The gifted novelist and short-story writer Angela Carter died 20 years ago this month at the age of just 51. Many of her reviews and essays were published in the London Review of Books, where her commissioning editor was Susannah Clapp. Carter used to send Clapp postcards from all over the world; these missives form the basis of this slender tribute.
Twenty years ago already seems a vastly different world: Thatcher and Major, Reagan, vibrant feminism and socialism, even postcards! In a letter to the Bad Blood author Lorna Sage (not quoted here), Carter wrote, tongue in cheek: "The notion that the red dawn will indeed break over Clapham is the one thing that keeps me going." She would probably have enjoyed The Iron Lady: "I think that no fate is too vile for her [Thatcher]," she informed Clapp.
The commentary touches lightly on Carter's teenage anorexia, the bond with her father, her first and second marriages and late motherhood at 42. Carter's observations light up the pages. "It is possible to be a great novelist – that is, to render a veracious account of your times – and a bad writer – that is, an incompetent practitioner of applied linguistics." "I keep wondering just what Derrida is up to &, if he's so clever, why doesn't he write a novel of his own?" When she was terminally ill, she interrupted a phone call with the words, "A man's coming to the door." Pause. "I'll let him in. He hasn't got a scythe."
As a contributor, she relied on charm and brilliance to coast past deadlines. "It's been the end of term and I had lots and lots of term papers and I went deaf & I trod on a rabid squirrel and All has been hell," runs one "cat-ate-my-homework" excuse. There are also glimpses of a more daunting aspect to her personality: Clapp recalls seeing Carter "white faced and narrow-eyed with fury" over a professional snub. I also relished the glimpse of the writer Francis Wyndham throwing down a typically maximalist novel of Carter's with the words: "There must be less to life than this."
But this is not a book so much as a long magazine article in hard covers, or even the transcript of a radio programme. Clapp gives a written description of each postcard received. "By the side of a green-blue sea, boaters and tucked-up skirts and lacy parasols are dawdling; in the water, sailor suits and high-necked swimming costumes join hands. In the foreground stands a woman ..." runs a typical gloss. Only the colours and the whimsical notion that the clothes, rather than the people in them, are active add anything to the mono reproduction on the facing page. I would have liked more photographs of Carter herself.
Anyone expecting something along the lines of Clapp's more substantial tribute to another friend, With Chatwin, may be disappointed. But it's surprising how much Clapp condenses into these few pages. Above all, it gives a poignant sense of how much fun it must have been to know this sharp and fascinating writer.