Celebrating language: the magic of Angela Carter
When Angela Carter was accused of overwriting, she cheerfully agreed that she pounced on opportunities to do so: ‘Embrace them? I would say that I half-suffocate them with the enthusiasm with which I wrap my arms and legs around them.’
The critic, Helen Stoddart, said she had ‘one of the most distinctive and daring voices in 20th-century British literature,’ and her friend and editor Susannah Clapp spoke of her ‘helter-skelter hoopla prose’. The reference to the fairground is entirely apt, not least because it spawned one of her greatest novels, Nights At The Circus. The spirit of the carnival is a driving force in her voice, gleefully uniting high art and popular culture, the sacred and the profane, the wise and the foolish, the grotesque and the gorgeous in one spectacular experience. Would any other writer risk throwing into the mix words like ‘steatopygous’, ‘uroboric’ and ‘ciliate’ for their polysyllabic glory? To read Angela Carter is to party with language and to emerge hours later, hung over and bilious with words.
Nights At The Circus is a picaresque romp of a novel about cockney bird-woman, Fevvers, and the eventful tour to Siberia she takes with her circus company and a stowaway, lovesick American journalist. The story is perhaps better described by its cast, which includes the occupants of a London brothel, a troupe of clowns, a talking pig, a grand duke, a prison full of female convicts, and a shaman. It’s set in 1899, ‘before the last cobwebs of the old century blow away’, on the hinge between the shimmering optimism of the nineteenth century and the anguished negativity of the twentieth. Writing knowingly from the 1980s, Carter concertinas time, so that myths and symbols wear their historical richness in coats of many layers. Fevvers has gained her name from the wings that sprout from her back, ‘a polychromatic unfolding fully six feet across, spread of an eagle, a condor, an albatross fed to excess on the same diet that makes flamingos pink.’ They have made her a unique trapeze artist in the circus, but are redolent of many other associations, lovingly explored: the Victorian angel of the house becomes a very modern career girl, shifting between a cupid, an avenging angel, a Winged Victory and Death the Protectress, a spectacle and a freak, all ways to survive in the harsh world.
Vulgar, bawdy, and cheeky
Fevvers may manipulate the varied images attached to her (to earn money), but she lands with a thump on the page in her messy, fleshy bodily reality. In the spirit of carnival, she brings everything down to earth, and down to the level of grime and grease that underlie her showy beauty. The journalist, Jack Walser, interviews her in a room that ‘was a mistresspiece of exquisitely feminine squalor’, featuring ‘a writhing snakes’ nest of silk stockings, green, yellow, pink, scarlet, black, that introduced a powerful note of stale feet’ to add to the aroma of ‘perfume, sweat, greasepaint and raw, leaking gas’. The extraordinary tale Fevvers relates of her life finds her hopping from one brothel to another before the stage gives her the chance to perform at a safe distance from her former admirers, like the ‘Frog dwarf who asked me to piddle on his thingy before he’d get his crayons so much as out, sparing your blushes.’
Grotesque and violent
Determined to follow her, Walser joins the circus as a clown. Those suffering from coulrophobia will find no comfort here. Buffo the Great explains to Walser that the clown is ‘a wonder, a marvel, a monster, a thing that, had he not been invented, should have been, to teach little children the truth about the filthy ways of the filthy world.’ When they dance for Walser, ‘[w]hat beastly, obscene violence they mimed!’ The ‘solid kitchen’ in which they perform ‘fell into pieces under the blows of their disorder’ and ‘the purple Petersburg night inserted jagged wedges into the walls’. The clowns are the most potent force of destruction, but their play ends in renewal, not apocalypse. Though violence and ugliness are put on display, they fascinate too, and are scooped up into the harmless repetition of the show.
Magnificence and beauty
In Carter’s carnival world, everything has the potential for glittering splendour, not just the lusted after trinkets of the rich, the ‘onyx ashtrays and chalcedony cigarette boxes’. In this tale, even a Siberian prison is a dramatic panopticon: ‘the cells were lit up like so many small theatres in which each actor sat by herself in the trap of her visibility’. In an act of magic realism, the walls are breached by the love between two inmates, flowing like electricity and creating a ‘gateway that grew each day larger in their imaginations’ until there is a spontaneous uprising in which all the prisoners escape.
This kind of combustion is a regular occurrence in Carter’s writing. Images and metaphors often prove so rich in developments that they whisk the reader away on a fabulous digression, or divert the entire course of the narrative. The magic of her writing lies in her ability to harness the literal power of words at play, rubbing against each other until friction creates explosions of imagination. Angela Carter shows how language is full of its own self-generated energy, and few writers used it with the reckless magnificence that she did.
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