Tuesday 31 January 2012

The death of Magical Democracy and the rise of A Card From Angela Carter

The novelist Angela Carter, who died twenty years ago at the age of only fifty-one, was a creative genius, a consummate entertainer, an ambitious artist, a highly sophisticated crafter and a great intellect. [UPDATE, as at 10th Feb 2012: I have just been contacted by BBC radio producer Sara Davies, who has produced a documentary about Carter's plays, which is going out on Radio 4 on Thursday 16th February at 11.30am. She writes:
I hadn’t known about the plays till an academic in Bristol told me about them, and I discovered they were all in the BBC archive. I’ve used excerpts from all five, with interviews with various people who were connected with her back then, including Susannah Clapp, Marina Warner and Carmen Callil, and I’ve tracked down the studio manager who worked on the plays who talks about what fun it was putting them together in studio.

I don’t think many people know this side of Angela’s work, and the plays are such a riot!
Please tune in and enjoy Carter's imagination and genius afresh.]

I have long wanted to write a book of accessible essays, one about each of Angela Carter's major fictions, expressing my fannish enthusiasm, which is effusive and profuse. I'd envisaged it coming out this year, fully embossed, emblazoned and engilded, illustrated and illuminating, a Christmas gift for the literate. I’d call it Magical Democracy, after a phrase used in the Carter obituary written by Lorna Sage, another genius who died too young... and who also edited a wonderful book of essays on Carter, called Flesh and the Mirror, which includes contributions from Ali Smith and Marina Warner. 

For now, Angela Carter’s life has been commemorated in a beautiful looking, precisely written, perfectly constructed yet melancholy-making volume, A Card from Angela Carter, written by the renowned theatre critic and biographer Susannah Clapp. The book is hand-sized and gifty, its chiselled sentences and glinting insights giving us a sharp and immediate portrait of an entire life.

This is achieved despite rather than because of its central conceit. Clapp and Carter were close friends for several decades. Carter sent Clapp a series of postcards, which Clapp describes with a crisp humour that far exceeds the interest of the cards themselves, which are reprinted in a drab monochrome and bear brief, sharp, dashed-off messages. So there’s an image of a pot of Texan chilli beef. It’s like a 1970s tea towel illustration, block-printed and painfully indelicate. This is Clapp’s brilliant description:
The picture shows a black cauldron trying to pass as a saucepan. Bubbling with beans and frighteningly red beef, it was sending off a swirl of blue smoke.
On the back – and how I wish Bloomsbury had just turned the card over in the photocopier and given us a glimpse of Carter’s handwriting – the novelist has written,

Carter’s reply to the critics! Texas chilli, it goes through you like a dose of salts. I would like to forcefeed it to that drivelling wimp…preferably through his back passage.
This – Clapp’s description and Carter’s message, both - is pure Carter fiction territory: vehement, salty, violent yet camp, the image of beef and chilli turned to one of gore and guts, nutritive turned into purgative, a recipe for the rectum, the domestic made demonic. But the brevity and sharpness of the message is typical Carter too. She was as much a honer and an architect as she was an impresario or conjurer of literary circus tricks. The stories may happen in the lurid glare of a carnival tent – but the tent’s held up with iron pegs and metal rigging. There is method to the madness, deftness to the dazzle.

It has always bothered me that Carter’s work is often described in terms of stylistic effect, symbolic resonance and folkloric influence rather than mental effort or thematic craft. She is depicted (as Clapp acknowledges) as a literary aerialist exulting in costume, a dazzler magicking up a false yet apposite paradox-world of masquerade and bewitchment, of things pretending to be other things in an infinite hall of mirrors, references refracting off references. It is as though, if one were to smash the mirrors, there would be nothing behind them but stage lights and severed puppet strings. Carter’s fiction is presented by critics as one of high theatricality and loosely picaresque plotting, wild abandon held together with the strands of an unravelling devorée  shawl and a spot of false eyelash glue. The books and their characters seem to survive on sheer guts and willpower.

This is a false impression, peddled as much by her lovers as her detractors. Angela Carter wrote with an iron fist in a sequined, fringed, marabou-trimmed lamé glove, holding a scalpel quill. She was a consummate artisan as well as an inspired artist, a romantic as well as an intellectual, a sensualist and a stylist. She may have presided over the revels, but she organised them well in advance and made sure the schedule ran to time. That, in life as well as art, is one of the secrets of great creation: one labours meticulously, tightening those symmetries, buffing those commas, to make it look as though one wrote it (and compel readers to consume it) in a single exuberant swoop.

There is a satisfying tension between the baroque fantasy of what happens in Carter’s fiction and the austere precision with which it is planned; between the lavish indulgences of her characters and their speech and the stern control of Carter’s own ideas. Her characters - whether they are the mercurial, curious, stubborn and inquisitive protagonists of her famous collection The Bloody Chamber or the loquacious giant swan-heroine Fevvers in Nights at the Circus - do not merely enact mechanistic reversals of traditional fairytale martyrdom, overturn overdone gender clichés or blather on pointlessly for page after page of earthy ventriloquism. They are fully imagined lovers, fighters, thinkers, adventurers, charismatic beings. They have heart and soul; they are not just strung up in Carter’s sequence of symbolic events. Readers love Carter because Carter is fun to read: a fantasy novelist who writes ripping yarns that make you feel anything is possible.

A Card from Angela Carter restores the idea of Carter as a constructor of tremendous skill as well as a creator of wild genius. The postcards are merely a device to pay tribute, to illuminate, to analyse, to commemorate and to critique. On their few hasty lines, Susannah Clapp has managed (like a Carter character herself) to spin and hang a tight, light and glittering biography, beginning to end, with teaching jaunts, prize-judging and prize-winning, family, career, lifelong love and mortal illness in between. I am not quoting much from the book because I want you to buy it. But I had to put in this wonderful line:

Her card was a photograph of an armadillo, a curved creature picking its way, like an elderly millionairess, through prickly undergrowth.
Days after having read it I am still wondering how Clapp did it. In barely a hundred pages she has performed an origami trick of stunning expertise, folding an entire life into a half-inch width of book, summarising a life and a body of work, conveying a steely awareness of time’s passing, a sense of history and a complex depiction of Carter’s character and contribution. With her icy, smooth humour and beautiful spare prose, Clapp strips out the tinny taint of campness that surrounds Carter. She does away with the standard critical soundbites – of the macabre, the kitsch, the playful, the carnivalesque, of masquerades and harlequins, dolls and hybrids, fairy lives and horror tales – that obscure Angela Carter under a thick white greasepaint of cliché.

There is not one great mind here, there are two, and both have been undersold. Susannah Clapp’s previous book, With Chatwin, is a superlative personal memorography of the travel writer and explorer Bruce Chatwin, whom she was close to. It was praised fulsomely by all the major papers when it came out some years ago. These lines of praise are to be found, rightly, on the back of A Card From Angela Carter. But Clapp has not produced a major full-length work since, despite her tremendous talent and huge fanbase, obvious from her popular theatre reviews for the Observer, her erudite wit as a theatre critic for Night Waves on Radio 3, her pedigree as a co-founder of the London Review of Books (for whom Angela Carter was a longtime writer) and the support and joy which has greeted the publication of  A Card from Angela Carter. It has only been out a week and it’s been covered with great positivity in The Observer (who gave it their Review section cover) and The Guardian, flagged up as a must-buy in ES magazine, reviewed well in The Independent and made a Radio 4 Book of the Week.

I want more from Susannah Clapp. I want a big book. Two thousand word reviews and one hundred page books are too meagre for a magnificent mind and a wide wit. Write a satire about a Biba-chic theatre critic, why don’t you? Just keep a diary and change the names at the end.

A Card From Angela Carter has been created with obvious devotion. Its controlled yet luxurious cream, black, gold and red cover was designed by the brilliant Holly Macdonald and the lovely red-inked endpapers were drawn by Carter’s longtime collaborator Corinna Sargood. There is a twist in the plot to do with these endpapers, which I won’t reveal except to say that it brings tears to the eyes and fully establishes this book as a serious eulogy for a dazzling talent too briefly explored…

…and too thinly praised. Carter was always loved by readers, much admired by other writers and reviewed thoroughly and respectfully. She was a prolific journalist whose great insight turned even casual reviews into weighty and important cultural essays with wide relevance. She was adapted very successfully for film (notably by Neil Jordan for The Company of Wolves) and was an acclaimed dramatist for radio, as well as working speculatively in theatre. However, none of Carter’s novels had ever been Booker nominated. Her last novel, Wise Children, was published with great fanfare but ignored by that year’s Booker jury, leading directly to the establishment of the Orange Prize, now in its 17th year.  Clapp writes, “Her early death sent her reputation soaring.” She adds, however, that

[Carter] was not acclaimed in the way that the number of obituaries might suggest. She was ten years too old and entirely too female to be mentioned routinely alongside Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan as being a young pillar of British fiction. She was twenty years too young to belong to what she considered the ‘alternative pantheon’ of Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing and Muriel Spark in the forties...
Twenty years after Angela Carter’s death, there is still no major biography of her and no major mainstream critical volume about her work. Could I propose here a small reconsideration of a speculative amateur scholar’s enquiry entitled… Magical Democracy?

Until I complete that magnum opus of trenchant literary criticism and squealing sycophantic hagiography, A Card From Angela Carter by Susannah Clapp can be purchased everywhere, published by Bloomsbury.