Saturday, December 20, 2008

"She relished life and language hugely, and revelled in the diverse"

Angela Carter

It's difficult to talk about Angela Carter ! I met her in an unconventional way as I had to translate a passage taken from The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories into French for a final last June and I liked it so much I decided to find out who she was. This writer and journalist who died in 1992 left her imprint on literature. Often put in the "feminism" category of bookshops, her stories are in fact a mix of different genres : there's lots of humour and cruelty and magic in Angela Carter's work. I have only read two of them, but they really made an impression. The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories is a collection of short stories that are inspired by Grimm's fairy tales - the publishing company Vintage had a wonderful idea and reprinted the two books (Carter's and Grimm's) in a special edition so that we can compare them. Contrary to those of Grimm, in Carter's tales, women are not victims anymore but actresses and the cruelty of their environment is not buried in morality, on the contrary, it is shown for what it is and exploited to reveal all its absurdity. Women are not only the wolf's preys but and fully aware of their sexuality. The exact opposite of traditional fairytales (it made me think of Sarah Waters, this way she has of subverting well-known tales the way Waters does with gothic novels). It's quite brilliant : her writing is full of details, very beautiful, full of latin etymologies which participate in clouding the real issue. We never know where the stories take place, nor when - a telephone in a castle in the first short story, men riding horses and women taking the train... On many levels, her rewriting and excavation of the latent topics present in Grimm's tales made me think of Bruno Bettelheim's The Use of Enchantment (in which he analyses the tales with a Freudian perspective, highly recommended reading), with the difference that Angela Carter is a novelist and uses fiction and narrative to reveal the subtext. The palette of colours is confined, not surprisingly, to black, white and red, which also reminded me of another text, Chrétien de Troye's Percival, the Story of the Grail, written between 1181 and 1191 in which we find the leïtmotiv of three droops of blood (red) dripping on the snow (white), a book that also uses the marvellous. I also thought of Possession by A.S. Byatt (highly recommended reading as well, great book) which also relies heavily on literary works inside the text.
In another one of her books, definitely post-feminist, The Passion of New Eve, it's a constant confusion of genders with an apocalyptic background. A man goes to spend time in the USA and is castrated and then, while a woman, has to undergo what he himself would do to women. American society is satirized and the writing is electric - it's a story I read flabbergasted, holding my breath. Lots of ironic references to the Bible (most notably to the Fall) and to Sade. It's not a world where anybody would like to take refuge into but a world one leaves a bit more grown up because uncertain of everything except that it was indeed a thought-provoking journey. It's a demanded, energetic read that asks for constant attention but it's so worth it, because enriching.
I recommended this website - the webmaster has excellent comments to make about this great lady.