on 18 September 2008
Reading a short story by Angela Carter is the equivalent of visiting a friend who has travelled the world and now lives by herself in an apartment filled with cats, trinkets and incense. Some days, as you sit in this friend's living room, waiting for her to brew some exotic tea, the scent of burning incense lulls you into a reverie, the way in which the sunlight hits the smoke gives her living room a mysterious feel. At other times, your friend makes the mistake of lighting too many incense sticks, keeping the windows closed, the curtains shut; the items hanging on her wall suddenly look dull, the clothes hanging off her body tawdry, the bright red lipstick on her face wrong for the occasion.
When Carter is good, her stories transcend their fairy tale roots like dreams with hidden meanings. When Carter is bad, your mind drifts away from every sentence and all you can think of is skipping to the next tale
on 30 October 2012
The world of an Angela Carter short story is a world at once fantastic and familiar. Tigers, werewolves and other beasts stalk through; Bluebeard, Red Riding Hood and Puss-in-Boots perform new, startling acts. Hollywood, pantomime, the fairground, Shakespearean comedy all lend their forms to have them smashed up and put back together as something quite different.
But through it all the feeling of familiarity is there, not because we have heard the tale or seen the show before, but because it is our own psyche which is being rummaged through, its murkiest corners revealed in the light of Carter's brilliance.
Burning Your Boats is the first in a series to be published of the collected works of Carter and it gathers together her four published short story collections, along with early stories and uncollected works.
She always claimed that what she wrote were not short stories but tales. "The tale does not log everyday experience, as the short story does," she said, in the afterword to `Fireworks', her first collection. "It interprets everyday experience through a system of imagery derived from subterranean areas behind everyday experience." Many of the stories in that collection were set in Japan, a country she "ran away to," in 1969, and where she "learnt what it is to be a woman and became radicalised."
In `Journey to the Heart of the Forest', a 13-year-old brother and sister find carnivorous water-lilies which bite, tree trunks covered in milk-dispensing breasts and an apple tree with fruit so juicy that the girl has to "extend a long, crimson, newly sensual tongue to lick her lips," for the knowledge the tree imparts is "the hitherto unguessed at, unknowable, inexpressible vistas of love." And incestuous love, at that.
Carter was not just interested in the moral or psychological function of fairy tales but also in the way they conveyed information about the material lives of those who invented and retold them: "Fairy tales, folk tales, stories from the oral tradition, are all of them the most vital connection we have with the imaginations of the ordinary men and women whose labour created our world," she said, in her introduction to The Virago Book of Fairytales.
In "The Bloody Chamber' she insists that such tales are not mere repositories for dominant cultural assumptions but metaphors for the deepest sexual dangers and desires. For this and her staking out of the taboo, she was labelled politically correct by some, dismissed as cultish and marginal by others. But many who looked askance while she was alive came to praise her when she died three years ago.
For to attach the PC catchall to as wayward and wicked a writer as Carter is, of course, ridiculous. As for marginality, she once said: "The tale has not been dealt with kindly by literati, and is it any wonder? Let us keep the unconscious in a suitcase." She is now the most studied 20th century writer in British universities, a development which her friend Salman Rushdie in his introduction describes as "a victory over the mainstream she would have enjoyed."
What is unusual about Burning Your Boats, is the lack of a sense of development. It seems Carter's gift emerged almost fully formed. `A Very, Very Great Lady and Her Son at Home', begins: "When I was adolescent, my mother taught me a charm, gave me a talisman, handed me the key of the world." The mother's gift to her shy son? When awed by people, imagine them on the lavatory for "the bowels are great levellers." At the end of the story he turns the same question on her with the result that "she crashed forward on to the carpet and lay there, a tree felled," and he "vanished, laughing into the night."
Here already are her love of gothic imagery and ideas, her preoccupation with language, her mingling of high culture with low flesh. And from start to finish her concerns remain the same: violence, magic, love, the frailty of the flesh, the strength of the spirit. Each successive volume of stories in Burning Your Boats demonstrates not so much an author extending her range as a wild imagination giving form to itself. It's like watching a high diver perform one virtuoso display after another, using the same spins and twists to dazzling new effect.
For that reason, it is not a book which you can read from beginning to end without succumbing to imaginative vertigo. Neither is it one you dip into, in the usual sense. But take a periodic plunge with her into deep, dark Cartesian waters and witness your imagination emerge clutching pearls of "hitherto unguessed at," richness.
on 13 April 2012
Burning Your Boats brings together the four collections of short stories that Angela Carter released, in addition to a further six stories that had previously been published. Her writing is perhaps best described as magical realism, and many of the pieces here are explorations of myths and fairy stories. Her stories are places where Alice can emerge through a crystal ball into Dr Dee's laboratory, where people can pass through mirrors and giant pies are shipworthy vessels.
This is not to trivialise Carter's writing. Her work frequently explores themes of manipulation and the struggle people have in breaking out from the control of others. Her stories are often violent, darkly beautiful and visceral. She often covers the same basic stories and motifs, but successfully puts such a different spin on these interpretations that it doesn't matter. So, we get three stories that explore different angles of Beauty & The Beast, werewolves feature a couple of times as do children raised as wolves, and notorious murderer Lizzie Bawden pops up twice. Her stories are often playful and stretch the short story form, the best being "Pantoland", which categorises pantomime characters, and "A Victorian Fable", in which the story is told primarily through a glossary.
There are many great stories here - my favourites include "The Loves Of Lady Purple" about a puppeteer, "The Courtship of Mr Lyon", about a young woman's relationship with a lion who acts as a benefactor, "The Kitchen Child", in which someone's paternity is identified by a love of soufflés, and "John Ford's Tis A Pity She's A Whore", which imagines a tale of incest in rural America as both as a 17th century play and a Western movie.
Carter is an extremely talented writer, and there are many fine phrases and passages within this book, and the writing really sparkles. Sometimes that narratives can be a little unfocussed, but the sheer quality of writing meant that I was more than happy to allow her fine phrases to wash over me. This is a worthwhile addition to the shelf of anyone who enjoys short stories.