Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Angela Carter - In the Pursuit of Magnificence Nothing is Sacred

On Sunday 7 May it would have been Angela Carter’s 66th birthday. She was one of the great English fiction writers of the 20th century, but her death in 1992 also left the world bereft of “one of the funniest, most perceptive critics of her time”.

I recently started wondering what would have been her take on modern society. This is because I have just re-read her volume of selected non-fiction articles Nothing Sacred, wherein she casts her eye over society in the 1970s. The articles are predominantly from New Society magazine. Many of them I read first hand as theywere issued. The articles were so vividly written and so startling and witty in content, I always looked forward to any issue of New Society that contained an Angela Carter piece. Nothing Sacred contains memoirs of her childhood, commentry on Japanese culture, fashion, film, television, England and Englishness, books and book people. They all get the Carter treatment.

It struck me, reading this book again, that the world these days badly needs someone of Carter’s perception and brave criticial judgement. She was more than ready to tell it like it is and wouldn’t have given two hoots about political correctness. She was of course fortunate to have a fair-minded editor in Paul Barker, who was New Society’s editor during the mid to late 1970s and she does give him credit for allowing her “licence to look at things closely”. Would present day editors be so sympathetic to her idiosyncratic style?

So, what would Angela Carter have made of 21st century?

She died in 1992, just before computers became accessible to the masses and before the Internet really took off. What would she think of the craze for blogging, for instance, or the curse of spam and other online nasties? How would she have regarded television shows like “Big Brother” or “Survivor”? How would she have tackled the Harry Potter phenomenon or the ubiquity of mobile telephones? I can only imagine what she would say about modern fashions such as body piercing, semi-transparent clothing or the bared midriff.

I just wish that she were still alive to give us her views. I’m sure anything she wrote would have been worth reading and would have made us laugh and say “right on Angela!”

Nothing Sacred, dealing as it does with 70s culture, may appear as dated, however her style is irresistible and her perceptions on society at the time, still ring true today.

Here is an excerpt from Nothing Sacred titled “Poets in a Landscape” where she appraises the relationship between Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy. It is typical of her reviews, and reinforces the fact that she was incapable of writing a boring sentence.

“Ghosts of dead poets don’t walk the Lake District, no – they hike. Fell-walking ghosts as mad as hatters, high as kites…you feel you might surprise them at the rim of Rydal Water, or spot their phantom reflections in the magic mirrors, Grasmere, Windermere – I bet the glassy tarns looked terrific on opium! Although the story goes the Wordsworth sibs, ace pedestrians and compulsive water-viewers, only took laudenum for medicinal purposes, your honour. In Lakeland, among daffodils shuddering in April snow, how easy to imagine the Wordsworths, freaked out as all hell, trudge, trudge, trudging the miles from Dove Cottage to Windermere to check if their connection (probably Humphrey Davy) had delivered.

For surely they must have been smashed out of their skulls all the time. Wordsworth and his sportive sister with her crazy eyes (‘wild and startling eyes’, opined De Quincey, noting, no doubt, and who more knowledgeable, her expanded pupils). Why else should they have gone striding off in all weathers, whirling blizzard, serrating frost, braving the peculiarly wet Cumbrian rain, to take in yet another peak or mere in a different light? How else could they have stood it, had they not been smashed?”

Like her journalism, Angela Carter’s fiction is brilliant and well worth seeking out. She has been one of my all time favorite writers since I first discovered her work in 1972. I do not intend going into her fiction in this entry but would refer you instead to Jeff VanderMeer’s excellent essay on Angela Carter and her novels in the Scriptorium of the Modern Word website.


Clare said...

Great review Anne - reminds me how much and why I admire this author.

Have tried leaving a comment here before - when you started - but blogger was playing up and wouldn't let me - fingers crossed this time.

Anne S said...

Thanks Clare,

Angela Carter was great - it's tragic that she died so young.