15 May 2004

Learning from Angela Carter

The Guardian has published an appreciation of Angela Carter by Ali Smith, all of which is quite worth reading, but I was particularly struck by this passage:
Pick up any novel by a woman in the early or mid-60s, any good-selling typical book of the time, anything, by the new young novelist everyone was talking about, Margaret Drabble, or the much more baroque Beryl Bainbridge or, say, Up the Junction (1963) by Nell Dunn, which opens on a typical 60s room:

"We stand, the three of us, me, Sylvie and Rube, pressed up against the saloon door, brown ales clutched in our hands. Rube, neck stiff so as not to shake down her beehive, stares sultrily round the packed pub. Sylvie eyes the boy hunched over the mike and shifts her gaze down to her breasts snug in her new pink jumper".

Or the eponymous L-Shaped Room (1960) by Lynne Reid Banks, which opened the door on 60s realism like this:

"There wasn't much to be said for the place, really, but it had a roof over it and a door which locked from the inside, which was all I cared about just then. I didn't even bother to take in the details - they were pretty sordid, but I didn't notice them so they didn't depress me; perhaps because I was already at rock-bottom".

Compare them to this:

"The bar was a mock-up, a forgery, a fake; an ad-man's crazy dream of a Spanish patio, with crusty white walls (as if the publican had economically done them up in leftover sandwiches) on which hung unplayable musical instruments and many bull-fight posters, all blood and bulging bulls' testicles and the arrogant yellow satin buttocks of lithe young men. Nights in a garden of never-never Spain. Yet why, then, the horse-brasses, the ship's bell, the fumed oak? Had they been smuggled in over the mountains, in mule panniers? Dropped coins and metal heels rang a carillon on the green tiles. The heels of her high boots chinked as she came through the door".

It's 1966. We're still in England. But the tone is outlandish, it's rich, over-rich, a revelation of artifice all round, a knowing fakery in both the room and the voice describing it, rhetorical witty questioning, a promised foreignness and savagery, a place of camp potential and even the premonition of a Western shoot-out as the doomed scarred blonde beauty, Ghislaine, chinks her boots through the door into the Carter-shaped room. This is another England. This is the beginning of Carter's first novel, Shadow Dance.

It isn't that Carter isn't a realist. "I've got nothing against realism," she said at the end of her life, as if tired of having to explain. "But there is realism and realism. I mean, the questions that I ask myself, I think they are very much to do with reality. I would like, I would really like to have had the guts and the energy and so on to be able to write about, you know, people having battles with the DHSS, but I, I haven't. I've done other things. I mean, I'm an arty person, ok, I write overblown, purple, self-indulgent prose - so fucking what?"

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