on 19 June 2003
I was sceptical when my friends nagged me into reading Angela Carter. If anything, I was critical as I began reading it, but was soon won over by the sheer bizarre nature of Fevver's tale. Despite myself, I was drawn into this story. The characters, places and storyline are unforgettable, the tale a vivid, unbelievable romp with the circus from London to Siberia.
The only downpoint to this book, I would say, is that the narrative of the first part is a bit rambling and slow paced compared to the rest of the story, but this does nothing to detract from the overall wonder and brilliance of this novel.
Don't buy this book if you're looking for a gritty, realistic story, because "Nights at the Circus" is, if anything, fantasy. However, if you want an involving, amusing and enchanting modern fairy tale, this book is an absolute must.
on 13 June 2012
Angela Carter is one of those writers who have been on the periphery of my personal reading radar for a while. Feminist friends revere her work. She's one of the big literary names who deal in fairy tales. And she's been massively influential.
Nights at the Circus is a novel about Fevvers - a cockney pronunciation of Feathers. She's a miraculous woman who has wings and can fly, and she's found a career as an acrobat. The book is divided into three parts. In part one, she tells her story to an American journalist, backstage in a London theatre, over the course of a night. The journalist wants nothing more than to prove her fake and burst the bubble of her fame. In part two, she starts on a world tour with a circus, and the journalist, seduced by the mystical attraction of circus life, follows along, signing up as clown and living incognito in the circus. Part three, ... well, I'm not going to spoil the story.
The novel is written in quite dense prose. It is not a quick read, and requires some concentration. The story moves in unexpected ways, and every aspect of the novel becomes more and more surreal and dream-like as it progresses. Starting with a relatively straightforward biographical narrative, the growing sense of unease is infused into the story gently: something odd is happening with the passage of time. There are unspoken things, sudden changes in the flow of conversation, meaningful glances get exchanged.
In part two, the surreal / fantastical elements become more prevalent. Animals are different. Clowns have their own mythos. Some magic appears to occur (beyond a winged, flying woman). And part three - well, all bets are off in part three, and we're deep into surreal, dream like, trance like crazy. Narrative voices change from first person to third person from one paragraph to the next (up to this point, all was in third person), among other twisted writing methods. Part three feels like a bit of an acid trip in the 1960s, in some ways. But the story still gets (largely) rounded off.
Underlying the novel are a rather large number of ideas, half-thoughts and notions about gender, women, men and feminism. Sometimes they are voiced by the author, in a carefully chosen phrase in descriptive text. At other times, characters openly discuss these themes (a particularly memorably dialogue is an argument about relationships where a maternal figure tries to convince Fevvers that falling in love might be more harmful to her self than prostitution). Sometimes, there are plot developments that are symbolic or metaphorical. Women, on the whole, fare best when they connect and interact with other women: even a whore house is utopian and idyllic, with no conflict between the whores, just as long as the men are not around. But as soon as men are involved, there is violence. Wife beaters, wife murderers, sinister religious oppressors, rapists... even our male protagonist at some point casually considers raping a vulnerable, almost unconscious woman who finds herself temporarily in his care, although it never goes beyond a hateful throwaway thought. Women without men (or children) flourish in this novel. Men (and children) bring suffering and complete loss of self.
No wonder Angela Carter's novels are dear to the heart of any English students tasked with writing essays about feminist literary theories.
Densely written and surreal, at times experimental - this novel is not my usual fare at all. It has some beautiful passages and chapters and ideas. Fevvers is a memorable character, cheerfully low brow, sweaty, smelly and untidy, described in vivid detail and imprinting herself in my memory.
Yet as a story, the novel is not entirely satisfying. There are long passages where I was bored as a reader. Some plot devices seem too strange to have meaning or reason. Some storylines remain unresolved. In short, by the time I finished reading, I felt only half satisfied with it.
on 24 August 2016
What a fabulous character Carter has given us in Fevvers. Half woman, half swan, Sophie is the star of Colonel Kearney’s circus, travelling across the globe, followed by the enamoured journalist Walser, who becomes a clown in order to join her on her travels.
It’s hard to summarise this story – so I won’t even try. This book doesn’t follow a traditional structure but that doesn’t mean it’s hard to read. On the contrary, it’s enormously entertaining.
The settings are described vividly, magically, beautifully. The cast of characters are fantastically drawn – I have a particular soft-spot for Lizzie, Fevvers’ step-mother, closet activist, her magic handbag able to conjure any remedy for any occasion and as intriguing and delightful as Fevvers herself. Mignon, Samson, the Princess of Abyssinia, Buffo the Great and the wonderful Sybil the pig are all brought to life effortlessly. Their stories are a joy to read and their narratives intertwine with Sophie’s own story flawlessly.
The writing is assured, clever without being pretentious, lyrical in places. It’s a book I’ll remember for a long time – unforgettable, colourful, and chaotic. A masterpiece.
on 28 July 2004
Richly written, the joy of this book is in the characters that Carter describes (you get the feeling she enjoyed writing it just as much): from the winged trapeze artist & her maternal assistant to the performing apes and their Professor, this is a book that surprises throughout with its imagination and detail.
This is all done at the expense of any particularly tight plot - we begin with an 80-page life story as told to journalist John Walser, but it then becomes more picaresque as we follow the circus and get to know the stories of its staff, with strong female characters particularly making their presence felt. The journey takes us an unusual route to an unusual end.
This is a world you can escape into - beautifully realised in the best tradition of magic realism.
on 9 April 2012
Sophie Fevvers is the star of Colonel Kearney's circus. She is the winged giantess, the 8th wonder of the world, the orphaned flying creature which is half bird, half woman. Jack Walser is an American journalist sent to do a piece on what he believes to be a simple conjuring trick combined with a clever piece of mechanical engineering. But as the interview gets under way, Jack starts to realise that his assumptions might have been hasty, and, strangest of all, time seems to stand still.
So starts the magnificent tale that is Nights at the Circus. We follow Jack and Fevvers as they travel through Siberia with the troupe of circus acts, all of which are miserable, mad, unpredictable, chaotic and passionate.
Fevvers is irresistible - Larger than life and bursting with feminine energy, it is impossible not to be drawn into her story and become a believer. Raised by prostitutes, desired by Dukes and venerated by the public, she is the perfect centerpiece to this three-ring circus of a tale. It is bursting with colour and originality, sexy, dangerous, feminine and endlessly entertaining.
on 23 February 2016
If ever a story defied categorisation and deconstruction, here it sits!
Luxuriously lyrical and peopled by a huge cast of cacophonous eccentrics, such that the reader cannot begin to keep track of each one, it is as if Angela Carter went to every length to make her tale as chaotic and exceptionally unbelievable as possible. Above all else, it celebrates the ridiculous and the unexplainable, the surreal and the dazzlingly grotesque.
Here is evidence that plot need not follow a clear arc, and that characters need not be realistic, let alone likable. She gives us the vulgar and the ethereal, motives base and sublime. Beribboned in silk and velvets, her dark world of magnificent misfits and baroque tragedy is fascinating, as only the truly bizarre can be. It is an outlandish, irreverent, boisterous romp.
And, at the summit of this shabbily beautiful fable is the most gaudy and bizarre character of them all: the audacious, voracious, foul-mouthed, star-spangled, gloriously sexual, Fevvers. Acrobat extraordinaire, half-woman half-bird, she charms the crowned heads of Europe, the great, the good and the very, very bad.
We only gradually gain a sense of Fevvers’ true individualism, revealed stage by stage, to find that it derives not from her wings, but from her irrepressible spirit, even to the last pages, as she stumbles through snowy Siberia. We first join her as an adored spectacle with the Cirque de’Hiver, and then tumble through her terrible past: through her childhood as a ‘winged tableau’ in a Victorian brothel, and years as an unhappy exhibit in the Museum of Women Monsters, then into the perverse hands of a millionaire who wishes to sacrifice her miraculous being in pursuit of immortality.
Even Fevvers’ voice cannot be strictly categorised, being described as ‘dark, rusty, dripping and swooping’, ‘cavernous’ and ‘somber’, the voice of a ‘celestial fishwife’, ‘musical’ yet discordant, ‘that clanged like dustbin lids'.
Meanwhile, rather than creating ‘another love story’ (love being at the heart of her tale) Angela Carter swoops from one madcap adventure to the next, hardly giving you time to process what you have read. Besides traditional male-female romantic love, Carter bestows her caress upon love between women: downtrodden Mignon is so tenderly drawn as she falls in love with the lion-tamer princess. We see also love between Fevvers and her long-suffering adoptive mother, ever-loyal Liz, and love between circus trainers and their animals: the apes, the tigers and the noble elephants.
Such is the exuberant originality of ‘Nights at the Circus’ that to analyse its meandering plot or character development would be pointless. Every sumptuous detail is a delight, every line a masterpiece, every paragraph a sculpted work of art: here is its magic.
Fevvers’ room is a place of ‘exquisitely feminine squalor’, with ‘a large pair of frilly drawers fallen where they had been light-heartedly tossed’, and a corset poking from a coalscuttle like ‘the pink husk of a giant prawn emerging from its den, trailing long laces like several sets of legs’. A stale feet smell emanates from ‘a writhing snakes’ nest of silk stockings’; ‘essence of Fevvers’ clogs the room. And the lady herself, in her ‘bonnefemmerie’ thinks nothing of letting ‘a ripping fart ring around the room’ for no more than the pleasure of seeing her male companion’s discomfort.
There are morals interwoven through the divinely diabolical set pieces, but do not read Angela’s Carter’s majestic masterpiece to ponder on human nature. Read it to be seduced by a deeply enchanted love affair with language.
on 7 January 2010
A fabulous tale in all senses of the word. Written as a play in three acts: 1. American journalist Jack Walser interviews famous arialiste (arieliste?) Fevvers, part woman part swan, for his series "Great Humbugs of the World" - but, anticipating modern PR, the celebrity is very much in control; 2. Walser enlists in the circus, as a clown, to follow Fevvers to Petersburg - where his cover is blown and all begins to disintegrate; 3. The remnants of the circus press on via the trans-Siberian express to perform for the emperor in Japan, and sublime chaos is reached - to be put back together in the wilderness.
Angela Carter paints visual pictures with words - most memorably for me the Siberian tigers laying on the roof of the house, seduced by the music inside, as two very different parties converge from stage left and right; and the clowns' Christmas dinner arranged as Da Vinci's Last Supper, before Walser (the cock, his slung arm flapping) breaks the cover of his serving dish. She also builds comic momentum that had me laughing out loud (on my train through the snow), which I have to admit usually involved the clowns. Cock-a-doodle-do!
However, the switch to Fevvers in the first person, as she begins to doubt her own existence, and the sympathetic and erudite treatment of the Siberian shaman amazed me. Fevvers becomes both a shamanic dream and undergoes her own shamanic transformation, at the edge of civilisation and on the cusp of the 20th century - a transformation all of the remaining members of the circus experience in their own ways. She becomes the allegory for the liberated 'new woman' as the 20th century spins into life.
on 28 April 2004
This is the first of Angela Carter's works that I have read. It took me ashort while to get into it at first - reading and re-reading passages toget used to the writing style - but once in I don't want to get out!
The characters are all colourful yet very disparate and whilst many do nothave much to recommend them Carter manages to show in them enough good orweakness for them to gain your respect, or at least your sympathy.
Above all this book is facinating... and imaginative, compelling, earthyand full of surprises... After my first experience of Angela Carter - I'mgoing to read them all!
on 23 June 2008
Carter is a devotee of feminist interpretations of Lacanian theory. 'Nights at the Circus' is duly littered with (metaphorical) mirrors, with phrases such as the 'freedom of the mask', and studded with paragraphs that explain how the 'eye of the beholder' affects the object it beholds. Even if you don't especially object to Lacan, this tendentious framework can irritate. The story arc (as distinct from the cooked-up elements of 'magical realism') offers few surprises and the observations are effectively censored by the guiding philosophy (which is itself a kind of Lacanian paradox). Carter's prose style can be horribly 'purple'. The favoured characters are differentiated with idiomatic voices but tend to share their author's aspirational vocabulary - which last often reeks of the thesaurus (there's a sentence where someone walks 'between the pediments of the doorway' - which is just plain embarrassing). The book also progressively succumbs to dated 80's experimental effects: the second section concludes with a kind of 'pataphor' where the heroine escapes on a toy train that becomes real, while the third section mixes first and third person narratives to no clear benefit. At one point in the book Carter describes how the world's shamans manage to retain their integrity despite using fraudulent deception to sustain people's belief; and in a sense, that's what she does herself. There's a very funny joke about the heroine's virginity at the end of the book which perhaps carries the point ("She laughed. She laughed. She laughed."). Carter benefited from the metropolitan bias of the UK publishing industry, while her Lacanian credentials have sustained her presence on University reading lists: she still has a committed fan base, but this - her 'masterpiece' - seems both dated and clumsy.
on 18 September 2012
An absolute joy to read, Nights at the Circus is a modern classic, and probably Angela Carter's best known work. Is Fevvers a con artist, or are her feathered wings real? Journalist Walser gets a lot more than he bargains for when he runs away with the circus, intending to expose her as a fraud.
Moving from London to St Petersburg to the wastes of Siberia, this must surely be a set text for anyone interested in magical realism, feminism and, really, 20th Century literature in general.
There's humour and romance, but also much that is deeply unsettling, and a succession of striking images, from the waltzing tigers of the circus, trapped in burning mirrors, to the winged Cupid herself, the enigmatic Fevvers and her colourful past. Unique and unmissable.