I met Angela Carter in the spring of 1987 when I was a student and she a tutor on the MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia. My work had over the course of the previous winter gone from bad to worse. I was 24, I had no idea how to live in the world, let alone write about it; and the self who was supposed to produce some kind of narrative by the end of the year seemed increasingly fugitive and fragmented. The whole business of being Irish in England seemed to me old-fashioned and, in tiny ways, ghastly. People thought I was amusing, in an Irish sort of way: and I suppose I was. My work was not going well. I did not know why. It was not that I was distressed – I had often written when in distress. In fact a little breaking open, a little falling apart, a tincture of four in the morning, used to work quite well for me. Emotion was not the problem, it was the fact that I could not make the shift from emotion to story, or not on the required scale. I don’t know if stories do come from feeling – perhaps it just feels that way – but the inability to write is certainly an emotional state. This shift from feeling to fiction is the reason I still need, rather than just want, to write. And the more you need something, as I discovered in that room in East Anglia, the harder it is to get. I worked all the time, but inspiration did not strike. There was no shaft of light. If the words came from anywhere, it was from a point over my left shoulder, like a taunt. I was 24. I do not think that I was entirely well.
Into this mess Angela was due to descend; wings fluttering, silver hair floating and little shoes – perhaps they would be red – clitter clattering on the floor.
The blocked writer is a child alone – this is what I seem to be saying: that the infant who cannot invent, who cannot make things up, is, in the absence of the mother, bereft. But inspiration is a very religious idea too, and I don’t think Carter would approve. This is a Christian or perhaps Neoplatonic view of what a story is and does, and it encourages all sorts of lies about essence and transcendence. Carter was a socialist and a materialist; she was also profoundly suspicious of all this mothering malarkey, so you will appreciate that even as I claim her as an influence, I have not been influenced enough.
When I was 13, I won a book token in a schools radio quiz, and was allowed into town, alone, in order to spend it. I had never bought a book before. I went into Books Upstairs in the George’s St Arcade in Dublin and I looked – very carefully – at every volume on the shelves. I ended up with three paperbacks: the Greek Myths by Robert Graves, Volumes I and II, and The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. This is a commonplace book written by a woman at the tenth-century court of the Heian dynasty in Japan. I thought it was wonderful. I read it countless times. I was entranced by the beauty and formality of her life; the kimonos made of seven layers of silk; the pathos and compulsion in her relationship with the aesthetic; the plum blossoms, the snow, the leaf drifting on water. I was also hypnotised by the elegance of her sex life. Men appeared from behind a screen, left before dawn and sent a poem in the morning: ‘My sleeves are wet with tears.’ There were no children, or the children disappeared, and the fates of other women, and of men too, were mysterious, and inevitable, and always sad.
After this, a lot of the fiction I read was translated from the Japanese: Mishima, Endo, Tanizaki, though I missed Ōe for some reason, and Murakami did not come along until I was grown up. If you ask what an Irish schoolgirl was doing reading Japanese literature in the 1970s then you cannot know what Ireland was like in the late 1970s. It was perhaps, as Shelley wrote and I transcribed on the green vinyl cover of my school folder (just above some Led Zeppelin lyrics), ‘the devotion to something afar, from the sphere of our sorrow’. I knew that I wanted something foreign when I bought those books, or something that would tell me how to be foreign, which is to say how to be lonely in a more interesting way.
Angela Carter spent more than two years living in Japan. She wanted to experience a culture that owed nothing to the Judeo-Christian tradition, she wanted to become strange. Because the language was opaque to her, she ‘started trying to understand things by simply looking at them very, very carefully, in an involuntary apprenticeship in the language of signs’.
‘I can date to that time,’ she wrote, ‘my own questioning of the nature of my reality as a woman. How that social fiction of my “femininity” was created.’
Ideas of the individual and the collective are differently constructed in Japan; the ego plays by different rules. ‘There is no Japanese word which roughly corresponds to the great contemporary European supernotion, “identity”,’ she wrote, ‘and there is hardly an adequate equivalent of the verb “to be”.’ Even the body is seen differently (though she does not ask if it is differently inhabited). In an essay on the art of the irezumi tattoo, ‘one of the most exquisitely refined and skilful forms of sadomasochism the mind of man ever divined’, she describes how bare skin, ‘incorporated into the overall design, acquires an appearance of artificiality’: ‘In Japan the essence is often the appearance.’
Sometimes Carter seems in thrall to the artificial. It is a conjuring thraldom, however; an invocation. It is as though by looking long enough and hard enough she can bring the image alive. She is interested in the mirror, and in the membrane between the artificial and the organic that is the tattoo. Skin is the substance that turns ‘meat’ into ‘flesh’. It transforms the brute and mortal, and births it into the sexual and deathless world of the sign.
Fireworks, the book of stories she published after her sojourn in Japan, deals directly with the confusion between the self and the mirror. In ‘Reflections’, a woman kisses her image to find that ‘I had passed through the mirror and now I stood on a little cane-seated, gilt-backed chair with my mouth pressed to an impervious surface of glass.’ Another story, ‘The Loves of Lady Purple’, is about a puppet prostitute, the ‘quintessence of eroticism’, who comes alive at the kiss of her puppeteer. Still acting out her role, she sinks her teeth into his neck and kills him, after which she wonders whether she had always ‘parodied the living or was she, now living, to parody her own performance as a marionette?’
‘The Loves of Lady Purple’ was the first piece of Carter’s I read, and I did not like it much. The transformation was not transcendent enough for me, perhaps; I was only 21. But there was something about the story that made it available for plagiarism. The counters were thrown so freely down for you to pick up and use; the conversation was begun. It is this fine carelessness that makes Carter such a hit in universities, even now. She bares the mechanics of the story, she gives you the tools. She liked writers, she said, like Poe and E.T.A. Hoffmann, who ‘deal directly with the imagery of the unconscious – mirrors, the externalised self, forsaken castles, haunted forests, forbidden sexual objects’. She too likes to put the clutter of the unconscious on the page, where it can be seen and manipulated. The challenge was to make these images not just move like the marionette, but live, and it is a problem her work restates, over and over again.
‘The puppets of the Bunraku theatre,’ she wrote, ‘are the most passionate in the world.’ Still, it is difficult for the reader to invest feeling in wood and strings, no matter how ardently they are described. Indeed, the description becomes increasingly baroque as it tries to animate the fetishised object at the centre of her tale. A similar burlesque energy propels the performers in Nights at the Circus and Wise Children. But there is a difference between energy and freedom, between movement and life. ‘For me,’ Carter said, ‘narrative is an argument started in fictional terms.’ When Lady Purple becomes flesh we realise something about our lives; we feel sympathy for ourselves as images of desire. This pity for the image – even one’s own image – is everywhere in Carter’s work.
It was when she was in Tokyo that Carter first picked up Sade’s work by chance and ‘The Loves of Lady Purple’ owes much to his Juliette. The masochism Carter saw in Japanese society interested her, in the way the formality of Shonagon’s sex life interested me. ‘In the looking-glass of Sade’s misanthropy,’ she wrote, ‘women may see themselves as they have been and it is an uncomfortable sight.’ Surely that should read ‘women may see themselves as they have been seen.’ But no. And who am I to say that the only thing to be seen in Sade’s mirror is Sade’s face? Here I am, bleating for essence, demanding it, in Carter’s playground of appearance and sign.
The Sadeian Woman and The Bloody Chamber were both published in 1979, after several years in which Carter wrote without being much heard. It is as though she put all the problems and traps in one text and the transformations and solutions in the other. Pornography and fairytale are both anonymous forms, and it is tempting to confuse the anonymous with the natural or archetypal. The Sadeian Woman, a book about pornography, was not popular with feminists (and no one else would want to read it). The Bloody Chamber, a book of new fairytales, instantly became a set text. Sade’s relentless mirroring, the either/or of vice and virtue, sadism and masochism, the endless flipping of the coin, was useful to Carter; you might say it was a statement of the problem her fiction sought to solve. But the figures of Juliette and Justine have all the dullness of pornography, they enact but do not change, and the reader begins to miss some sense of synthesis, development, metaphor. The Bloody Chamber, by contrast, is a book of transformations. The characters are different admixtures of the human and the bestial: a child is reared by wolves, there is a werewolf, a talking cat. Along with these hybrids and confusions, there are full metamorphoses; the beastly cat becomes a man, the frightened girl a fabulous cat.
I applied for the MA because of this book and because of Nights at the Circus, which deals with a flying woman, Fevvers, who is a hybrid as much as a transformed being. I realise, now I get it down from the shelf, that it was given to me by the man I would leave to do the course, which was surely a large part of my sadness in that room at UEA. We had both been working in the theatre in Dublin. When we were still students – shortly after I read ‘The Loves of Lady Purple’ in fact – I wrote and staged a series of three monologues about performers. He played a puppeteer, whose doll – I forget what happened to the doll, she came alive I suppose. He forgets too. He says: ‘There was something about him sticking his thumb in her head and it was like a strawberry.’ So much for old work. The character in the second monologue was an Elizabethan boy actor who spoke in lines lifted from Shakespeare’s plays. The last was a performance artist who cuts off two of his fingers on stage.
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but even though Carter thought that travesty had a purpose, I am shocked at the way I just took her ideas and wrote an adolescent version of them, without a qualm. To claim influence is to say that you are good enough to absorb what you need from a writer, and to spit the rest back out. This doesn’t seem to worry me much (the grovelling! the self-aggrandisement!) because Carter herself was only ever influenced for fun. And though I find it difficult writing about her now, when I was a student my admiration for her work was direct and easy. I had not then spent 20 years disappointed with my own books. Having done precisely nothing, I felt myself to be, in all the ways that mattered most, her equal, and I neither worshipped her nor wanted to do her harm.
If her influence is painfully obvious, so is my need to get clear of it. The performance artist cuts off two of his fingers in an attempt to break through the mirror of the fourth wall. Skin is a kind of costume, as Carter loved to remind us – perhaps this is why she never wrote for the stage. Actors’ bodies are very intractable. The physical fact of actors excited me, the fact that, like Shylock, if you prick them, they will bleed. The answer to the problem of the mirror lay, for me, in the body, or in the fragmented body. Clearly, I did not have to meet Carter in the flesh to talk about all this. With that one story, ‘The Loves of Lady Purple’, a story I claimed not to like, she had already called me to write.
I knew nothing about her career when I arrived to be her student. I had never read a newspaper review in my life. It did not matter to me how long it had taken her to be recognised, when I had recognised her immediately. Even the idea of her having a ‘career’ was strange to me; I thought writers just had ‘books’. The act of recognition happened, like everything else that happens between the writer and the reader, one to one.
Angela Carter sat in a room, and one by one, the students knocked on the door and went in. They came out again. In the same order. And one by one.
We were supposed to meet six times but I only remember two. I think she missed one session, and I certainly missed another: there might have been talk of making up the time in London. She was 47, which is the age I am now. She had a three-year-old son. She had published Nights at the Circus three years before and was possibly already working on Wise Children, which was to be her last novel.
I can’t describe the book I worked on that year. It was about Cressida. It was about Colley Cibber’s daughter Charlotte Charke, an actress who, according to me, played Cressida, not in Shakespeare’s but – for reasons that must have seemed urgent at the time – in Dryden’s bastardised version of the play. This section of the book was written in makey-uppey 18th-century stage dialogue. Everything kept splitting into threes. I may have set part of the book during the siege of Troy, but I am not going to admit to this. There was a modern section told by an actress, who opens the book with a description of Juta Mai – a 19th-century geisha dance I had come across at a theatre festival in France. The narrator describes the dancer’s costume, her tiny movements: she tells how the actress holds in her eye which is always brimful a tear that never falls.
We were all very tense. The student ahead of me came out of her office, made a big face and hurried away. I went in. Carter sat beside, rather than behind a desk. On the edge of it, facing me, were the pages I had submitted, with a handwritten note from her on the top sheet. She indicated the pages with a graceful hand. She said: ‘Well this is all fine.’
And then we talked of other things.
If the question was in the mirror, then the answer was in the eye. This was the problem that obsessed me in the spring of 1987. ‘The eye, is it the mirror to the soul?’ says one of my 18th-century thespians. ‘It is an orifice, rather,’ Charlotte Charke says. ‘In brief, sir, it is a hole.’
I stayed up late, reading Lacan. No wonder I was mad. I wrote out big chunks of it in my notes: ‘Bear with me through this difficult process,’ he says, talking about the mirror stage, whereby ‘the being breaks up, in an extraordinary way, into its being and its semblance, into itself and that paper tiger it shows to the other … something that is like a mask, a double, an envelope, a thrown-off skin.’
The shift from feeling into fiction was a shift from being into an image of being, from inside to outside. ‘To break out of the circle of the Innenwelt into the Umwelt,’ Lacan wrote – and at the time I understood this completely – ‘generates the inexhaustible quadrature of the ego’s verifications.’ I think he meant you fall apart a bit, when, as an infant, you see or construct your image in the mirror. It is also possible that you have to fall apart a bit in order to make fiction; that making an image from yourself is a kind of falling apart. And that the image is always too coherent and rigid – what Lacan termed ‘orthopaedic’.
The problem of the mirror is fundamental to the creative act. But it is also political. When Carter said that, in Japan, she learned what it is to be a woman, she meant she learned what it is to be seen as Other. The separation of essence and appearance freed Carter into a world of invention and trapped her there. Her energy is spent moving from the fetishised and mechanical to the living and organic. What is metamorphosis, after all, this complete change from one shape into another, except a celebration of essence?
Here is something else from my notes of that spring: a verse by Aragon, quoted by Lacan in his Ecrits.
I am that poor thing, a mirror
that might reflect but still can’t see
our eyes are empty – to the error
of your absence –
The mother, Carter says in The Sadeian Woman, is mirror to the daughter. The most transgressive thing Carter ever wrote about was Sade’s tale of the rape of Mme de Mistival by her daughter. The revenge of the daughter is terrible: she not only assaults her mother with a dildo, but invites her companions to join in and infect her with syphilis, after which her organs of generation are sewn up. Carter’s syntax goes awry during her account of the rape. She starts to write ‘we’ instead of ‘they’. It is the kind of passage that has to be held at a distance, and read at speed, so perhaps this is why the copy editor missed the error. ‘The theory of maternal superiority,’ Carter wrote in the introduction to the book, ‘is one of the most damaging of all consolatory fictions and women themselves cannot leave it alone, although it springs from the timeless, placeless, fantasy land of archetypes where all the embodiments of biological supremacy live.’
Sometimes I envy the feminists of the 1960s and 1970s their iconoclastic clarity. The shock of the object. The object speaks back. And I regret that my own work is so mired in the problem of the self and of the body, and not the body as object or image, but the seeing, desiring, penetrated, pregnant, mortal and happy body: also the fragmented body, the body that contains the eye. If Carter’s work stepped into the mirror, my own is an attempt to step back out again. But there is no doubt, I still meet her in the glass.
The most important thing I have to say about Angela Carter is that she was kind to me. She read my work. She said: ‘Well this is all fine.’
Then we talked about Kabuki versions of Shakespeare, a subject of great interest to both of us at the time. Her note about my impossible novel was, when I read it outside in the corridor, deft and enthusiastic. For our next session, she brought a photocopy she had made of Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid. She asked me what would happen after I left the course, and where I was going to live. I said I was going back to Ireland.
‘Why?’ she said. By which she meant ‘Whatever for?’
‘For a man,’ I said.
And once, I think, she understood that I meant a particular man, rather than one who was merely Irish, she said: ‘Oh, all right then.’