Hearing A Postcard from Angela Carter read out on Radio 4 this week and finding the complete Carter oeuvre back in bookshops, it struck me how much, although she died 20 years ago, she'd have enjoyed life in 2012.
We met in 1979 when I was at Victor Gollancz. They were about to publish her masterpiece, The Bloody Chamber; 10 stories re-imagining folk tales of wolves, tigers and Puss-in-Boots from fresh (and bloody) feminist perspectives. I rang to introduce myself and discuss the launch party and, in my nervousness, assured her that I'd been a fan for years. There was a silence. "Not that many years, judging by your voice," said Ms Carter in that sardonic, smoky murmur I got to know well.
Lots of people were scared to death of her. She was beautiful and feral, with long grey hair, and a gaze that went through your eyes and into your heart, like the Snow Queen's. Men quaked at her disapproval, which suited her fine. She liked men, but couldn't talk to them for long without becoming teasingly sarcastic or laughing at their presumption. In Tokyo, she once worked as a hostess in a Mama-san bar, where her job was to engage besuited "salarymen" in clever and risqué after-work banter. Angela was fired for excessive smartness, acerbity, and for never letting the men have the last word.
Onstage at the ICA one lunchtime, she was discussing her work when the subject of rape came up, the power-impulse or sex-frenzy behind it. "I just don't know why a man would want to," said Angela. "Does anyone?" "Maybe it's nothing to do with power," said a man, about 30, at the back. "Maybe it's just for kicks." Angela's neck reddened as she swivelled her gaze to the voice. Then she hissed at him, "WIPE that SMILE off your FACE!" Whatever she'd seen in his expression, she'd recognised it as The Enemy incarnate.
She delved into the literature of decadence, exoticism, myth and necrophilia – Baudelaire, Poe, German Gothic, Romantic excess – but seemed to go beyond a purely literary appreciation of transgression. Her first collection of stories was called Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces and hints of blasphemy or ritual wickedness hung around her always.
Once we were discussing an English novelist with a bad reputation. "But the most important thing about him, John," she said, "is he's reputed to have eaten..." (she raised her eyes heavenward, like a nun) "... human flesh." She caressed the final word, lovingly, a wolf-ess licking her lips.
Carter would have poured molten scorn on the Coalition. She'd have hated e-books and the death of record and DVD shops. She'd have loathed Simon Cowell and vapid celebrity. But she'd have been intrigued by Madonna and Katie Price, fascinated by the transatlantic obsession with vampires and zombies, and been a world-class emailer, every sentence jewelled and toxic. And we'd be glad to have her here, bringing more of her magical, polychromatic prose into a world that's been a lot greyer without it.
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