A saint more beastly than beautiful

BURNING YOUR BOATS: Collected Short Stories by Angela Carter, Chatto pounds

Jan Dalley
Saturday 29 July 1995 23:02

IT has been estimated that more theses are currently being written on the work of Angela Carter than on the whole of 18th-century English literature. She has become, since her death in 1992, a sort of St Angela of the Campus, the writer who can do no wrong. Superficially at least, she is a model of latter-day academic acceptability, her work is founded on a certain angry feminism, and fuelled by a heady magic that lets her float free of those troublesome constraints of class and race.

But, as Salman Rushdie makes clear in his discriminating introduction to these collected stories, it does Angela Carter no favours to credit her with this add-water-and-stir political correctness - she is a much spikier, more oblique and cussed, and indeed more flawed a writer, as well as more truly original. Now that we have all the short stories in one volume, we have an ideal chance to see what Carter's work is really like. Across the span, from three early pieces and on to the four main collections she published in her lifetime, there is a clear view of Carter's recipe book; of how she came to use and re-use the same, relatively few ingredients, to whip up her finest concoctions.

The first collection, Fireworks, was published in 1974 (Carter already had four novels to her name) and its autobiographical stories set in Japan, where she had gone to live with a Japanese lover, give off a direct and poignant emotion. They show her changing, too: not only that heart-breaking relationship, but Japan itself, left a deep brand. In "A Souvenir of Japan" and "Flesh and the Mirror" she casts herself as her own bizarre and monstrous heroine - a gawky-boned blonde who took the largest size in men's sandals was, in that country of neat, dark-haired people, "an outlandish jewel", "impossibly exotic", the Beast to her Japanese lover's delicate Beauty. In sombre mood, she records: "I often felt like a female impersonator," and that she was "always rummaging in the dressing-up box of the heart for suitable appearances to adopt" in her emotional responses.

This figure - a woman out of her element and place, forced to invent herself, to seem to be other in order to please (or perform) - became one of her most powerful characters, and motor of some of the greatest stories ("Black Venus", for instance, about Baudelaire's mistress Jeanne Duval).

In other ways, too, Japan marked her. In a country of violent extremes, she could realise her own love of going to the edge ("I only travel for the insecurity"). Japan taught her the art of seeming: with its theatrical formality and elaborate artifice it echoed her own contempt for dull reality.

"Living never lived up to the expectations I had of it," she says in "Flesh and the Mirror". "I eyed the most marvellous adventures with the bored eye of the agent with the cigar watching another audition. I tapped out the ash and asked of events: 'What else can you do?'"

What you can do - what Angela Carter did - is to move on, away from the drudgery of what she calls "well-rounded, spuriously detailed actuality"; like her character in "The Kiss", she "grew wings and flew away to Persia". From now on, she would opt for the outlandish, the glittering grotesque, the rhinestone glamour of theatre and circus, evil reflected as pure "kiss- the-villain melodrama", the dark cruelty of fairy tale.

As with life, so with language. By the time her next collection appeared in 1979, her now familiar style was set - language pitched hot and strong, lush and highly spiced, almost putrid with its own opulent seasoning. This collection, "The Bloody Chamber", contains some of the best-known stories, including "The Company of Wolves". Its title story is a long and lascivious re-telling of the Bluebeard legend - an innocent, fatherless girl, a much-married older man, a castle on a remote shore, a ruby choker, a dreadful secret - and is perhaps the one that most fiercely polarises the reactions of Carter's readers. Salman Rushdie says the collection shows her at the height of her powers; her detractors claim that the title's story's 40-odd over-scented pages are scarcely worth the single, feminist, final twist (when the victim-bride is dashingly rescued by her mother). Supporters would mention eternal themes, not just the high plains of love but the bowels and blood-lust of sexual relations; detractors would answer that such crude melodrama could not convey anything of richness, and isn't it all a bit preposterous really?

A more subtle and convincing re-making of a legend is "The Fall River Axe Murders", which imagines the real life of Lizzie Borden (the one who "with an axe/gave her father forty whacks"). A heatwave in Massachusetts in 1892, a narrow respectable house that contains the short horizons of Lizzie, the ageing spinster, her gaunt father and gluttonous stepmother... Carter plots their straining world, in the course of the fateful day, with acuity and brilliant suspense.

The group of stories in "Black Venus" (1985) - of which the last is one - is certainly not flawless. There are moments, for instance in "Overture and Incidental Music for A Midsummer Night's Dream", when Carter's iron whimsy melts into the purest twee. Even her abrasive tongue-in-cheek humour can hardly redeem passages such as: "High in the thick of a dripping hedge of honeysuckle, a wee creature was extracting a tritonic, numinous, luxuriantly perfumed melody from the pan-pipes of the wild woodbine."

But, for my money, the title story, "Black Venus", and a vivid bringing- to-life of early tragedy in "The Cabinet of Edgar Allan Poe" are world- class stories, woven from their author's high humour, glittering imagination, vital erudition and warm intelligence. Take your pick.

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