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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 the Carter oeuvre 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 do 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.)

Doing it to Mama

Angela Carter, 19 May 1988

This book begins like a novel: ‘A woman attends a funeral. The coffin is lowered into the grave. A man approaches her and says: “He was not your father.” ’ But the reader’s expectation of continuous narrative is excited only to be disrupted; Eric Rhode prefers to work in discrete sections of speculation, each independently, often curiously titled – ‘Father into Foetus’, ‘Eyes Pregnant with a Mother’s Babies’. This method of organisation is reminiscent of the collections of brief, aphoristic essays by Theodor Adorno, although Eric Rhode’s intellectual method is rather less rigorous than Adorno’s. Rhode’s speculation centres on work as a psychiatrist in a puerperal breakdown unit – that is, a place where women are sent who have gone mad in connection with the process of childbirth. However, his scope extends far beyond the specificity of his book’s title.’

Wolfing it

Angela Carter, 23 July 1987

I bought my first cookery book in 1960, as part of my trousseau. It was called Plats du Jour, or Foreign Food by Patience Gray and Primrose Boyd, a Penguin paperback with a seductive pink jacket depicting a large family at table – evidently not a British family, for its members, shirt-sleeved, aproned, some of them children, were uncorking bottles, slicing bread, eagerly tucking their napkins under their chins, faces aglow with the certain knowledge their dinners would not disappoint, which was, in those days, extremely rare in this country.

The End

Angela Carter, 18 September 1986

The situation in South Africa is such that, by the time this review appears in print, the two books with which it deals may already belong to the past, both in their different ways witnesses to the haunted tensions, torture and bloodshed of the period of minority rule. The anthology of fiction, A Land Apart, was, say its editors, André Brink and J.M. Coetzee, ‘compiled amid the tumult of the uprisings of 1985’, although the writers they choose to represent had not then had the time to reflect upon that tumult in their work, and almost certainly have not had sufficient time since. Outside South Africa, A Land Apart will be read against the background of silence created by that country’s recently imposed censorship of its internal news. Inside South Africa, who will read it? The editors note that, at the outset, they agreed that ‘we would proceed as if the apparatus of censorship did not exist.’ This is an anthology for export only.

Potatoes and Point

Angela Carter, 22 May 1986

Eighty-odd years ago, when my father was a little boy, he would sometimes ask: ‘What’s for dinner?’ And my grandmother would reply: ‘Potatoes and point.’ That is, she would point to the hook in the rafters where the ham, if they’d had one, would have hung. Then they’d eat potatoes. This didn’t happen often: the family was relatively prosperous petit bourgeois and, besides, the coast of North-East Scotland, where they lived, had never become as totally dependent on the potato for nourishment as other communities in Europe, most notably Ireland. Even so, it happened.

Angela Carter on the latest thing

Angela Carter, 5 December 1985

‘The serious study of fashion has repeatedly had to justify itself,’ observes Elizabeth Wilson in the introduction to Adorned in Dreams, a study of fashion which, in itself, may help to render such justifications redundant; her book is the best I have read on the subject, bar none. Fashion is part of social practice: it is an industry whose demands have helped to shape modern history, and choosing our clothes is the nearest most of us will ever get to practical aesthetics. Yet analysis of this hybrid phenomenon has largely been left to the copy-writer and the pop psychologist, so that the subject may appear trivial because it has been endlessly trivialised.

Noovs’ hoovs in the trough

Angela Carter, 24 January 1985

‘Be modern – worship food,’ exhorts the cover of The Official Foodie Handbook. One of the ironies resulting from the North/South dichotomy of our planet is the appearance of this odd little book, a vade mecum to a widespread and unashamed cult of conspicuous gluttony in the advanced industrialised countries, at just the time when Ethiopia is struck by a widely publicised famine, and the rest of Africa is suffering a less widely publicised one. Not Africa alone, of course, is chronically hungry all the time and acutely hungry some of the time: at a conservative estimate, eight hundred million people in the world live in constant fear of starvation. Under the circumstances, it might indeed make good 20th-century sense to worship food, but punters of ‘foodism’ (as Ann Barr and Paul Levy jokily dub this phenomenon) are evidently not about to drop to their knees because they are starving.’

Unhappy Families

Angela Carter, 16 September 1982

To open a book, any book, by Christina Stead and read a few pages is to be at once aware that one is in the presence of greatness. Yet this revelation is apt to precipitate a sense of confusion, of strangeness, even of acute anxiety, not only because Stead has a devastating capacity to flay the reader’s sensibilities, but also because we have grown accustomed to the idea that we live in pygmy times. To discover that a writer of so sure and unmistakable a stature is still amongst us, and, more, produced some of her most remarkable work as recently as the Sixties and Seventies, is a chastening thing. Especially since those two relatively recent novels – Cotters’ England (1966) and Miss Herbert (the Suburban Wife) (1976) – contain extremely important analyses of post-war Britain, address the subject of sexual politics at a profound level, and have been largely ignored in comparison with far lesser novels such as Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. To read Stead, now, is to be reminded of how little, recently, we have come to expect from fiction. Stead is of that category of fiction writer who restores to us the entire world, in its infinite complexity and inexorable bitterness, and never asks if the reader wishes to be so furiously enlightened and instructed, but takes it for granted that this is the function of fiction. She is a kind of witness and a kind of judge, merciless, cruel and magnificently unforgiving.

Story: ‘Mise-en-Scène for a Parricide’

Angela Carter, 3 September 1981

Early in the morning of the fourth of August, 1892.

Absurdities

Angela Carter, 2 July 1981

Original Sins is a big, fat novel that looks as though it should be sold by weight – ‘a couple of pounds of fiction, today, please.’ It has the air of the novel as commodity, of an item designed to be sold, a programmed bestseller. Amateur Passions is a slender, almost anorexic collection of short stories, each one pared down to the glittering bone, fiction produced by authentic internal compulsion. Although carving on ivory is not the easiest thing in the world, it is possible to maintain a very high degree of quality control over short runs, and Lorna Tracy’s quality control is so stringent that there is not one flabby sentence or second-hand image in the whole book. The same cannot be said for Alther, who is often reduced to stylistic tics such as ‘“I don’t hate men,” said Emily with hatred,’ and, like many American writers, believes it is possible to summon up an entire social ambience by the judicious use of brand names, such as Bass Wejuns and I.L. Bean down vests.

Colette

Angela Carter, 2 October 1980

Colette is possibly the only well-known woman writer of modren times who is universally referred to simply by her surname, tout court. Woolf hasn’t made it, even after all these years; Rhys without the Jean is incognito; Nin without the Anais looks like a typo. Colette, Madame Colette, remains, in this as much else, unique.

Paley’s People

Angela Carter, 17 April 1980

What can put you off Grace Paley’s stories is their charm. ‘An Interest in Life’ in the collection called The Little Disturbances of Man begins: ‘My husband gave me a broom one Christmas. This wasn’t right. No one can tell me it was meant kindly.’ It is so scrupulously disarming an intro that it is bound to put people who like Joan Didior very much on their guard. And it is alarmingly easy to fall into the language of the Martini ad when writing about Grace Paley – wry, dry tender, ironic etc.

In a Sight and Sound interview with Richard Roud Bertolucci says he first had the idea for his film La Luna during a session with his psychoanalyst. ‘I suddenly realised that I had been talking about my father for seven or eight years – and now I wanted to talk about my mother.’ It seems to have taken them an unconscionable time to get around to discussing the person Freud calls a child’s ‘first seducer’, the authentic, original source of love and hunger, but Bertolucci certainly now attacks the subject with brio. He says that, in La Luna, ‘I wanted to say the obvious – that every man is in love with his mother.’ Which, put like that, is something like dedicating a movie to the proposition that rain is wet. Nevertheless, La Luna is concerned to reveal this psychoanalytic truth via the artistic method of the lushest kind of Forties and Fifties Hollywood melodrama.

Letter

I could have fancied her

16 February 1989

Angela Carter writes: As is well known within my circle, I use the name ‘Angela Carter’ only in order to gain publication by feminist presses and am in reality a Church of England vicar. I hope this assuages at least some of the humiliation Arthur Marwick felt at being reviewed by a woman.

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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