Angela Carter

Angela Carter liked ‘to write about books that give me pleasure’, she wrote in her preface to Expletives Deleted, the collection of her journalism that would be published posthumously, in 1992. ‘I also like to argue,’ she continued. ‘A day without argument is like an egg without salt.’

Between 1980 and 1991, Carter wrote some of her finest tributes to other writers for the LRBGrace PaleyColetteChristina Stead and Iain Sinclair. But the pieces that really leap at you from the archive are three from the middle 1980s about food and foodies, or as Carter called it, ‘conspicuous gluttony’ and ‘piggery triumphant,’ and how ‘genuinely decadent’ she found the foodie search for the perfect melon, ‘as if it were a piece of the True Cross.’ The letter writers went into spasm. ‘I see small reason to entrust the review of three cookery books to … a woman who obviously has a Puritanical contempt for decently prepared food,’ wrote one. But Carter’s interest is in the way fashions in food connect to deep concerns about sex, status, death, religion.

Of other LRB writers reviewing Carter, Tom Paulin’s take on Nothing Sacred (1983), a collection of her early journalism, is particularly worth a look. It’s interesting to see that Paulin, more than 30 years ago, was already floating an idea now coming up in discussions of Carter’s work more and more: that the journalism and essays are maybe lasting better than the fiction. When I read my favourites among Carter’s essays, I find myself agreeing with Paulin; until I read certain stories and bits of novels, and then I don’t. On screens and goddesses, for example, the pieces Carter wrote about Louise Brooks and Bertolucci’s La Luna certainly form pieces of the crazy jigsaw. But the picture really comes together in ‘The Merchant of Shadows’, a story the LRB published in 1989: ‘the priest is he who prints the anagrams of desire upon the stock, but whom does he project upon the universe? Another? Or, himself?’ – Jenny Turner

Adventures at the End of Time

Angela Carter, 7 March 1991

Iain Sinclair, in the profane spirit of Surrealism, has chosen to decorate the endpapers of his new work of fiction with a dozen unutterably strange picture-postcards. They show scenes such as that of six men, heavily veiled, veils held down by brimmed hats, posed with long-barrelled rifles. And two men in grass skirts, with feathers in their hair, intent on a game of billiards. They are Africans. And here are twenty-odd white men, in straw boaters, surrounding a prone crocodile. Joblard, Sinclair’s friend, arranges the cards so that they tell a story. At once they become scrutable: they are images of imperialism. Joblard titles this picture story, what else, ‘Heart of Darkness’. But the 12 interconnected stories in Downriver don’t match up with the numbered postcards, unless in such an arcane fashion it must necessarily remain mysterious to me. Downriver is really a sort of peripatetic biography: Iain Sinclair’s adventures at the end of time, at the end of his tether, in a city of the near future with a hallucinatory resemblance to London. The decisive influence on this grisly dystopia is surely the grand master of all dystopias, William Burroughs. Jack Kerouac, asked for a quote for the jacket of The Naked Lunch, said it was an endless novel that would drive everybody mad. High praise. Downriver is like that, too.

Brooksie and Faust

Angela Carter, 8 March 1990

I once showed G.W. Pabst’s 1929 film version of Wedekind’s Lulu plays, Louise Brooks’s starring vehicle Pandora’s Box, to a graduate class at the University of Iowa. I was apprehensive; these were children of the television age, unfamiliar with the codes of silent movies, especially of German silents, the exaggerated gesture, the mask-like make-up, the distorted shadows. But I badly wanted to show them this great film about the unholy alliance between desire and money as part of a course about 20th-century narrative I’d titled, quoting from Thomas Wolfe, ‘Life is strange and the world is bad’; nothing else but Pandora’s Box would do.

Story: ‘The Merchant of Shadows’

Angela Carter, 26 October 1989

I knew the wall of the vast glittering lounge gaped open to admit me, and only me, but I thought, well, if nobody has any objections, I’ll just stick around on the terrace for a while, keep well away from that glass box that looks like nothing so much as the coffin for a classical modernist Snow White, let the lady come out to me. No sound but the deep, distant bass of the sea; a gull or two; pines, hushing one another. So I waited. And waited. And I found myself wondering just what it was the scent of jasmine reminded me of, in order to take my mind off what I knew damn well the swimming-pool reminded me of – Sunset Boulevard, of course. And I knew damn well, of course I knew, that this was indeed the very pool in which my man Hank Mann succumbed back in 1940, so very long ago, when not even I but nor my blessed mother, yet, was around so much as to piss upon the floor. I waited until I found myself growing impatient. How does one invoke the Spirit of Cinema? Burn a little offering of popcorn and old fan magazines? Offer a libation of Jeyes’ fluid mixed with Kia Ora orange?

Ludic Cube

Angela Carter, 1 June 1989

According to Apuleius, Pleasure is the daughter of Cupid and Psyche – of Love and the Soul, that is, a sufficiently elevated pedigree, one would have thought. Yet the British still put up a strong resistance to the idea that pleasurability might be a valid criterion in the response to literature, just as we remain dubious about the value of the ‘decorative’ in the visual arts. When Graham Greene made ‘entertainments’ a separate category from the hard stuff in his production, he rammed home the point: the difference was a moral one, a difference between reading to pass the time pleasurably – that is, trivially – and reading to some purpose.’

I could have fancied her

Angela Carter, 16 February 1989

Back in the Sixties, a decade which evidently I enjoyed rather more than did your contributor, Janet Watts (LRB, 8 December 1988), Kenneth Clark published a contribution to art history called The Nude. A disgruntled friend of mine opined that if the author had any integrity, he’d have started off his opus: ‘Wankers, ahoy!’ (Oh, the jaunty irreverence of those days of intellectual ferment, and its reassertion of the best characteristics of British humour – funny, vulgar, true.)

Bewitchment

James Wood, 8 December 1994

Angela Carter’s first novel, Shadow Dance, is a bold, leathery, coarse book. It summarises thinly its author’s later adventures and preoccupations, as the chapter headings in a...

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Stand the baby on its head

John Bayley, 22 July 1993

What is the point of fairy tales? Morals, politics, economics? Yes, but that gets us nowhere. Poetry, fantasy, romance? Why not archness, whimsy, sentiment? The poetical fairy tale, even a wry...

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It’s only a paper moon

Patrick Parrinder, 13 June 1991

‘Brush up your Shakespeare,’ instructed Cole Porter. Is Shakespeare part of popular culture, and if so, whose popular culture? Does the Bard’s writ extend to the wrong side of...

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That which is spoken

Marina Warner, 8 November 1990

The poor man’s wife flourishes, the Sultana gets thinner and scrappier by the minute. So the Sultan sends for the poor man and demands the secret of his wife’s happiness. ‘Very...

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Angela and the Beast

Patricia Craig, 5 December 1985

Angela Carter’s Black Venus is Baudelaire’s Creole mistress Jeanne Duval, whose hair the poet once likened to a sea of ebony, among other things; his enchantment and her...

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Stories of Black and White

Michael Wood, 4 October 1984

The freedom to juggle with language, Angela Carter suggests, is a promise and perhaps an instrument of other freedoms. Certainly her own cheerful jokes bespeak a lively independence of hallowed...

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In an English market

Tom Paulin, 3 March 1983

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...

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Walking backward

Robert Taubman, 21 August 1980

Not long after Ezra Pound, the precocious Djuna Barnes arrived in Paris already equipped with a style derived from the Jacobean dramatists and French post-symbolist poets, and so with as good a...

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Pretty Things

Peter Campbell, 21 February 1980

The literature of pre-literacy reaches its audience by way of adults – parents, teachers, librarians and so on. The best reason for learning to read is to escape from what they prescribe or...

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