Angela Carter Carter, Angela (Contemporary Literary Criticism) - Essay

Carter, Angela (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Carter, Angela 1940–

Ms Carter is an English writer of fantastical short stories and novels. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53-56.)

Fireworks are Gothic tales, not stories, as [Angela Carter] explains in an Afterword. Written 'in a room too small to write a novel in', they are the result of her preoccupation with the imagery of the unconscious. Some of these tales refer to a primitive past, or rework myths. The real world—principally, here, her experience of Japan—is reshaped subjectively so that real cities, real situations, blossom strangely. Her phrasing is superb, and her imagery sometimes unforgettable: 'stagnant eyes' for example. She stalks through many of her own tales, a wanderer 'sad by nature' and attracted to anguish.

The tales are full of puppets, mirrors, forests, sequined eyes, shells, flowers and diffuse lust, like the Dadd pictures at the Tate. It is exciting and provocative; but it is familiar. There have been so many literary variations on the themes of reality, identity, sexual duality. It is the world of Freudian dream and futuristic fiction and pornography; of Edgar Allan Poe, Pirandello, J. G. Ballard and Borges. Familiarity comes perhaps from the fact that the collective unconscious is everyone's stock-pot. But Angela Carter is too aware of its contents. The essence of the Gothic tale—as epitomised by Poe—is its apparent possible innocence. So there may be incest, bestiality, cannibalism; but it is never quite spelled out. Some of her best and most electric encounters are earthed by a pedantic need to explain. Sometimes this is done with a disarming self-irony. 'Do not think I do not realise what I am doing', as she writes at the end of 'The Smile of Winter', proceeding to analyse how it was done. But more often it seems a lack of literary tact. Take a small example from 'Reflections':

'Kiss yourself' commanded the androgyne in a swooning voice. 'Kiss yourself in the mirror, the symbolic matrix of this and that, hither and thither, outside and inside.'

The mirror-kiss and its weird consequences had their own force. Talk of symbolic matrices belongs to American Ph.D. theses. We are grounded. Or are we to learn from the author a depth of irony that can make suspect the very symbols that obsess her? Angela Carter is a genius as a word-spinner. She deserves a room big enough to write the new novel in. (p. 229)

Victoria Glendinning, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), August 16, 1974.

Angela Carter is a talented young English writer of fantasies who means to be taken very seriously. She serves notice to this effect by beginning her … novel, "A War of Dreams," with three incisive quotes, one in French, one by Ludwig Wittgenstein and one by that master of the surreal, Alfred Jarry. Her story takes the form of a journey, a device favored by fantasists from Homer and Swift to Carroll and Tolkien. (pp. 6-7)

Angela Carter is at her best with details. Scrupulously, she builds the foundations of her myth out of hundreds of small observations. We soon forget that the terrain she observes with such care is the interior of her own imagination, for the world she describes becomes as real as any naturalist's report….

This is not to say that "The War of Dreams" is without problems. The juxtaposition of the science-fiction elements (the Ministry's computers, Dr. Hoffman's dream transmitters, the Determination Police) with the purer and more potent aspects of fable seems harsh and discordant. And Angela Carter's ornate and intricately wrought language, although pleasingly mellifluous, often intrudes upon the narrative. At the outset she gives us a world where, thanks to the manipulations of Dr. Hoffman, illusion becomes reality; an old cathedral goes off in a burst of fireworks, an audience of opera goers is turned into peacocks, pigeons quote Hegel from the chimney tops, and in the face of all this abstraction, simile and metaphor become redundant. When the author tells us that "the plaster scrolls and garlands on the pompous exterior of the Town Hall were crumbling like dry sponge cake," we're no longer sure if this is merely description or if she intends us to think that a passer-by could eat the building for dessert.

A tendency toward wordiness, then, and a baroque texture, which at times becomes almost impenetrable, seem the main faults. The devious and complex nature of fantasy demands a simple style. Consider fairy tales and folk stories. A frog turning into a prince is cause enough for wonder without embellishing the event with rhetoric.

But, at her best Angela Carter has created a grotesque and sensual world that calls to mind the texture of Fellini's film "Satyricon" and the violent poetics of Kenneth Patchen's "The Journal of Albion Moonlight." It is a book which deserves to be read and not swept away under that convenient rug labled "speculative fiction." (p. 7)

William Hjortsberg, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 8, 1974.

Angela Carter maintains that 'the tale differs from the short story in that it makes a few pretences at the imitation of life. The tale does not log everyday experience, as the short story does …; it has relations with subliterary forms of pornography, ballad and dream.' She regards herself as a teller of tales rather than stories. In fact, she seems to me to be most successful when she does 'log everyday experience', but invests it with a dream-like quality. Perhaps the best short stories are half-story, half-tale….

Angela Carter's 'nine profane pieces' in Fireworks are set either in Japan, where she has lived, or in dreamscapes, where she considers herself equally at home. Not having the sort of flesh that creeps easily, I remained immune to, although admiring of, most of her Gothic blood-and-thunderstorms; but 'Reflections', a horrifying tale in which the male narrator is forced at gunpoint to seek the mirror-world through the glass, and is raped by a girl whose eyes 'were the eyes that justice would have if she were not blind', came near to destroying my sleep.

On the other hand, the story-tales of Japan enthralled me. 'A Souvenir of Japan' is a delicately-told love story in which the English girl's Japanese lover has 'a passive, cruel sweetness I did not immediately understand, for it was that of the repressed masochism which, in my country, is usually confined to women'. 'The Smile of Winter' makes the lonely December coastline, where the wind comes straight from Alaska and the Japanese equivalent of Hell's Angels can be heard at night weaving their way through the dunes, far more eerie and disturbing than any Walpurgisnacht or Götterdämmerung pastiche. Angela Carter is a highly talented eccentric. I hope she will continue to 'provoke unease'. (p. 416)

John Mellors, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1974; reprinted by permission of John Mellors), September 26, 1974.

Angela Carter … is our Lady Edgar Allan Poe (and she knows it). So virile is her prose [in Fireworks], we may also call her Our Bearded Lady. But she is more still. Like all genuine art, hers breaks through the boundaries of one department of art and extends to others. So she is also a female Nijinsky, possessed by a devil, perhaps by Mephistopheles himself. She is Aubrey Beardsley, but wondrously transformed: divested of two of his essential features, his black-and-white and his consumption, and invested with all the wicked colour and glitter of Gustave Moreau, invested with life. She has also the decadence, the hysteria and the preciosity of Huysmans and Maeterlinck, the doll-like romance of Hoffmann (which she also knows). We can go to the film world, too, for definition: she is also a female Polanski, especially the delightful Polanski of The Dance of the Vampires, though, unlike him, never roguish, yet very much a rogue. And like all geniuses, she walks the tightrope on one side of which yawns the chasm of madness, on the other the chasm of bathos. Again like all geniuses, she can topple over and down into both and the next minute be progressing, in full control again, along her tightrope, on tiptoe. In short, she is the anti-thesis of the bourgeois….

[Ms Carter says] of the Gothic tradition in which she writes that it:

grandly ignores the value systems of our institutions; it deals entirely with the profane. Its great themes are incest and cannibalism. Characters and events are exaggerated beyond reality, to become symbols, ideas, passions. Its style will tend to be ornate, unnatural—and thus operate against the perennial human desire to believe the world of fact. Its only humour is black humour. It retains a singular moral function—that of provoking unease.

A long quote, which I hope both author and publisher will excuse, my excuse being that no one could have said it better than Angela Carter herself….

It is true that fireworks have a brilliance we find in this writing. But theirs is a dead brilliance, while the brilliance of this book is alive. Fireworks, too, can turn out to be damp squibs, so it is a risky term too. Some of Angela Carter's fireworks here come close to turning into damp squibs, but not sufficiently so to justify so precarious a title. Greatest objection of all: fireworks are essentially artificial, and although all art is artifice, all art is not artificial. This writing aspires to be art and nearly everywhere succeeds…. The book deserved far subtler labelling….

Of the first three Carter titles [Shadow Dance, The Magic Toyshop, and Several Perceptions] I liked the first best. Not because the next two weren't better, but because it had an all but unbelievable quality: a fresh decadence. But her fourth book, Heroes and Villains (1969) was beyond me to enjoy. The post-World War Three world of professors and barbarians she describes in this novel was too obvious an invention, its hairy and bejewelled young savages too symbolic to be interesting. When the girl, Marianne, says to her even symbolically named lover, Jewel: 'You, you're nothing but the invention of my virgin nights' the reader feels too inclined to intrude and interpolate: 'Too true!' When she later throws at him: 'You're not a human being at all, you're a metaphysical proposition!', he feels too inclined to substitute for 'human being' the word 'novel'. And to quote, or rather paraphrase another Carter sentence: 'boredom and exhaustion conspires to erode the novel's complacent idea of itself.' This is not, however, to suggest that a novel should not be a 'metaphysical proposition' for this is precisely what the best novels are. It's just that we don't want them to look like one—we prefer the skeleton covered in flesh….

In Love the grubby, stoned young characters in their filthy, lightless flatlet just did not seem to be able to carry the author's metaphysical intention, but after reading the last tale in … Fireworks, a tale called ["Elegy for a Freelance"], containing not fireworks but bombs and murder, I see that what was really wrong with Love was that it ought to have been a short story (or tale) not a novel of 124 pages. (p. 55)

[For] all the highly deliberate, deliberately ornamental embroidery of [her] laden prose, it is the intelligence at work beneath it all which raises almost everything [in Fireworks] to the level of art. For intelligence is another attribute of genuine art, and intelligence here is both active and unusual….

There are pieces here, ["The Smile of Winter," "Flesh and the Mirror"], a Woman-Friday piece, called ["Master"] (tribute to Daniel Defoe, 'father of the bourgeois novel'—for which, see the author's own farewell note) that don't seem quite to jell—or which didn't seem quite to jell in my mind. This cannot be said of the mirror-world, horror story, ["Reflections"] which begins as science fiction with some splendidly written pages. Here my objection, and I'm sorry to have them, is that the horror becomes a bit bathetic. I wanted to laugh at [many of the metaphors]….

It is true, all the same, it was the sheer, assiduous excellence of this prose that sent me searching for dissonances, waiting to see where the tight-rope walker toppled…. Carter can be wickedly satirical and funny too. Not all her humor is black. (p. 56)

James Brockway, "Gothic Pyrotechnics," in Books and Bookmen (© copyright James Brockway 1975), February, 1975, pp. 55-6.