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Two by Angela Carter

Carter Heroes and Villains.jpgIt appears that I've embarked upon a deep dive into the works of Angela Carter. One thing I'd intended to do for a while now was to re-read Heroes and Villains, which was the first book of hers I read. It must have been in the early '90s sometime, because my edition was published after she died of lung cancer in 1992 at age 51. My recollection is that I didn't care for it much, but I obviously didn't dislike it enough to get rid of the book. I can no longer remember exactly what I thought of it, but having now re-read it my guess is that I found the characters unlikeable. That's still something that can cause me problems with a story, especially the first time through. It also portrays the relationship between the sexes as wounding, which I can well imagine was not something I liked to see at a time when I was more idealistic and hopeful for my own chances at a relationship.

So I'm happy to report that I did like the novel the second time through. It has been called post-apocalyptic science fiction, but it works more like a literary fable. (That could be another thing that threw me off the first time, if I was looking for an attempt at plausible science fictional world-building.) In any event, the story is set after the collapse of civilization. I don't think the location is specified, but because Carter was British I assumed it was Great Britain. Marianne is a daughter of the Professors, who live in armed enclaves that strive to maintain some semblance of the old agricultural civilization. Outside their gates roam the squalid Barbarians, who live through hunting and gathering and raids on the Professors. Marianne is a cold, unhappy character who doesn't like the constraints of civilized life, so she is halfway ready to go when she's kidnapped by the handsome barbarian chief named Jewel.

One thing that struck me repeatedly as I read the book, which was first published in 1969, was the feeling that the Professors and the Barbarians were oblique renderings of the Establishment versus the Counterculture. The Barbarians in particular, with their muddy feet, pagan accoutrements, and tattoos felt very much like hippies at times. (Well, the tattoos actually seemed very modern -- counterculturally speaking -- and not very hippy at all.) But while the premise is absurd, Carter delves into it much deeper than such a simplistic analogy might suggest. She's more focused on the Barbarians and thus examines more closely their childish brutality and hand-to-mouth lifestyle, camping out in the ruins of the lost civilization. This is not a Romantic story, but there are elements of romanticism in the exotic, sensuous details of this lifestyle, and in the moments of beauty she conjures amongst the abject terrors of mundane human existence.

As I alluded to in passing above, the relationship between Marianne and Jewel is fraught, difficult, and painful. Carter flirts with all the old romantic cliches, such as a rape followed by what looks like real intimacy, but she always maintains a tension of conflict even in moments of relative calm and warmth. Intimacy is never transcendence of difference or antagonism. Nothing is ever resolved, wounds are never healed, and she maintains this unfinished feeling to the beautiful last line. Again and again I was reminded of Ted Hughes' poem "Lovesong," about his conflicted relationship with Sylvia Plath: "His whispers were whips and jackboots/Her kisses were lawyers steadily writing." (That probably sent half my readers -- all four of you! -- rushing for the exits.) I was also reminded repeatedly, as I have been by other works by Carter, of Joanna Russ, with her gorgeous lyrical prose expressing the harshest truths and shifting tones between glib, abstract, lush, and acidic with amazing ease, although I suspect Carter was more of an old-fashioned humanist than Russ was. Maybe.

Carter Wise Children.jpgOr at least Carter's last two novels, Nights at the Circus (1984) and Wise Children (1991) feel warmer than Russ' last novels. Richard Boston, in his NYTimes review of Heroes and Villains, mentions the many literary allusions to be found in it, including to Shakespeare's The Tempest, and Wise Children courts comparisons to Shakespeare with reckless glee. It is a family saga about several generations of stage performers, the oldest of whom where per-eminent Shakespeareans. The novel opens with a quote from Ellen Terry, "How many times Shakespeare draws fathers and daughters, never mothers and daughters," and it's narrated by Dora Chance, who is one of the illegitimate and unacknowledged twin daughters of the great Shakespearean actor, Melchior Hazard. Melchior is also a twin, and an orphan of a different type. The whole family is riddled with twins, unacknowledged children, adultery, illegitimacy, incest, and the makeshift, ad hoc families that fill the void where biological family fails to meet the need for ties that bind.

I confess that I didn't notice myself one significant structural aspect of the novel, which is that it has five chapters, just as most of Shakespeare's plays had five acts. There is so much going on in the book, and it weaves back and forth in time so regularly, that I'm unable to say from one reading whether the five chapters can be read as a dramatic progression on the pattern of a Shakespeare play. It covers the Victorian era up through, hm, maybe the 1980s. (Dora and Nora were born in 1915, I believe, and are in their '70s when Dora writes the book.) The twin sisters are not actresses themselves, but rather a music hall dancing act -- the Lucky Chances. They are Cockney by upbringing, too, and Carter definitely has her eye on the highs and lows of social class, as well as of the theater, where various family members are involved in not only Shakespeare and the music hall, but Hollywood (where they work on a film adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream) and daytime TV.

It's a big, bustling, lively book with a large cast of characters and an abundance of history, witty literary references, bawdy jokes, tragic turns, and unlikely resurrections. One of the big differences between Wise Children and Heroes and Villains is the sense of humor. I don't suppose Heroes and Villains actually has no sense of humor, but its humor is more satirical and biting, where the humor of Wise Children is more rowdy and rollicking. More Shakespearean, perhaps, with plenty of gags on naughty bits. There's a celebratory feel amongst the yearning after lost mothers, paternal recognition, and impossible love. Life's hazardous (Carter knew she had cancer when she started writing the book), so you have to grab your chances when they come.

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