on 8 June 2012
This is a biography with a difference; it is told through postcards, by a friend. Angela Carter is the grande dame of lush, fantastical stories, and published 15 books of fiction and poetry in her lifetime - but in the 20 years since her death, there has yet to appear an in-depth study of her life and work.
This is not that book, but it's something much more beautiful: a personal tribute to a writer and friend. The book is structured around a series of postcards that Susannah Clapp, a previous editor of the London Review of Books, received throughout her friendship with Angela Carter. Although the actual content of the postcards is sparse, they're used more as a jumping-off point for Clapp to share many anecdotes and insights into Carter's family life, domestic tendencies (or lack of), responses to critics, and stances on feminism and politics.
This is not for those unfamiliar with Carter's work: no timeline or overall view is provided, so it's not useful in providing a sense of her literary work or personal journey as a writer. Readers of Carter's work, though, will love the insights into her personal and professional life, and even the most enthusiastic fan will find something new here. Treading the ground between comfort reading and literature, this book is perfect for those who are short on time but crave brain-food.
on 6 March 2012
Finally! Angela Carter was and is one of my favourite novelists. Her short stories and novels are full of fast adventure, larger than life characters, razzle dazzle plots and the sense that anything's possible. And Susannah Clapp, theatre critic and biographer, is one of my other favourite writers, although her style is very different: poised, sly, measured and sharp. What a brilliant combination to bring them together in this short but very deep and ultimately affecting memoir. Clapp and Carter knew each other professionally and as friends, and this tribute is a fleet-footed biographer of Angela Carter, a tribute to the friendship, a smart satire and a glorious work of art in itself: the story of Angela Carter's life is interwoven with images of the very kitsch and funny postcards which she sent Clapp over the years. The images are comical, grotesquely funny, and Clapp has great fun satirising them. However, the underlying seriousness of the work never flags: Angela Carter was a very significant, culturally important and artistically influential genius (and also great fun) and Clapp's fine words express this with tremendous skill and very moving attention. Clapp's analyses of Carter's work is intelligent and makes one want to buy Carter's novels and short stories immediately.
I should add that top marks also go to the publishers for making this book a lovely object to own: the endpapers are actually copies of the designs used on the card for Carter's memorial 20 years ago, and the cover is a joyous affirmation of the beauty of traditional illustration, done by hand, perfect and imperfect - a bit like Carter's greatest characters.
With that vanilla ice cream and hot sauce combo of Carter's heat and Clapp's coolness, this book is a joy and would also make a great gift as it's so dinky, gorgeous and readable. I hugely recommend it but add a note of scolding: why is there no big book of fun, accessible essays on Carter's fiction? Something fans can get their teeth into? Why (as Clapp says) is there no major biography of her work? And why did she never win the Booker prize - or even be nominated?
on 6 February 2012
Thought I'd get in early with this in view of its R4 serialisation. Why do Cartersians always go on about what she looked like? She seems to me to be the kind of 'feminist' writer, whatever that means (is Atwood one? is Stevie Smith? the idea is absurd) whose constituency is chiefly female. 'I'm so wacky, me!' Give me a girl who hangs with the boys - give me Carol Churchill, give me Germaine. I must give her nonfiction a go, but shall we confine 'feminist' to Shirley Valentine, Mamma Mia and hen nights? I equally spurn the masculist, from Bond to Amis père et fils
The Guardian's review catches her nicely (she's a Thinker, she's feisty, and she's Of Her Period; and I'm not maligning Carter herself - The Bareback Reader says 'she must have played dice with the devil to write that well' - so much as her coterie) but Private Eye of 10th February provides a, shall we say, contrasting perspective. You'll need to get hold of a paper copy as the Eye is strictly old school - in fact now I think about it, it's positively the last masculist redoubt. Why do women neither write for it nor read it? Of course Sandi Toksvig may well do both, but does she count? And does this make us deeper or shallower?
Some of the positive coverage did hit on an inadvertent truth, which is that during the Thatcher era right-thinking people went a bit doolally, confronted as they were with a conservative thinker who walked the walk, but not through a sense of entitlement. Ironic, then, that the beneficiaries of the grammar schools helped destroy them, presumably from a misplaced sense of guilt, something we could do with a bit more of, misplaced or otherwise, nowadays - the Politics of Envy's finest hour
Just seen Davy Jones has gone. EJ Thribb has a gift for his next obituary. My mother once asked me if he was genuine, bless her! She was a serious soul
Oh, and hearty thanks for the two 'helpful' postings so far!
PS Re the Carterian reputation, can't resist reproducing this review of Nights at the Circus from one Sporus
'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'
I think this must have been the one I tried reading. Oh well