The Stylistic Straitjacket
Angela Carter is what is called a stylist. It is a word often used and rarely analysed; a term of abuse occasionally offered but also a compliment frequently applied. Though it can cover terser prose from Hemingway to Coetzee, style is frequently concerned with excess rather than limitations. It is the full arsenal deployed more than a series of parti pris half-hidden. The Canadian writer D. W. Wilson is more given to the latter, saying I have a strict set of rules when I'm working on a sentence. I don't use "was", "is", "am", if possible. I try not to use the verb "to be". I try not to use "ing" words. I have a list of bad words like pretty, very, never, always, really, quite - words you never need. Sometimes even "of" - instead of "bouquet of flowers", I'd use "flower bouquet". They're overused, not just by me but by everyone. That permeates every sentence I write. I try to keep the writing well-oiled." (Guardian) We might regard Wilson's claims as nonsense but we can see that it is a very different notion of style from the excessive school that incorporates Joyce, Nabokov, Amis and, as we shall see, Angela Carter. There are other writers who are equally brilliant stylists including Fitzgerald, Proust, and (to a more ambivalent degree Bellow), but where the latter seem to embed style within enquiry, do the former induce performative flourishes to the detriment of this development?
Now we don't want to create overly false dichotomies, nor underestimate the genius of especially Joyce's work, but three comments come to mind that can perhaps clarify our position. The first is from Narrative Discourse where Gerard Genette discusses Proust's use of metaphor and says: "We would thus readily say...that in Proust, for example, 'reminiscence' is at the service of metaphor and not the reverse; that the intermediary subject's selective amnesia is there so that the narrative of childhood may open with the "drama of going to bed"; that the "jog-trot" of Combray serves to trigger the horizontal escalator of iterative imperfect; that the hero makes two stays in a clinic to provide the narrator with two fine ellipses; that the little Madeleine has broad shoulders." The second and third are from James Wood. Invoking Dickens and his stylistic strategies, Wood says "the nineteenth century novelist is an easy model for writers unable to, or unwilling to, create characters who are fully human." Wood believes writers like Carter and Amis are too interested in "the self as public performer." (The Irresponsible Self) Elsewhere he says, reviewing a novel by the very fine critic, Adam Mars-Jones, "the dangers for an over-educated English writer who spends most of his time producing journalism are an unembarrassable facility and an embarrassment in the presence of seriousness. Every so often, [Adam] Mars-Jones seems to be making only phrases, threads rather than webs." (LRB)
Taking into account Wood's comment about webs and threads, and Genette's about metaphor and reminiscence, don't we find that the beauty, brilliance and genius of Proust lies in the astonishing intricacy of his web; that the threads are merely part of a very complex weaving process? The metaphor is not a throwaway, but a memory tool. Here is the narrator in In Search of Lost Time. "If I found it difficult to imagine that Albertine, so alive in me (wearing as I did the double harness of the present and the past), was dead, perhaps it was equally paradoxical in me that this suspicion of the misdeeds which Albertine, stripped now of the flesh that had enjoyed them, of the mind that had conceived the desire for them, was no longer either capable of or responsible for, should excite in me such suffering, which I should only have blessed could I have seen it as the token of the spiritual reality of a person materially non-existent, instead of the reflexion, destined itself to fade, of impressions that she had made on me in the past." Here the double harness of the past and present isn't a casual remark that impresses us with its capacity for image-making, but part of a complicated thread of feeling, one that will continue for pages as the narrator thinks about his changing relationship with the woman he is fascinated by, and which leads from the particular to the general and back again: "atmospheric changes, provoking other changes in the innerman," the narrator says, "awaken forgotten selves, counteract the torpor of habit, restore their old force to certain memories, to certain sufferings."
The metaphorical functions as the lynchpin of a complex structure of thought, with the double harness an image that leaves the writer able to indicate the fluidity of feeling through exploring the problem of jealousy. When discussing Albertine's past actions he says: "Her past? That is the wrong word, since for jealousy [the narrator feels] there can be neither past, nor future, and what it imagines is invariably the present." The importance of style as literary brandishing seems of rather secondary significance. In other writers who predicate their work on the insistence of the stylish sentence, the surface effects are much more prominent, but perhaps to the detriment of ongoing enquiry. Here are three sentences that seem to us more thread than web. "In excellent fettle, in the pink or the blue of boyish good health during their absence, Marmaduke sickened dramatically within a few hours of their return. Evenhandedly he dabbled with every virus, every hatching, afforded by that early spring." (London Fields) "On television Charlie's angels are chasing the heroin smugglers in a great array of expensive automobiles that slide and screech, that plunge through fruit carts and large panes of glass and finally collide one with another, and then another, tucking into opposing fenders and grilles in a great slow-motion climax of bent metal and arrested motion and final justice." (Rabbit is Rich) "What big eyes you have. Eyes of an incomparable luminosity, the numinous phosphorescence of the eyes of lycanthropes. The gelid green of your eyes fixes my reflective face. It is a preservative, like a green liquid amber; it catches me. I am afraid I will be trapped in it for ever like the poor little ants and flies that stuck their feet in resin before the sea covered the Baltic." (The Erl-King)
Here are three instances of fine, descriptive style. However, they are not metaphorical lynchpins, but passages that carry no force far beyond the description itself. Of course only the third quote is from Angela Carter; the other two from Amis and John Updike respectively. But they are all examples of unequivocal style partly because of the surface artillery deployed even in the most concrete of situations. In Rabbit is Rich the characters are watching a TV show, in London Fields the baby is ill, and in The Erl King the young heroine is in the forest trying to escape from the title figure. In the most simple form we can say in Updike's example a couple of characters are watching the TV show Charlie's Angels; in Amis's that a healthy child becomes suddenly ill; in Carter's that a damsel is in distress. There is no feeling being excavated, no complex temporal problem being worked through. The style is perhaps all the more pronounced because of the prosaic event that it is describing.
It isn't that the problem demands new language, but that the situation without a fine surface texture wouldn't be of much interest. The often brilliant Updike is a writer who frequently gives us the mundane as the metaphorically rich; Amis the psychologically obvious as the alliteratively astute. Here is central character Harry Angstrom in Rabbit is Rich looking at his scraped, dented car. "The chrome-and-rubber stripping has been wrenched loose at an angle, and behind the wheel socket on this side - hooded with a slightly protruding flare like an eyebrow, one of the many snug Japanese details he has cherished - segment of sidestrip has vanished entirely, leaving a chorus of tiny holes." This is Amis on a couple of characters in London Fields: "Guy Clinch is a good guy." "Marmaduke, already softly snarling with asthma, would soon be emblazoned with eczema". This is skilful prose, but it is as though someone has been asked to draw with words what is in front of their eyes. Proust draws what cannot be seen but can simply be felt. He often needs the most elaborate of similes and metaphors to explore these feelings.
In this sense one feels Carter is close to Updike and Amis, with Carter drawing with words wonderfully well, but who doesn't quite access what is behind the faade. It is writing as literary frontage, as if one were to ask about a weekend visit at a troubled family's home and the person concentrated on detailing the furniture and what they had for dinner. In 'The Bloody Chamber', Carter beautifully describes the house that the youthful heroine is caught in after marrying a much wed Marquis. "No room, no corridor, that did not rustle with the sound of the sea and all the ceilings, the walls on which his ancestors in the stern regalia of rank lined up with their dark eyes and white faces, were stippled with refracted light from the waves which were always in motion; that luminous, murmurous castle of which I was the chatelaine." The Marquis is described with the same precision for metaphor and simile. "He was older than I. He was much older than I; there were streaks of pure silver in his dark mane. But his strange, heavy, almost waxen face was not lined by experience. Rather, experience seemed to have washed it perfectly smooth, like a stone on a beach whose fissures have been eroded by successive tides." Descriptively the Marquis moves from horse to candle to stone in a smooth transition of images all the better to capture his age within an oddly youthful look. Yet the work feels not so much uninvolving as unevolving: we are caught in stock characters and stock situations energized by the vigour of the prose.
However, this is a criticism that could easily be seen as nave. As Marina Warner explores in an essay in Paris Review, Carter was a post-war writer interested in working with fairytales and various forms of mythology all the better to discover and uncover the feminine mythos. "Carter's fairy-tale heroines reclaim the night. She rewrites the conventional script formed over centuries of acclimatizing girlsand their loversto a status quo of captivity and repression, and issues a manifesto for alternative ways of loving, thinking and feeling. Another American poet and champion of women's liberties, Adrienne Rich, coined the term 'revisioning' for such writings; Carter herself sometimes called them 'reformulations.'" Carter uses the fairy tale to explore feminine consciousness as created by a patriarchal society, and muses over what happens when you tweak the tales according to one's own ends. This explains why she was so infuriated over changes to the film adaptation, The Company of Wolves. Though Carter co-wrote the script from her short story, director Neil Jordan changed the conclusion, made it conform to the norm rather than subverting it. "I was furious about the ending. It wasn't scripted that way at all. I was out of the countryin Australia when he shot the ending and he told me that it varied somewhat from the script. When I went to the screening I sat with Neil and I was enjoying the film very much and thinking that it had turned out so welljust as I had hoped. Until the ending." (Bomb Magazine) If Carter's work is predicated on subversion, then what happens when its very point is blunted?
Yet can we argue that there is an aspect of Carter's style which paradoxically blunts the work also? Asked by interviewer Anna Katsavos how she defines her approach to myth, Carter says: "In a sort of conventional sense; also in the sense that Roland Barthes uses it in Mythologiesideas, images, stories that we tend to take on trust without thinking what they really mean, without trying to work out what, for example, the stories of the New Testament are really about." (The Review of Contemporary Fiction) The stories in The Bloody Chamber are often, however, not counter-mythological, but softly subversive: they offer a very pleasurable veneer and leave the countering of convention chiefly in the conclusion and in the exhaustively elaborate detail. Carter all but admits this when saying, "I read from it for the first time in ages the other night, and I thought, this is pretty cholesterol-rich because of the fact that they all take place in invented landscapes. Some of the landscapes are reinvented ones. 'The Bloody Chamber' story itself is set quite firmly in the Mont Saint-Michel, which is this castle on an island off the coast of Brittany; and a lot of the most exotic landscapes in it, the Italian landscapes, were quite legit." Carter adds, "'The Tiger's Bride' landscape, admittedly, is touristic, but it's one of the palaces in Mantua that has the most wonderful jewels, and that city is set in the Po Valley, which is very flat and very far out, so in the summer you can imagine the mist rolling over." (The Review of Contemporary Fiction)
Carter appears to share with her contemporary Amis the need to entertain the reader with the vividly enjoyable more than she wants to confront them. Also, she seems to confuse an aesthetic that is not designed for pleasure with a sensibility lacking in qualities of human optimism, just as Amis sees in such an aesthetic a lack of human hospitality. As Carter says of Doris Lessing: "Some people think life is worth living and others really don't see the point of the whole thing. She is one of the latterit is her entire view of the world." (Bomb Magazine) Amis says, "I want to give the reader the best glass of wine I have, the best food in my kitchen...some writers clearly don't feel that way at all." (Daily Telegraph) The reader here might be getting the best of the writer's hospitality, but that doesn't mean the hospitable won't lead to literary gout. If Carter talks of 'The Bloody Chamber' as cholesterol rich writing, Lessing's prose offers the leanest of cuts. It is not that Lessing's world view is bleak (though it often is), more that she wonders what sort of literary language we need for the excavation of our being. Whether it is novels like The Fifth Childor The Golden Notebook, stories like 'To Room Nineteen' and 'The Habit of Loving', Lessing sees literature as an archaeological site: the bare bones of literary style reflecting her interest in digging deep. Carter's approach is closer to building a beautiful palace, but is there the danger that the ornate replaces the excavatory; the palatially vivid becomes more important than the mythological uncovered?
Of course Carter didn't only write The Bloody Chamber, even if it is her most famous book. There are also novels including The Nights at the Circus and Love, the extended essay The Sadeian Woman and journalistic collections like Expletives Deleted. Yet despite differences in style and genre, the prose in each work remains rich and the level of inquiry minimal. If The Sadeian Woman can be seen as a companion piece to The Bloody Chamber it doesn't only lie in the work exploring damsels in distress; it also rests in an approach that is never quite interrogative enough. There are few question marks in The Sadeian Woman, and the opening chapter called A Polemical Preface isn't so different from the rest of the book. Its energy resides in strongly held assumptions often entirely justifiable (as well as detailed descriptive passages from Sade's work). Carter says "in the celluloid brothel of the cinema, where the merchandise may be eyed endlessly but never purchased, the tension between the beauty of women, which is admirable, and the denial of sexuality which is the source of that beauty but is also immoral, reaches a perfect impasse. That is why Saint Justine became the patroness of the screen heroine." This is punchily purposeful prose. She isn't teasing out an argument; she is prodding the reader in the chest.
What comes out of it is a strongly held position, but not always a perceptually distinctive point. When Carter says, "Marilyn's lonely death by barbiturates, nude, in bed, a death adored and longed for by all necrophiles, is the contemporary death-by-lightning, of the sweet, dumb blonde, the blue-eyed lamb with the golden fleece led to slaughter on the altar of the world" we have an exemplary instance of Carter's strengths and her weaknesses. Here there is the witty phrase and the ranging mythology: from golden fleeces to religious altars. But the mythological assertion also fails to find much singularity. What she says of Marilyn Monroe tells us nothing new about her as an actress, and the comments have the air of someone who has heard about the actress rather than having watched her films. "Her innocence is made real to us by the desecration of it: the white page is thrown into relief by the spattered mud." What is missing is the good noticing of the specific. When film critic David Thomson writes on Monroe he is troubled and intrigued by a screen test showing Marilyn talking to either the cameraman or director. "Her beauty is informed as it had never been before with an intelligence that may derive from the relaxed circumstances and conversational speech. That these conditions fostered one's appearance in movies is a thing that Marilyn Monroe never seemed to realize." (Movie Man) Thomson works from observation and speculation; Carter from polemics and generalization. She appears to dig deep mythologically, yet the cut is shallow.
Is this also the problem with The Bloody Chamber? These stories reinterpreting Bluebeard, Little Red Riding Hood, The Erl-King and others seem finally more reactive than reflective, and compared to Michel Tournier in story collections like The Midnight Love Feast and The Fetishist, or Lessing in The Fifth Child, the work isn't finding a fresh problem but inverting an old one. They are fairy stories with feminist twists, and thus lead not so much to an original perspective but instead a usefully belligerent assumption. When Tournier writes in 'Death and the Maiden' about a young girl growing up who is obsessed with sourness over the sweet, it is as though he wants to generate a problem within the text greater than the ideas it draws upon. It is not quite psychoanalytic (though the central character's mother died when she was twelve), nor existential (the "wave of insipidity and greyness that suddenly came sweeping up over the world and threatened to submerge her" has similarities with Sartre's Nausea) nor mythic: the title alludes to Persephone and Hades. It is a rich account that offers originality through various discourses working in conjunction, and with none gaining prominence to allow for a single meaning to come out of the tale. Lessing's The Fifth Child details a comfortably off couple living in a large house that, after having four kids, has a fifth that is seen as a throwback. As the narrator muses where he might have come from, which genetic line the child is a product of, so Lessing invokes various mythological possibilities, but doesn't assume any will answer to the perplexity of this addition to the family. In Tournier's story and Lessing's novella, the complex situation leads to a fresh angle; often in Carter's stories the simple reconfiguration leads simply to new assumptions. Tournier's young girl dies at the end of the story, but we couldn't blame her demise on patriarchy; while at the end of The Fifth Child, the central character is still baffled by this child she has produced. The question remains open.
Of course new assumptions have their place, and countering centuries of patriarchy isn't an irrelevant task. Yet the combination of a stylish style and a firm ideological underpinning to the texts leaves the work without the enquiring nature of great modern writing, and can even leave it possessing a pulp populism. When Carter says in an essay on Charlotte Bronte's classic novel in Expletives Deleted, "yet of all the great novels in the world, Jane Eyre veers the closest towards trash", is there an element of auto-critique? Later she mentions that the novel is "the classic formulation of the romance narrative, with its mysteries of parentage, lost relatives miraculously recovered, stolen letters, betrayal, deceit - and it fuses elements of two ancient fairytales, Bluebeard...and Beauty and the Beast, plus a titillating hint of Cinderella." She wrote this a decade after The Bloody Chamber came out. There are numerous passages in The Bloody Chamber that are torn between great prose and pulp fiction; descriptive relish and tired tropes. "I could not take refuge in my bedroom, for that retained the memory of his presence trapped in the fathomless shivering of his mirrors. My music room seemed the safest place, although I looked at the picture of Saint Cecilia with a faint dread; what had been the nature of her martyrdom?" ('The Bloody Chamber') "Wearing an antique bridal gown, the beautiful queen of the vampires sits all alone in her dark, high house under the eyes of the portraits of her demented and atrocious ancestors, each one of whom, through her, projects a baleful, posthumous existence..." ('The Lady of the House of Love')
Of course great writing can come out of this type of prose (and Poe would surely be an example), but often it can leave an uncanniness in the story secondary to the canniness of tropes and traits, the weave and warp of generic writing. When Proust weaves and warps he seems to be creating a new form; when Carter does so she seems be picking up the frayed end of a tired thread. The writing might be better than most, and the socio-political purpose it serves important, but there are other writers like Lessing, Marguerite Duras and Clarice Lispector one feels exploring feminine consciousness from a more pressing sense of first principles.
To understand something of this retreat from the exploratory, let us look at the shape of three stories in The Bloody Chamber: the title piece, 'The Tiger's Bride' and 'Lady of the House of Love'. In the first, a young bride goes from Paris to the coast to live with her ageing Marquis, and while amazed by the wondrous house and the crashing waves is also curious to find out more about the man she has married. She discovers a torture chamber and the fates of his earlier conquests. Can she get out alive; can she escape this magnificent retreat that is also an imprisoning hell?
In 'The Tiger's Bride', a young woman at the mercy of her father's gambling habit, will be sold to the Beast, described as not very different from any other man, but with a mask that has painted upon it a man's face of such symmetrical perfection that it doesn't quite look human. Who is this strange figure who has false hair and gloves that don't cover his hands? After her father loses the game of cards so he loses his most beautiful daughter who arrives at the Beast's house and discovers a palace in disarray and dismantlement, a house uninhabited. What does he want from her, she may wonder, beyond the physical pleasures to which he is now entitled? When she enters the Beast's room she notices the wig and the mask have been laid aside, the room smells of urine and fur, and that her father has sold her off to a tiger. Yet as they start to make love she isn't disgusted by this mating of two species; she becomes a beast also, as with each stroke of his tongue he stripped layer after successive layer off her until she is nakedly furred.
In 'The Lady of the House of Love', this time it is a young man who arrives at the palace of an ageless woman. As the old crone shows him in and provides him with dinner, so he notices the falling plaster, the worm eroded beams, cobwebs everywhere as he wanders through long corridors and up winding staircases, past numerous family portraits. The assignation with the young countess is between the innocent rationality of the young man, who doesn't believe in the supernatural, and the irrational evil of the undead surviving off the blood of the living. When he enters her quarters though it is the Countess who is nervous and the glasses she wears are broken. She cuts herself on them and her power is removed as she sees for the first time the sight of her own blood and not somebody else's. The young man is safe.
Drawing on numerous fairytales and myths, Carter here wants to counter some of Bruno Bettelheim's claims for the fairytale, insisting that the consoling nature of the tales was countered by the rape, pillage, torture and blood-letting evident in many of the stories. Yet the moral dimension and tone of the fairytales hold, so that no matter the pain on offer, their purpose is to show a categorical life lesson coming out of the narrative. "While it entertains the child," Bettelheim claims, "the fairy tale enlightens him about himself, and fosters his personality development." (The Uses of Enchantment) It is this force that fairy tales insist upon, and perhaps why Patricia Dunker in an essay on The Bloody Chamberthought that Carter's work couldn't quite counter it. "The infernal trap inherent in the fairy tale, which fits the form to its purpose, to be the carrier of ideology, proves too complex and pervasive to avoid. Carter is rewriting the tales within the strait-jacket of their original structures." (Literature and History). This is not a problem for Lessing and Tournier; they simply utilize the dimensions of myth to reconfigures their own literary universes. It is as if Carter has only the force of inversion and stylistic flourish to transform the work, and this leads, finally, not to transformation but no more than indentation.
The writing gives the stories literary polish, and the twists on the originals give the tales a polemical force, but what Carter cannot quite give them is the shape of enquiry. They remain contained and constrained by the generic codes, so the quality of the prose is at the service of an obsolete perception. In 'The Bloody Chamber', as well as the rest of the collection, Carter utilises numerous intensifiers and various other adverbial forms to give the prose personal distinction. "Now, we sat in a loge, in red velvet armchairs, and a braided, bewigged flunkey brought us a silver bucket of iced champagne." "I stealthily sat up", "I smelled the amniotic salinity of the ocean". There are also striking similes: "His wedding gift, clasped round my throat. A choker of rubies, two inches wide, like an extraordinary precious slit throat." "At once he closed my legs like a book..." The prose comes to life but the originality of observation lags behind, constrained by the set-ups and situations adopted.
It allows Carter to retain her reputation as a stylist, and continue her work as a revisionist writer countering the myths that lead to feminine oppression as Warner proposes. But what it doesn't do is make the work original but instead merely contrary. In comparison, when Lessing discussed containing a conventional novel A Free Woman within The Golden Notebook, she said it was a way of "describing the dissatisfaction of a writer when something is finished: 'how little I have managed to say of the truth, how little I have caught of all that complexity; how can this small neat thing be true when what I experienced was so rough and apparently formless and unshaped.'" It is out of this shapelessness that Lessing tried to search out new existential truths; it seems to us that it is out of the too preconditioned fairy tales that Carter often gives shape to her work, but that this very formal constraint leads to limitations in her capacity for fresh perception. There is of course more to Carter's work than The Bloody Chamber and The Sadeian Woman, and yet these are the books for which she is best known, just as The Golden Notebook and The Fifth Child are amongst Lessing's most respected. Carter might have replied to a question about relying on traditional mythical figures in an interview late in her young life (she died of cancer at fifty two), "I used to be more interested in it. I'm not generally interested in doing that." (The Review of Contemporary Fiction) Who knows what work Carter might have given us had she lived, but what we are left with is a handful of books but no work to which we feel the need frequently to return.
© Tony McKibbin