Current book of the week on Radio 4, and previously featured in The Guardian (see review below by Jenny Turner, 25/01/12), Angela Carter ha a new book out. Entitled ‘A Card from Angela Carter’, this small publication comprises a collection of her postcards written to colleague, pen pal and executor of her literary estate, the editor Susannah Clapp throughout the eighties. Fingers crossed it magically appears in my hands as an unexpected gift from my beloved on Valentine’s Day (here’s hoping).
For Christmas 1987, Angela Carter sent Susannah Clapp a postcard. There was nothing fancy about it, nothing hand-made or bespoke. It was just one of those cards people used to buy in lefty bookshops, when stocking up on supplies of satirical anti-Thatcher merchandise – it’s “hard to exaggerate the visceral anti-Thatcherism of the 1980s,” as Clapp explains, or how much people relied on such items in a world without Amazon and Photoshop and Outlook Express.
Carter had chosen an image made up of photocopies of Prince Charles and Princess Diana in ill-matched but striking juxtaposition. “All I want for Christmas is … A divorce,” Diana is saying in a caption. “I wasn’t thinking of anything that expensive,” says Prince Charles. And OK, so it’s a bit crude-looking, but it’s also an amazing piece of historical evidence – Charles and Diana and that ill-starred royal wedding, in a tacky Jamie-Reid-for-the-Sex Pistols-type lampoon. It says so much about Britain in the 80s, the ways it was changing and the ways it needed to. The divorce itself, for example, wasn’t allowed actually to happen until 1996.
Carter was an author in her prime, the author of nine novels and many collections of shorter pieces, when she died in 1992, at the age of 51. For readers without strong memories of this marvellous writer, there are two main things they need to know. Unusually for an author now so widely admired, Carter was very much part of that postwar non-posh lefty-bookshop culture – “the children of Nescafé and the welfare state,” as she once put it. “The first, and (maybe) the only, time we had an authentic intelligentsia in this country.”
And although it’s not wrong to admire Carter’s work for its many sophistications, it also partakes of that satirical-postcard roughness. The early work in particular has a proto-punk surrealism to it, all exposed joins and twisted edges. And Carter’s prose style was always “helter skelter hoopla”, as Clapp puts it. Carter was, in short, pretty much the opposite of what Private Eye recently called “the diligently finessed but slightly anodyne” school of UEA-type good taste.
Angela Stalker was born in 1940 in Eastbourne and grew up around Balham and Streatham in south London. “Her mother,” Clapp writes, “whom she described as coming from ‘the examination-passing working classes’, communicated … the feeling that if she was not going to go to Oxford or Cambridge she might as well not bother with higher education.” So her journalist father wangled her a job on the Croydon Advertiser instead. She did go to university later, though, in Bristol, after marrying Paul Carter in 1961. She also “invested,” Clapp reports, “in what she claimed to be the largest collection of sardine tins in England”, and fraternised with anarchists and situationists. She read Marx and Baudelaire and Foucault. She “dragged” her husband to New Wave films.
In 1966 she began publishing a prolific string of novels – Shadow Dance, The Magic Toyshop – winning a prize of £500 for the third one, Several Perceptions, in 1969, which she used to “run away” from her husband and spend three years in Japan. She came back to Britain in 1972, and settled in due course in Clapham, south London.
The focus of her work strengthened throughout the 70s into an ever more conscious dismantling of myths of all sorts, ancient and modern – “I’m in the demythologisation business,” as she said at one point – rebuilding them into ever more bizarre junk-sculptural new arrangements. And then, in 1979, she published two brilliant books back to back: The Sadeian Woman, a startlingly original feminist polemic, and the astonishingly remixed Cinderellas and Red Riding Hoods of The Bloody Chamber. “Let us load the prose with red stains and howls, wet lips and shudders,” as Clapp says. And “make evident what is buried in the stories we read to our children”.
It was around this time – a time of what the author Helen Simpson, in her excellent 2006 preface to The Bloody Chamber, calls “elation and a sense of mastery” – that Carter first met Clapp, then an editor on the London Review of Books. “She lit up the paper’s pages for the next 12 years … She was the only reviewer who could deliver with equal pungency on the ANC and on Colette.” When Carter got her lung cancer diagnosis in 1991, she asked Clapp to be her literary executor. “I was to do whatever was necessary ‘to make money for my boys’” – these “boys” being Mark, Carter’s second husband, and Alexander, their young son.
And so, presumably, this tiny memoir, “a paper trail, a zigzag path through the 80s”, with 14 of its scant 100 pages given over to reproductions of interestingly awful examples of 80s postcard art. An ugly drawing of Carter’s beloved Shakespeare – “So I haven’t written much lately. Neither has he!” An armadillo, a cartoon geisha. A nudist bum sticking up out of the Mediterranean: “Qu’est-ce qu’on est bien dans l’eau!”
It’s possible to see in these postcards, as Clapp says, all sorts of “hidden histories”. A Bill Owens photo, for example, features ordinary men, shirtless, with cartoon animal faces painted on their flabby stomachs: “that disconcerting mixture of the real and the fake, the natural and the manufactured to which Angela returned again and again”.
Continuities with the published oeuvre pop up in the strangest places. “She observed,” Clapp remarks of a passage discovered in an unpublished journal, “that the pork pies favoured by her mother’s family for wakes … ‘possess semiotic connection with the corpse in the coffin – the meat in the pastry’”. Compare that to the bits on meat in The Sadeian Woman: “In the English language we make a fine distinction between flesh, which is usually alive and, typically, human; and meat, which is dead, inert, animal and intended for consumption … Carnal knowledge is the infernal knowledge of the flesh as meat.”
The engagement with dead flesh continued in 1985, on a card from Austin, Texas. It has a recipe for chili on it and a moment of jokey vengefulness: “Carter’s reply to her critics! Texas chili, it goes through you like a dose of salts. I would like to forcefeed it to that drivelling wimp … preferably through his back passage …” She’d recently written an LRB piece about foodie books by Elizabeth David and Alice Waters, tearing into “piggery triumphant … (the) unashamed cult of conspicuous gluttony in the industrialised countries, just at the time when Ethiopia is struck by a widely publicised famine”. Readers wrote in to complain about her “puritanical contempt” and “self-righteous priggery”. Clapp uses the episode as a prompt to write about Carter’s particular form of austerity, “the flipside of relish and gusto”. She also writes about Carter’s long struggle with her own disordered eating habits: as a teenager she had apparently “lost about 38kg in six months”, a preoccupation that went on until the birth of Alexander in 1982.
There’s something nicely ceremonial about this little book. Its endpapers reproduce the invitation sent out to Carter’s memorial gathering in Brixton – “an onstage menagerie” featuring a parrot, a champagne glass, a zebra, drawn by Corinna Sargood, an old friend. Clapp’s text is warm and loyal, funny and yet formal. The view it presents of its subject is of a delightfully bawdy, big-boned magnificence of a woman, like the star of her own most popular novel, Nights at the Circus (1984). “Fevvers had as her slogan … Is she fact or is she fiction? That could also have been Angela’s motto, both on the page and in life.” Clapp does not herself explore the life beyond Carter’s own telling of it – she leaves that task to the full-length biography currently in preparation from Edmund Gordon. This is a much shorter, simpler book than Clapp’s previous memoir, about Bruce Chatwin, another writer and friend.
Clapp discusses the many photographs taken, over the years, of Carter – “There was Angela in her last year, at her typewriter, chin in hand …. There is Angela in headscarf and thin-rimmed specs …” You want to flip the pages past the postcards to see the images under discussion, but they aren’t there so you can’t. Why write so much, in what is already a picture-book of sorts, about yet other pictures? It’s as though the discussion is acting out the central absence, “the fin” that, as Carter put it, “has come a little early this siècle.”
There is, however, a small picture of Carter on the back of the jacket – “the most evidently beautiful,” in Clapp’s estimation, a portrait taken by Tara Heinemann in 1984. In it, Carter has an expression “of benign sadness”. Pictures of Carter, Clapp muses, “are so intense, the face for all its concealments seeming so naked, that for anyone who felt for Angela, through her work or in person, they are hard to look at.”
A little later, she also mentions coming across “a piece of A4 with (Carter’s) non-perfect typing … A touching aspect of looking at a typescript is that it registers the pressure of the writer’s fingers.” “Hard to know,” Clapp thinks, “whether this document would pass muster in today’s publishing climate, more businesslike about the bottom line and used to sleekly presented proposals.” Though Carter, Clapp says, referred to hers as an “advertisement”, considering “synopsis” far too drab a word.