Wow. Such exquisite, exquisite prose! I've read Angela Carter before, you know. Far too long ago and was suitably impressed then. Why has it taken me so long to pick up another of her books? Thanks for the gentle nudge as Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces is likely going to be one of my best reads of the year I suspect. Angela Carter was born in 1940 and died far too young when she was only 51. What an immense loss to literature. I know I've not read much by her but what little I have read I can see is really amazing, and I am not sure if I can explain why I think so. It's not just the writing, though that's a big part of it, it is the way she makes you think and feel, which is quite often a little unbalanced or even downright uncomfortable.
Where to start. Fireworks is a slim book of nine works. I hesitate to call them short stories exactly and after reading the afterword (yes, I have jumped ahead a bit, as I was curious), she didn't really consider them so, either. I read three of the works and that was just enough. Slim the book may be, but deceptively so as there is nothing slender about the pieces. Such lush and vivid 'storytelling'. The stories are dark and at times even a little disturbing. They really do throw you off balance and I think she does so purposely.
Carter wrote these works while living in Japan and you can see the influence of her surroundings on them. She had only a few years previously separated from her first husband (in 1970). The book was published in 1974.
In the first story, "Souvenir of Japan", an Englishwoman laments an affair with her Japanese lover knowing it is doomed. ". . . try as we might to possess the essence of each others's otherness, we would inevitably fail." Mirrors and reflections weigh heavily in her work. I'm not entirely sure what it signifies, though in her afterword she talks about the "imagery of the unconscious". Perhaps it is a way of looking inside oneself? A portal to another dimension? I think there is something of the fantastic about her writing--even in a story as seemingly straightforward as this first one.
All through the summer, every evening there would be fireworks.
". . . once we rode the train out of Shinjuku for an hour to watch one of the public displays which are held over rivers so that the dark water multiplies the reflections."
There are all sorts of reflections in this story--at least figuratively. This is less a story about lovers than a character study--not just the lovers, the Englishwoman's lover especially, but also culturally. I don't 'know' Japan, but somehow I feel like I have gotten a peek inside at Japanese sensibilities. The idea of the importance of 'appearance' in Japanese Society is very strong in this story. And Carter always seems to inject into her stories with magic, with a fairy tale feel to them. The narrator likens her lover to a character from a Japanese story---Momotaro, who was born from a peach.
"Before my eyes, the paper peach split open and there was the baby, where the stone should have been. He, too had the inhuman sweetness of a child born from something other than a mother, a passive, cruel sweetness I did not immediately understand, for it was that of the repressed masochism which, in my country, is usually confined to women."
I love the imagery of that--instead of a stone, there is a baby inside. This image she has of her lover is as much what is inside her as what she physically sees. She believes that she invents him as she goes along, though he is palpably real. Whatever perceptions each has of the other, and maybe because what they are seeing is at least in part invention, it is not enough to sustain their love.
"The Executioner's Beautiful Daughter" is also something of a character study. It is an uncomfortable read being unapologetically about incest. In a mountain village the dwellers gather to watch a public execution--"the only entertainment the country offers". The executioner executes his only son for having committed the crime of incest upon his sister. He is forever masked, as you would expect an executioner to be, and who would ever know him otherwise? And while a brother's incestuous crime results in death, the executioner can perpetrate the same crime without fear of retribution, for who else would wield the axe. No one is safe and nothing is sacred it would seem.
"The Loves of Lady Purple" is another wonderfully descriptive story Gothic in tone--dark and a little depraved. The magic in Carter's stories never brings happiness. There is no lightness. Lady Purple is a marionette. Again there is a play on reality .
"The puppet-master is always dusted with a little darkness. In direct relation to his skill, he propagates the most bewildering enigmas, for the more lifelike his marionettes, the more godlike his manipulations and the more radical the symbiosis between inarticulate doll and articulating fingers."
The prose in this story is sumptuous, as is Lady Purple--at once doll and real woman. The puppeteer is creator of this depraved woman. And he is obsessed with his creation.
"She must have been the masterpiece of a long-dead, anonymous artisan and yet she was nothing but a curious structure until the Professor touched her strings, for it was he who filled her with necromantic vigor."
The story behind the doll, the story the puppeteer tells and enacts over and over is not a pleasant one as it is the story of a prostitute--she is a plague and bane to her lovers as she no sooner finishes with them than she dispatches them. And however lovingly the puppeteer treats his beautiful marionette, nothing can save him from her murderous intentions.
These are not really 'stories', though I have called them so, rather Carter calls them 'tales'--something that makes "few pretenses at the imitation of life" (thankfully--I'd hate to think of life bing much like what happens in these stories). They provoke unease she says. Certainly these stories do that! Next week, three more.