Black Swan’s Way

The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography BY Edmund Gordon. Oxford University Press. Hardcover, 544 pages. $35.

My first experience of Angela Carter was The Sadeian Woman, her 1979 belletristic defense of the Marquis de Sade as a moral pornographer and protofeminist. Titillating, brilliant, and clearly deviant, it was a perverse introduction to an alchemy of postmodern theory and frankness I didn’t know possible. At twenty, I heavily underlined assertions like this one:

The victim is always morally superior to the master; that is the victim’s ambivalent triumph. That is why there have been so few notoriously wicked women in comparison to the number of notoriously wicked men; our victim status ensures that we rarely have the opportunity. Virtue is thrust upon us. If that is nothing, in itself, to be proud of, at least it is nothing of which to be ashamed.

The interpretation of sexual dynamics is almost rabbinical in its clarity (especially since the line I quote is followed immediately by a description of prepubescent girlish virtue as a “Pyrrhic victory”). I was destined to love her. She died from lung cancer at only fifty-one, right at the beginning of that same semester. Wisely, my professor didn’t herald her untimely death. We were at an impressionable age, inclined to sentimentality, something that would have clashed with, even undermined, Carter’s bawdy cultural criticism, with its NC-17 posturing, pageant of noble whores, and gleeful evisceration of archetypes: “Baby is hermaphrodite.”

I would imagine that anyone approaching Edmund Gordon’s comprehensive biography, The Invention of Angela Carter, has a memorable “first time” with Carter. When it comes to cult figures of the intelligentsia, the story of the first time is practically de rigueur. Gordon himself mentions his own in his epilogue. During a post-university year in Berlin, he came upon a secondhand copy of The Magic Toyshop, which Carter had described to her editor in 1966 as a “Gothic melodrama about a sort of South Suburban bluebeard toymaker & his household.” A writer Gordon admired, Ali Smith (an iconoclast of her own order), had spoken highly of Carter, whose reputation he’d previously thought had something “off-putting” about it—“a sense, perhaps, that she was just for girls.” Nonetheless, he bought the novel and “tore” through it “in a few intoxicated hours, stunned by the fearless quality of the imagination on display and by the luminous beauty of the prose.”

Carter’s fiction (like the figure of Angela Carter herself) occupies an array of literary territories. She was a postmodernist and a feminist, a fabulist and an inadvertent scholar, a columnist and a cultural critic. Inescapably, she was a writer—her complex and restless intelligence had no better means for expression than the written word. The prose is beautiful, saturated, and unhinged: “Never have I seen such blackness, such a soft, feathered, absolute black, a black as intense as the negation of light, black the colour of the extinction of consciousness. The swan flexed its neck like a snake about to strike, opened its beak and began to sing so that I knew it was about to die and I knew, too, she was a swan and also a woman for there issued from her throat a thrilling, erotic contralto.”

Carter’s work is crowded with raucous invention. In the mad, overpacked sci-fi world of The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, for example, a nemesis obliterates a dull wealthy city with an assault of hallucinations—such as the black dying swan woman. The Magic Toyshop, an early hypersensualized coming-of-age novel, features orphans, mute aunts, and infinite moving parts. Pain and power dynamics abound. The celebrated story collections, Black Venus and The Bloody Chamber, are both marvels of co-opted, reframed, reimagined fairy tales and notorious figures of women’s history. She was writing in a period of maximalism, shock value, and game playing—all qualities that came supremely naturally. Her fiction is total invention and at times seems bloodless despite the relentless violence and physicality. The characters just grow and grow, getting stranger and more particular as the sentences wash around them, each one a carnival of ideas: the inversion of hyperrealism. Though she’s often identified as a magic realist, there’s no floral orderliness or tear-jerking sentimentality governing her stories. It would be hard to identify a more pure, verbose, and reckless inventor than Angela Carter.

Sinke and Van Tongeren, Black Swan, 2016, ink-jet print, 49 3/4 × 40 1/4". From the series “Unknown Poses,” 2016. Courtesy the artists.

In her London Review of Books review of Gordon’s biography, Jenny Turner remembers a salient quote from one of the first things she read by Carter (taken from a “dashed-off contribution to one of the many feminism-and-writing anthologies” being published in the 1980s): “Writing,” according to Carter, “certainly doesn’t make better people, nor do writers lead happier lives.” There are ways in which Carter’s life was unexceptional—or, perhaps better put, familiar. She didn’t have darkly exotic, untraceable origins like Clarice Lispector, or come of age in Indochina and then get falling-down drunk for the next half decade like Marguerite Duras. Her father wasn’t a Nazi sympathizer and she wasn’t suicidal like suburban Sylvia Plath. She wasn’t a spy like Julia Child.

Born in 1940, Carter was a shy child raised by a domineering mother in deeply working-class environs—row houses in Yorkshire, then in South London. She was a rebellious teenager with a depraved relationship to food and her body, a bad student, an ambivalent wife, a shy adult who scrambled to make a living as a writer. She had to teach creative writing to make ends meet, but never quite got a handle on what a creative-writing pedagogy might be (“We were producing very, very much better writers in this country when people were leaving school between twelve and fourteen. I don’t mean to be intemperate but I think this is very important. Reading and living are the real training for writing fiction. This may sound smug but it’s true”). She had lots of literary friends and robust critical attention, yet was overlooked for awards and never commanded the high advances for her books that her peers did. Her work did have a cult following, elite but not mainstream. No one should say it, because it’s an absurd tautology, but she was a writer’s writer—and it would be difficult to overstate what a writer can learn from reading Angela Carter. Her short story “The Fall River Axe Murders,” for example, from Black Venus, is a paragon of sensory description, conveying the deadly humid heat and murderous claustrophobia that set the stage for Lizzie Borden’s infamy:

If we have largely forgotten the physical discomforts of the itching, oppressive garments of the past and the corrosive effects of perpetual physical discomfort on the nerves, then we have mercifully forgotten, too, the smells of the past, the domestic odours—ill-washed flesh; infrequently changed underwear; chamber-pots; slop-pails; inadequately plumbed privies; rotting food; unattended teeth; and the streets are no fresher than indoors, the omnipresent acridity of horse piss and dung, drains, sudden stench of old death from butchers’ shops, the amniotic horror of the fishmonger.

The English language is richer for the single phrase “the amniotic horror of the fish-monger.”

She had a precocious analytical mind and a capacious imagination. She loved to travel and preferred younger men. She had a baby at forty-three, three years after she stopped dyeing her long hair to cover the gray, and died eight years later, far before her time. Much is made of the fact that her reputation as a great author at long last exploded the day her obituaries ran. She was extolled as a “forerunner of the vibrant Rushdie generation, a unique interpreter of our common dreams, ‘the Salvador Dalí of English letters.’” That, along with her own penchant for self-mythologizing (“I need to be extraordinary,” she wrote in her journal in 1966), establishes the context for Gordon’s title—not “the life of” Angela Carter, but rather her life as “invention.”

That word, invention, suits. Carter was a writer before all else, and her primary activity was sitting alone in a room and writing—inventing and, in many respects, reinventing. She wrote an iconoclastic defense of a pornographer right at the apex of the equal-rights movement and then, while flitting from one academic post to another, persisted in reclaiming fairy tales and folklore from deeply embedded archetypal structures during the most heady years of continental theory and identity politics. Given the sheer physicality of Carter’s writing, the maximalist descriptive work, the violence and sensuality, the question of her sexual politics is conspicuous and yet not extravagantly explored in this biography. It’s a big topic that would require a lot of contextualizing and speculation, and likely one that in a comprehensive presentation would have bored Carter herself. She was a feminist, but on her own terms. She didn’t really like labels as such and was infuriatingly artistic in the way she insisted on coming at subjects from oblique angles, well costumed in metaphor or webbed with associative contradictions. She wasn’t a difference or third-wave feminist, putting her squarely outside the mainstream of feminism in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when she was feverishly emerging onto the literary scene. If we were drawing lines in the sand, Carter would have landed (gleefully) far outside the camps of, say, Carol Gilligan or Andrea Dworkin—all the while, though, lodging legitimate protests that she was not circumscribable, nor indeed on anyone’s side. She delighted in the fact that after The Sadeian Woman, she ended up on the mailing lists of both pro- and antiporn groups, though no one (alas) ever sent her any actual porn. She aligns more naturally in retrospect with Madonna—potent, fiercely individualistic, disruptive, and self-invented. Carter’s evolved philosophical position on gender was a variation on Stoicism. Gender roles were “behavioural modes,” a construct (“Baby is hermaphrodite!”), and there was weakness in allowing oneself to be beholden to (let alone enslaved by) a construct. Above all, women should have total sexual agency and also their own money. “I became a feminist,” she wrote in a postcard to Susannah Clapp, “when I realised I could have been having all this instead of being married.”

When Gordon’s book came out last fall in the UK, there were a number of reviews—appropriate for the long-awaited biography of a “great author.” More than a few of the reviewers were in the unenviable position of navigating a complex balancing act on a four-limbed seesaw. There is first the pleasure to be taken in celebrating Angela Carter, revisiting her work, and reiterating her worthiness as a major literary subject. Add to that the desire to be polite about the sometimes frustrating politeness of Edmund Gordon’s earnest and heavily researched biography—his diligence is truly impressive, yet he makes no presumptions, especially about Carter’s process, no interpretive leaps from life to the bizarre art that emanated from it. Yes, he traces the period she spent in Japan and the wrenching love affairs she drew on for her first story collection, Fireworks. But Gordon is overall cautious about drawing new or speculative associations, leaving an occasional sense of disconnect between the artifacts, the artist, and her art. Between the lines, there had to be (among all those esteemed critics) the unspoken question of why Gordon, of all people, was anointed Carter’s official biographer when all of literary London, as well as some scattered affiliates in Providence, New York City, and Albany, knew Carter personally and had loved her ferocious work since Gordon was in nappies.

Lest that sound petty, Gordon himself voices a version of the very same concern in his final lines: “It’s taken twenty-five years for this first full account of Angela Carter’s life to appear, but we won’t be able to start seeing her in the round until a second one gets written, approaching her from a completely different perspective. She’s much too big for any single book to contain.” So very many people did know Carter, and so many have feelings about her. For her fans, that claim is different, I think, than having feelings for, say, Kurt Cobain. Those who enthusiastically read Angela Carter fought hard for the love (her work is weird and intense at best and difficult and narratively clumsy at worst). For her friends, there was something of a land grab on her memory—a subtle and affectionate one but a grab nonetheless. And such situations, saturated with grief and deformed by etiquette, can be very awkward.

If only to foreground the delicate polemics of this life’s story, Gordon opens his book with a cautionary tale about Veronica Horwell, a writer who didn’t know Carter personally but who dared to publish an appreciation in The Guardian shortly after her death in which she recounts running into the author in the supermarket and silently receiving a ripe pomegranate from her hands, and also describes a chance sighting of Carter sneaking a smoke. The first anecdote was dismissed by critics as being too weird, an obvious fantastication, and the second swiftly contradicted in a letter to the editor by an intimate of Carter’s: “Angela gave up smoking about 10 years ago. After she heard that she had contracted cancer she told me how much she hated the sight of anyone smoking.” In her review of The Invention of Angela Carter, Jenny Turner gently links the Horwell fiasco to Gordon’s evident restraint—lest he be accused of succumbing to the mythology—and to his apparent sensitivity about being a young man writing Carter’s first major biography. “He worked,” she writes, “presumably, with Carter’s own remarks about Antony Alpers, the ‘gallant male biographer’ of Katherine Mansfield, ringing in his ears, and has been careful to avoid what Carter called Alpers’s ‘prurient intimacy of tone,’ as if ‘conducting a posthumous affair.’”

Gordon, before this known primarily as a book critic, was appointed to his daunting task by Susannah Clapp, executor of Carter’s literary estate. His research and access is extensive and priceless. He’s made a comprehensive accounting of Carter’s correspondences (in particular those with Carole Roffe), incorporated material from memoirs about Carter by Clapp and Lorna Sage, and interviewed as many of the characters whose lives touched Carter’s as possible, including her mysterious Japanese lover, Sozo Araki, whom Carter left her first husband for. What Gordon doesn’t have—because he didn’t know her, and/or didn’t spend his impressionable years idolizing her, mythologizing her, before coming to this project—is his own story about her, and that may be the implicit brilliance of Clapp’s choice of him for this task, this cornerstone of the cumulative biography to come. Clapp was sensitive to how much invention surrounded her friend, and how much of it emanated from Carter herself. As she wrote in her own remembrance a month after Carter’s death, “Everybody came away with different stories about her, because everybody had a different part bestowed on them: queenly to the end, and also kind, Angela orchestrated her friends to make a last living story.” That said, writers wake up in the morning and read and write, then talk, walk, and cook dinner. What harm could there be in sprinkling just a little fairy dust over the last living story?

Minna Zallman Proctor’s Landslide will be published by Catapult this fall.