did.  And all of which is not to say it’s not full of more interesting ideas and characters and plot twists than nine-tenths of the fiction I’m ever likely to read.  But it struck me that this is one of the few books I’ve read recently that I found myself fighting against on the basic level of language: of annoyance with the words chosen, and their order.  I do think Carter wanted her readers to tussle at that level, to some extent, to fight against the threadbare mundane language in which most of us communicate (and even think).  Certainly the overabundance of her words and sentences was a central part of why the stories in The Bloody Chamber worked so well for me: nothing efficient, brutal, or straightforwardly masculine about them.  “There’s nothing like confidence,” as Sophie says.  In the tightrope act of fitting style to message, I thought the “confidence” of The Bloody Chamber was self-assurance, and the “confidence” of Nights at the Circus had more than a little of the grifter in it.

The Ludic Game

October 22, 2009 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Nights at the Circus.

Now I am faced with a horribly difficult question, a question that has bothered me to distraction (no shortage of distractions on the good ol’ Web), a question I’m still not quite sure how I’m going to answer: just what do I think of these chimps and these clowns?

There are both, in spades, in the second section of this book, set in St. Petersburg.  There are also a communicative pig, two tiger attacks, and a very strange finale that I’ll also have to discuss.  But I keep coming back to the chimps and the clowns.  What the hell’s going on here?

This section reminded me of a favorite book, in need of rereading: Stephen Dobyns’ The Wrestler’s Cruel Study, which should be a cult classic, though I’ve never met anyone else who’s heard of it, much less read it.  (Maybe I just don’t get out enough.)  That book also involves some intelligent primates, and has a similar kind of madcap energy and balance of philosophical heft and absurdist incident to Carter’s book, and especially this second section.

But about the monkeys.  Chimps, actually, to be specific.  They are Lamarck’s Educated Apes, twelve of them.  When we meet them, they’re rehearsing their act, a classroom scene.  But they seem to be actually learning, and discussing; and, we find out later in the chapter, they can, indeed, write (or at least their leader, the Professor, can).  Lamarck is an abusive drunk; the chimps end up striking out on their own, after Colonel Kearney, the circus’s owner, cheats them.

And then there’s the clowns.  And there are twelve of them, too, actually — or is it thirteen, with Judas-Walser?  The comparison to the apostles is made explicit; Buffo the Great, the clown’s leader, as Christ.  After some earlier fun with a travesty of the resurrection, they have a travesty of the Last Supper, which leads to a very drunk Buffo losing his mind, trying to kill Walser and getting committed.

They’re a gloomy lot, these clowns, given to philosophy and quotations from somewhat unlikely sources.  King Lear, for instance.  The “twin” musical clowns, Grik and Grok, engage Buffo in an exploration of uselessness and nothingness:

“…turned into more than the sum of our parts according to the dialectics of uselessness, which is: nothing plus nothing equals something, once—”

“—you know the nature of plus.”

….But Buffo wasn’t having any.

“Bollocks,” he said, heavily, belching.  “Beg pardon, but balls, me old fruit.  Nothing will come of nothing.  That’s the glory of it.”

And the entire company repeated after him soft as dead leaves rustling: “That’s the glory of it!  Nothing will come of nothing!”

So what are we to make of these two groups of twelve?  The Professor and the chimps carry themselves with a dignity and sense of decorum all out of line with the behavior of the rest of the circus, and most especially with the obscene, scatological, debased clowns.  I am not sure what the import of all of this is supposed to be, quite honestly.  The messiness of humanity does seem to be part of “the glory of it,” in Carter’s eyes, and also part of the tragedy of it (see Mignon’s story, about as messy as it gets: the messiness of murder, and abuse, and abject poverty).

Colonel Kearney calls his circus “the Ludic Game,” and one wonders if that’s how Carter saw this book — or at least the Petersburg section of it: her mind at play, over matters serious and frivolous alike, amusing itself and hopefully others.  The section ends with what sure seems to be a flight into surrealism or plain and simple magic, as Sophie escapes an evil Grand Duke’s clutches by dropping a toy train onto his gorgeous carpet; we then find ourselves suddenly on the real Trans-Siberian Express.  It’s a disorienting section break, one I’m not exactly sure I’ve interpreted correctly, and one no author who wanted her readers to remain straight-faced would have undertaken.  But it also seems to fit with a St. Petersburg episode so superabundant with ideas, stories, and language.

Witching Hours

October 18, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Nights at the Circus, by Angela Carter.

A couple of things early on here remind me of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.  We again have a story of a story being told.  And there are, again, questions of motivation and intention: why is the story being told at all, and why to the person it’s being told to?  There are, also, some hints of artifice, of Carter behind the curtain, relishing her fiction, and of characters with secret identities (most humorously, Lizzie, who seems to be the rare fin-de-siecle Cockney capable of explaining mid-20th-century feminist theory, if Sophie would just let her).  One fascinating flourish is the repetition of the phrase “green hinge,” in reference to Midsummer Night and May 1, respectively.  The first time this is spoken by Sophie herself; then it is repeated in her story by her crazed, phallus-worshiping abductor.  Is this a hint that Sophie is making it all up — a slip revealing her own mannerisms in others’ mouths?  Or did the phrase stick with her when her abductor used it, and work its way into her vocabulary?

However, the most interesting (coincidental) echo of TMFiS is the play with time and the idea of the “witching hour,” when witches, ghosts, and such are most active — typically, 12-1am.  In TMFiS, the witching hour was evoked by the recurrence of a bell tolling midnight right before weird things started happening at the Venta Quemada.  In Nights at the Circus, it’s a little more complicated.  Throughout the first section, there’s also a bell repeatedly striking twelve times for midnight.   But here, the bell strikes twelve over and over again, in one night.  And the bell is that of Big Ben, ringing through London.

Furthermore, the clock in the dressing room of Sophie Fevvers is also stuck on midnight.  Sophie’s telling her story, and she introduces this clock and explains the positions of its hands during her discussion of her childhood in the brothel of one Ma Nelson:

It was a figure of Father Time with a scythe in one hand and a skull in the other above a face on which the hands stood always at either midnight or noon, the minute hand and the hour hand folded perpetually together as if in prayer, for Ma Nelson said the clock in her reception room must show the dead centre of the day or night, the shadowless hour, the hour of vision and revelation, the still hour in the centre of the storm of time.

So throughout the night, time stands still at the witching hour — or, in Sophie’s words, “the shadowless hour.”  And there’s the puzzle of Sophie: is she telling the shadowless truth of how she came to have wings and travel the world as the star of a circus, or is she bewitching her young interviewer?  Is this magic, or truth, or just another aspect of a beautiful, self-inventing con?  Witch itself is surely a quite complicated word for Carter, and it will be fascinating to see what kind of witch she’s created here.

Two Bluebeards, Four Passages

September 7, 2009 § Leave a comment

Just finished: A Child Again.

Well, I had grand plans to do a whole comparison of Coover’s Bluebeard retelling, “The Last One,” with Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber.”  It’s interesting how Coover chose to use the first-person perspective of Bluebeard himself, while the child bride narrates Carter’s early-twentieth-century update; and the treatment of Bluebeard’s twisted psychology in each is worth considering, and their varying depictions of sex and sexuality; and their endings differ in useful ways, pedagogically speaking; but I find it hard to compare anything to Angela Carter.  It’s not really Coover’s fault — just about any other retelling would seem facile by comparison.

So I’ll just say: read “The Bloody Chamber.”  And if you’re going to pick up A Child Again, here were my four favorite stories (besides “McDuff on the Mound,” discussed previously), with favorite passages from each:

-“Punch.”  Yes, narrated by Punch the puppet, going through his show.

It’s not that easy, you villain, says the hangman with a cruel laugh.  Prepare to meet your Maker.  I already know him, says I.  He’s a drunken wanker.  That’s enough now, Mister Punch, just put your head in here.  I’ve never done this before, says I.  I don’t know how.  Show me.  He does and I jerk the rope and hang him.  There’s nothing to it.  He’s dancing on air.  I whistle a little tune.  The mob loves me for it.  I’m a fucking hero.

-“Playing House.”  Which is creepily reminiscent of House of Leaves, and also its own very strange thing, about dark and light, story and reality.

Once there was a house, goes another story we have heard, called the House of Anxiety, in which the corridors all led onto other corridors, provoking ceaseless motion without respite, the rooms all trapped somehow between, if in fact there were any.  The story says there were, but how can a story know?  We suppose these rooms exist in a story where they do not exist simply because a house qua house is unimaginable without them.  We call it the Fallacy of A Priori Judgment.  Still naming things.

-“The Return of the Dark Children,” which I’ve mentioned before: a great story, a perfectly timely sequel to the Pied Piper tale.

And at home, in their rooms, when the children played with their dolls and soldiers and toy castles, the dark children with their mysterious ways now always played a part in their little dramas.  One could hear them talking to the dark children, the dark children speaking back in funny squeaky voices that quavered like a ghost’s.  Even if it was entirely invented, an imaginary world made out of scraps overheard from parents and teachers, it was the world they chose to live in now, rather than the one provided by their loving families, which was, their parents often felt, a kind of betrayal, lack of gratitude, lost trust.

-“Suburban Jigsaw,” a puzzle-story about serial fornication in the suburbs (if you’re going to write about this, might as well make a game of it).

Capricious.  Malicious.  Vicious.  Delicious.  Perverse.  Curse.  Verse.  Or worse.  Gross.  Eros.  Is that a rhyme?  Hmm.  A dose is.  Verbose.  No, she is not verbose.  She’s ribald.  He scribbled.  Improper.  A showstopper.  A whirly girly.  Illicit.  So, kiss it.  Don’t miss it.  Obscene Irene.  Lean and mean.  She’s offbeat.  Indiscreet.  Street meat in heat.  Rick is sitting all alone beside Lily’s pool like the period at the end of a sentence, tripping (ripping? flipping?) on her little pills and searching for the right words (it’s easy, they’re flying all about him) to describe the crazy creature from the corner bar for a lyric he is writing, probably not for the Sunday supplement.

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