In an English market
- Nothing Sacred: Selected Writings by Angela Carter
Virago, 181 pp, £3.50, October 1982, ISBN 0 86068 269 2
In Roman mythology, the god Terminus presides over walls and boundaries. He expresses the ancient doctrine that human nature is limited and life irredeemably imperfect. Terminus agrees with Robert Frost in saying ‘good fences make good neighbours’; and he also takes a classical view of artistic creation by insisting on formal constraints and closed symmetry. Although Terminus inhabits hedges and drystone walls, he is not a property of pastoral verse, and this is because pastoral writing, like fantasy writing, is a convention which licenses an imaginative freedom from reality. In fantasy literature the result is the ennui of Utopia, a luminous envelope that absorbs the world.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 5 No. 6 · 1 April 1983
SIR: So why is Frank Sinatra famous? Because everybody knows him. And why does everybody know him? Because he’s famous, of course. Names, repeated often enough, become household, but let’s not confuse publicity with genuine criticism. It seems of late that at the rattle of every quality paper the names and credentials of the so-called Martian poets swim through the newsprint. What ever we may think of their poetry (my cards on the table: not much; the Martians have no clothes) there’s really no excuse for the current plague of back-scratching. The Sunday Times has permitted itself to be used for Martian back-slapping exercises (own own drama critic, our own poetry reviewer …), but we ought to expect better of the London Review of Books.
At any rate, genuine literary criticism is surely not what Tom Paulin’s review of Angela Carter’s Nothing Sacred (LRB, 3 March) amounts to. What excuse can there be for such gratuitous name-dropping in an article presumably about the excellent Ms Carter’s writing? What’s she to Hecuba? The comparisons are odious, not least that they are made superficially with the use of that easy and deceptive ‘Like …’ Like whom? Paulin is pushing his own fortunes here. That slab of Martian verse does not compare with Carter, and has no place here, slid in behind Douanier Rousseau and find the-lady games. To claim class-awareness has no part in Angela Carter’s work is surely to miss the point. To use her as an excuse to mention, amongst others, Paulin’s own editor at Faber is shameful. And dishonest.
Tom Paulin writes: I believe absolutely in what I wrote – that Carter, Reid and Raine share a new English sensibility. It is no secret that Raine is my poetry editor at Faber, but that does not mean that I share, say, his admiration of Betjeman’s kitsch Englishness. Mr Smith calls me ‘dishonest’ – let him explain why or oil his pistols.
Vol. 5 No. 8 · 5 May 1983
SIR: Re Ken Smith’s declaration of independence for Angela Carter (Letters, 1 April): Tom Paulin’s review dealt unfairly in not seeing its supposed object (Carter’s Selected Writings) steady, nor seeing it whole. Reid and then Raine – and Ashbery yet! – are wheeled in on the pseudo-rationale of sharing ‘a new form of the English sensibility’, ‘the new post-imperial sensibility’ and a ‘hedonistic egalitarianism’. Paulin claims to ‘believe absolutely’ in this link: that which cannot be proven must needs be believed or disbelieved. I believe each of the three versifiers invoked to be profoundly mandarin individualists (though Reid has copied Raine and Ashbery Stevens); Carter somewhat less so.
All right, Reid and Raine try to be witty, as does Carter: but she isn’t witty in the modes they update, of Anglo-Saxon riddles and the 17th-century Metaphysicals. Yes, she displays ‘a splendidly Mediterranean sense of joy’. But if she has to be said to ‘share’ this with anyone it’s more evidently related to D.H. Lawrence (for all that, yes, ‘she also battles sporadically with him’ – partly because of this) or even Forster – light aeons of sensuous imagination away from the parochial, insular (though so often truly unearthed), self-regarding Martians.
Isn’t one of her great gifts the fact that the writer she’s most like is herself, sharing her originality directly with her readers? Smith’s letter was called for – as this one is, in turn, by Paulin’s flip evasion of it – to contradistinguish her work from the more dubious qualities of these cross-breeds (Martians = flies-on-walls, cats-on-mats etc) which require such a contrivance of incestuous or esoteric extrapolation before they can begin to be enjoyed, let alone seen plain.
Vol. 5 No. 10 · 2 June 1983
SIR: In his extraordinarily pretentious review of Angela Carter’s book (LRB, 3 March), Tom Paulin exhorts her to develop her talent for documentary. Miss Carter’s description of Bradford prompts him to wax lyrical over ‘the new post-imperial sensibility singing its delighted sense of being free from all that pompous gruffness which goes with a concept of progress and national destiny.’ The passage he quotes reads: ‘Like monstrous genii loci, petrifications of stern industrialists pose in squares and on road islands, clasping technological devices or depicted in the act of raising the weeping orphan. There is something inherently risible in a monumental statue showing a man in full mid-Victorian rig, watch chain and all, shoving one hand in his waistcoat à la Napoleon and, with the other, exhorting the masses to, presumably, greater and yet greater productiveness.’ Facts are certainly not sacred in Angela Carter’s eyes. In Bradford there is only one statue of an industrialist in a square: that of W.E. Forster, depicted persuading the House of Commons to pass the 1870 Education Bill, rather than exhorting the masses to anything whatever. He wears no watch chain, neither does he have a hand in his waistcoat. The statue of S.C. Lister, clasping a two-foot ruler (hardly a ‘technological device’), is in a public park. The ‘weeping orphan’ does not exist. This may be a reference to the statue of Richard Oastler. There are two children at his side, neither orphans, weeping nor being raised, but factory children whom Oastler, a land agent, sought to protect by law from stern industrialists.
On this showing, Angela Carter would do better to confine herself to her fluent and stylish fictions, or at least acquire a new pair of specs and an O level in History. It would be nice to think that her Japanese bright pink sugar penises don’t exist either, though I fear otherwise. Meanwhile Tom Paulin ought to sneak quietly out of Pseuds’ Corner.
Shipley, West Yorkshire