A Conversation with Angela Carter
Crammed in with all the other gear packed for a ski trip was my copy of Angela Carter's newest novel, Wise Children. Because sheer exhaustion made it difficult for me to stay awake past nine o'clock, I didn’t get to finish the book, which in a sad kind of way turned out to be a good thing.
A week later I returned home to a stack of unread newspapers and very sorrowful news; while I had been struggling with moguls, Carter had succumbed to cancer. Though my dealings with her were limited (a few letters, phone calls, and two personal meetings), the sense of loss that I experienced was deep-felt. I immediately went for my copy of Wise Children, and for a long time gazed at the picture of the author’s smiling face on the inside jacket; it was the same picture as the one in the Times’s obit. Mixed in with my numbness was a peculiar sense of gratitude that there was something new she could say to me still. I began to read, but my thoughts kept reverting to that crisp November morning in 1988 when I had the pleasure of chatting with this woman over breakfast.
We met in the lobby of a well-known New York hotel, where she introduced me to Alexander, her son, who was off with his father to spend a few hours sightseeing in the big city. (Their arrangements—to meet at noon by the big clock in front of F.A.O. Schwarz—made me chuckle; recalling the clocks, magic, and toys in Carter’s fiction, I thought that New York’s own magic toyshop was, of course, the most fitting place to meet.)
My interview with Angela, as she insisted I call her, was to my surprise like visiting with an old friend. We talked about our young sons; we sized up the company around us; and we made one sexually loaded comment after another, each of us trying, like comedians in the spotlight, to get the last laugh. Not surprisingly, she won, hands down. I was having so much fun that I nearly abandoned the interview questions that Angela so graciously and patiently answered before we parted. We hugged, I thanked her, and she urged me to write to her if I had additional questions; I did, indeed, but many of them will remain unanswered.
ANNA KATSAVOS: In "Notes From the Front Line" you say that you are not in the remythologizing business but in the "demythologizing business." What exactly do you mean?
ANGELA CARTER: Well, I’m basically trying to find out what certain configurations of imagery in our society, in our culture, really stand for, what they mean, underneath the kind of semireligious coating that makes people not particularly want to interfere with them.
AK: In what sense are you defining myth? AC: In a sort of conventional sense; also in the sense that Roland Barthes uses it in Mythologies—ideas, 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.
AK: In modern poetry women openly use traditional figures of patriarchal mythology, figures like Circe, Leda, Helen, not only to reinvent them but to retell their stories, as you say in The Sadeian Woman, "in the service of women." To what extent do you rely on traditional mythical figures in your writing? Are you drawn more to a particular mythology than to another?
AC: I used to be more interested in it. I’m not generally interested in doing that. I mean I’m not terribly interested in these particular characters. The second novel that I wrote, a very long time ago, The Magic Toyshop, has a whole apparatus about Leda and the swan, and it turns out that the swan is just a puppet. I wrote that a very long time ago, when I really didn’t know what I was doing, and even so it turns out that the swan is an artificial construct, a puppet, and, somebody, a man, is putting strings on the puppet. That was ages ago, over ten years ago, when I wrote that. The idea was in my mind before I had sorted it out. But I just stopped using these configurations because they just stopped being useful to me.
AK: And yet in Heroes and Villains myths are not seen as extraordinary lies designed to make people unfree but rather as something necessary and useful. Donnaly promises to make Jewel a politician, king of all the Yahoos and all the Professors, saying, "they need a myth as passionately as anyone else; they need a hero."
AC: When most people are writing over a period of years, what they think they are writing about and what they believe in is a continuum; it’s not "specktic." I’ve been publishing fiction since 1966, and I’ve changed a lot in the way I approach the world and in the way that I organize the world.
Heroes and Villains was quite an important book for me. One of the quotations in the front is from the script of a film called Alphaville, made by Jean-Luc Godard. It was a favorite film of mine of the late sixties; there’s a computer in Alphaville that says the thing that’s quoted in the front. ["There are times when reality becomes too complex for Oral Communication. But Legend gives it a form by which it pervades the whole world."] In these times myth gives history shape. When I wrote that novel in 1968, this was a very resonant theme that I am not so sure of now.
I think that Godard was using the word myth in the same way that Barthes is as well. The film Alphaville uses one of the greatest gangster heroes of French cinema, but it projects a sort of trench-coat, Philip Marlowe character into some sort of antiseptic city of the future, and I really think that he was meaning myth in the terms of somebody like Bogart or Philip Marlowe. You know, you try things out and you try things out, and you figure out after a while when they’re not working or they stop working or maybe you no longer think it’s true. I just became uninterested in these sort of semi-sacrilized ways of looking at the world. They didn’t seem to me to be any help.
AK: What about Fevvers in Nights at the Circus? Would you say she’s out to create her own myth?
AC: No, Fevvers is out to earn a living. Everything she says in that direction is undercut by her mother, but the stuff that she says in the beginning about being hatched from an egg, that’s what she says. We are talking about fiction here, and I have no idea whether that’s true or not. That’s just what she says, a story that’s being constructed. That’s just the story of her life. Part of the point of the novel is that you are kept uncertain. The reader is more or less kept uncertain until quite a long way through. When she is talking about being a new woman and having invented herself, her foster mother keeps on saying it’s not going to be as simple as that. Also, they have quite a long conversation about this when they are walking through the tundra.
One of the original ideas behind the creation of that character was a piece of writing by Guilliaume Apollinaire, in which he talks about Sade’s Juliette. He’s talking about a woman in the early twentieth century, in a very French and rhetorical manner. He’s talking about the new woman, and the very phrase he uses is, "who will have wings and will renew the world." And I read this, and like a lot of women, when you read this kind of thing, you get this real "bulge" and think, "How wonderful…How terrific," and then I thought, "Well no; it’s not going to be as easy as that." And I also thought, "Really, how very, very inconvenient it would be for a person to have real wings, just how really difficult."
Fevvers is a very literal creation. She’s very literally a winged spirit. She’s very literally the winged victory, but very, very literally so. How inconvenient to have wings, and by extension, how very, very difficult to be born so out of key with the world. Something that women know all about is how very difficult it is to enter an old game. What you have to do is to change the rules and make a new game, and that’s really what she’s about.
That novel is set at exactly the moment in European history when things began to change. It’s set at that time quite deliberately, and she’s the new woman. All the women who have been in the first brothel with her end up doing these "new women" jobs, like becoming hotel managers and running typing agencies, and so on, very much like characters in Shaw. There’s a Barrie play called The Twelve-Pound Look, about a woman who spends twelve pounds on a typewriter, and she gets that twelve-pound look in her eyes because she can now have everything…. By the time I wrote The Sadeian Woman, I was getting really ratty with the whole idea of myth. I was getting quite ratty with the sort of appeals by some of the women’s movements to have these sort of "Ur-religions" because it didn’t seem to me at all to the point. The point seemed to be the here and now, what we should do now. And that is when I started getting ratty about it.
From "The Review of Contemporary Fiction," Fall 1994, Vol. 14.3
By Anna Katsavos