Roz Kaveney (rozk) wrote,
Roz Kaveney

Carter piece

Many thanks to fastfwd for spotting that Time Out already used my Carter piece, which came out while I was away. I was very worried about this, not because I don't think it rather good, but because I wondered whether they wanted something prosier. As it is, they got the product of two days solid reading of Carter.

When writers die before their time, what dies with them is all the possibilities. All the books they might have written, and all the witty things they might have said, as well as all the things that are the common lot and loss of humanity. Angela Carter is fourteen years dead, which means that there have been fourteen years in which she has not mocked idiocy, and created magic.

She was always a great cultural journalist as well as a great novelist - the lively intelligence that pervades the fiction needed its daily exercise. The obsessions of her work weave back and forth between reviews and short stories and screenplays and novels - werewolves and harlequins, drag queens and jewelled flowers, stopped clocks and sharp blades. She wrote one of the most decorated proses of the Twentieth Century; it would have been precious and overladen were it not for the tensed muscularity that underlay it.

Carter was witty without feeling that she had to be funny. She saw compulsive jokiness as one of the traps of British charm; if you are engaged in a struggle to make and save your life, as all women are, and most people born in the working class and its Bohemian fringes, it is a mistake to smile a conciliatory smile or to make your masters laugh. Far better a sardonic grin or a dark gibe that leaves them on edge and uneasy. The unease of the powerful is one of those places in which it is possible to carve out areas of freedom. The sharp wry edginess of Carter's work was a considered strategy of resistance.

She was also a writer and a woman torn between a dour sense that things will end in tears and a joyful love of the show-off moment. In one of the many telling moments in her fragments of memoir she talks of going to see her grandmother dressed in the fishnets and leathers of late Fifties finery; her grandmother mocked her and said that one day Carter would nonetheless be old and ugly like her. Wrong, and not merely factually - Carter in the early middle-age in which she died still had her own chastened glamour.

Carter's work is full of mirrors and the truths that they tell about us, even when, especially when, the thickness and eddies of the glass distorts our view. To think clearly about who we are, and what our fate might be, we need to see clearly. Mirrors are where we find out what is glamorous and what is deceitful and what is true; the feral child Wolf-Alice learns her humanity and kindness from looking at what she never quite understands, an other self which gives her the wistful half-smiles otherwise lacking in her life.

The tricks of reflected light have to be balanced out by the other truth that comes from knowing that we inhabit flesh as well as mirrors. In 'Nights at the Circus', part of what guarantees the essential truthfulness of Fevvers' tall tales is the solid thump of her large feet on the stage; she may have wings and fly, but she is also a creature of earth, who wolfs bacon sandwiches and swills expensive champagne. The ageing hoofers of 'Wise Children' live long enough to be symbolic of their century because they always have an eye to the main chance - food first, morality later as that nice Mr Brecht once said.

Carter is a poet of the jungle of the cities, as well of the wild wood where we find danger, and the haunted palaces of love where vampires are. There is a vividness in her work that comes from the enthusiasm with which her characters face life and its sensations; it is also a construct, a made artifice based on a skilful sense that all these places are aspects of the human mind as well as the backdrop for the body's perils and pleasures. One of her best radio plays is about Richard Dadd, the Victorian painter and father-killer, and she shares with his work a sense that every inch of canvas is to be filled with imagery, and that images should always be crisp to the eye, terrifying in their intensity.

The passionate singing glitter of Carter's prose and plots is the servant of her desire to tell tales. All of her characters are ultimately story-tellers, and the tales they tell are often twice-told tales made new. One of her best and most original books was 'The Bloody Chamber' which refashioned Bluebeard, and Beauty and the Beast, sometimes over and over, as parables of the desire of the mind and the acheing lusts of the flesh. We tell stories to warm winter nights when the wolves are outside the house; they entertain us, but they also teach us how to live sanely in a world we share with horrors.

Angela Carter is dead and lives in her readers' sense of her work as a bundle of gifts she left to boobytrap our memories. The body of work she made is constantly present as a performance of wonders, a cabinet of bright curiosities. It is also a constant source of righteous thinking, free of shabby managerial orthodoxies and anarchic in its scorn of the powerful and cruel and thoughtless. We need constantly to read and reread her, and think about all the tales she told.
Of all the famous people I ever met - and I am still waiting to be summoned to represent my country in the name-dropping event at the 2012 Olympics and hoping that I am not by then too famous to qualify as an amateur - Angela is the one I am proudest of having known. I worshipped her early work as a teenager, re-read 'Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman' immediately before going into my GRA surgery, and wrote the cover copy for 'Nights at the Circus'. I met her at sf cons where I got to argue with her about the purpose of criticism - she quoted Stein about Pound being a village explainer, and I pointed out that many of us are a village and need one. Later, for a few months, we were occasional drinking buddies and gossiped about people we both knew. Later, we were not as close, for reasons I can only speculate about, but I saw her in the street and chatted, a month or two before she died. She was the one truely and certainly great artist I ever knew personally, though I have hopes of several of my nearest and dearest if they keep up their current level.
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