“Change is inevitable – except from a vending machine.” (Robert C. Gallagher)

Dear reader, it’s been so long.  Let’s just say working pretty much full-time while studying for my Masters as a full time student basically leaves time for oooh, nothing else at all. My brain is close to exploding with all I’m trying to cram into it. Put it this way: I’ve lost all capacity for nouns.  I can’t remember the name of anyone or anything.  Apparently this is a sign of dementia starting.  I’m trying to be positive and think it’s just a sign of my impending breakdown.

Anyhoo, it’s March now, and so I’ve decided that Spring has officially sprung.  I’m sick of winter, and although it’s cold and grey in old London town today, we’ve had at least 3 days where it’s been sunny & bright & I’ve had to remove my jacket as I’m too warm. There are daffodils, so it’s Spring, people!  Annoyingly, with this seasonal transformation comes exhortations from women’s magazines to transform your body into something called ‘bikini-ready’ or similar. Ugh. As a bibliophile I thought rather than attempting transformation, I would  read about instead.  Read about it seated in my favourite chair eating chocolate/cheese/chocolate topped with cheese while refusing to wear a bikini.

Firstly, possibly the most famous transformation story of all, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886). This is such a well-known story that I won’t bother outlining the plot.  Just in case you need a reminder though, here’s a visual summary from the 1931 film:

Dr Jekyll observes:

“It was on the moral side, and in my own person, that I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both” 

His potion suppresses his duality and lets forth the base Mr Hyde:

“He is not easy to describe. There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something downright detestable. I never saw a man I so disliked, and yet I scarce know why. He must be deformed somewhere; he gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn’t specify the point. He’s an extraordinary-looking man, and yet I really can name nothing out of the way. No, sir; I can make no hand of it; I can’t describe him.”

The novella is not the most accomplished piece of writing but there are some well crafted passages:

“It was a fine, clear, January day, wet under foot where the frost had melted, but cloudless overhead; and the Regent’s Park was full of winter chirrupings and sweet with spring odours. I sat in the sun on a bench; the animal within me licking the chops of memory; the spiritual side a little drowsed, promising subsequent penitence, but not yet moved to begin.” 

When originally published, this Victorian novella no doubt spoke to anxiety about sexual drives which may have faded somewhat, but the metaphor still lends itself to inner turmoil and guilt, when Hyde is figured as “the ghost of some old sin, the cancer of some concealed disgrace”; or the personality change associated with drug/alcohol addiction, as Hyde has “the body of a self-destroyer”; or various dissociative/psychotic psychological disorders.  I think what makes this story so famous and enduring is that it captures an anxiety about who we are, and of what we are capable.  The terror of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is not in Hyde himself, but in the unsettling notion that Hyde is not strange, but in fact common to us all.

Secondly, a chance for me to indulge my on-going obsession with Angela Carter, and discuss ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ from The Bloody Chamber.  This collection of stories saw Carter reworking fairytales; an obvious choice for this post as the genre is filled with transformations – beasts into princes, wolves into grandmothers, wicked step-mothers into witches.  In ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ narrator’s father stakes her in a game of cards, only to lose.

“I watched with the furious cynicism peculiar to women whom circumstances force mutely to witness folly, while my father, fired in his desperation by more and yet more draughts of the firewater they call ‘grappa’, rids himself of the last scraps of my inheritance. When we left Russia, we owned black earth, blue forest with bear and wild boar, serfs, cornfields, farmyards, my beloved horses, white nights of cool summer, the fireworks of the northern lights. What a burden all those possessions must have been to him, because he laughs as if with glee as he beggars himself; he is in such a passion to donate all to The Beast.”

The Beast is the name given to the Lord of the manor, a man who smells of:

“potent a reek of purplish civet at such close quarters in so small a room. He must bathe himself in scent, soak his shirts and underlinen in it; what can he smell of, that needs so much camouflage?”

The narrator moves into his lair:

“A profound sense of strangeness slowly began to possess me. I knew my two companions were not, in any way, as other men, the simian retainer and the master for whom he spoke, the one with clawed fore-paws who was in a plot with the witches who let the winds out of their knotted handkerchiefs up towards the Finnish border. I knew they lived according to a different logic than I had done until my father abandoned me to the wild beasts by his human carelessness…I was a young girl, a virgin, and therefore men denied me rationality just as they denied it to all those who were not exactly like themselves, in all their unreason.”

This Angela Carter, and so things do not play out as tradition would dictate: there is no helpless heroine surrendering herself to a man in this tale:

“I squatted on the wet straw and stretched out my hand. I was now within the field of force of his golden eyes. He growled at the back of his throat, lowered his head, sank on to his forepaws, snarled, showed me his red gullet, his yellow teeth. I never moved. He snuffed the air, as if to smell my fear; he could not.

Slowly, slowly he began to drag his heavy, gleaming weight across the floor towards me.”

The transformation in the tale is two-sided and empowering. It is everything you would expect from Carter: weird, surprising, audacious, and above all skilfully written with beautiful, concise prose.

To end, a warning from The Librarians that you should never wish your life would transform to a fairytale:

 

 

“Let the little fairy in you fly!” (Rufus Wainwright)

December is a month of magic – at least, that’s how I choose to see it, rather than a month of biting winds, zero natural light, and weeping over the expanding credit card bills and waistlines that mark the holiday season.  No, it is a time of magic – fairies sit on top of trees, reindeer fly and morbidly obese geriatrics shoot down chimneys and creep into kids bedrooms without being put on a register.  In honour of this time I thought I’d look at literature around fairies.

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When I was growing up I loved the delicate drawings of Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies; the Poppy Fairy was my favourite because she looked a bit naughty.  I’m not sure what that says about me as a child….

Firstly, The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales by Kirsty Logan (Salt Publishing, 2014).  I picked this up after reading Naomi’s review on her The Writes of Women blog. It was every bit as good as Naomi suggested. The twenty stories in this volume are united by fairytale themes, but also explorations of sexuality, gender, love and desire that demonstrate how the extraordinary can promote new ways of understanding the everyday.

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(Image from: http://www.saltpublishing.com/shop/proddetail.php?prod=9781907773754)

Logan plays with animating the inanimate and mechanising the organic to destabilise notions of identity.  So The Rental Heart sees a woman protect herself from heart-break, leasing mechanised versions of the muscle which she renews as needed. In Origami Rebecca constructs herself a paper lover; in Coin Operated Boys, Elodie rejects “Imperfect. Awkward. Repulsive…” human suitors for the titular machines, responding to their “calm, clean angles”, cool touch, and eyes “flat as a pond in summer”. In this way Logan shows how desire is manifold and defies easy categorisation, while exploring how we seek to control desire, and how denial of our humanity can lead to detachment from ourselves and others.

Extraordinarily, Logan’s startling use of images throughout her stories did not cause me to detach, but rather reveals new ways of perceiving that truly resonate. Choosing any page at random would give me a quote for this post, Logan is truly that good.

From Bibliophagy: “Standing pigeon-toed and bruise-kneed in the light from the fridge, his neck finally stops twitching. The words are waiting, cold as milk….He turns away so the moon is hidden behind next door’s chimney.  He lifts the words.  He shudders to think how smooth the vowels will feel along his oesophagus.  He swallows.”

From The Gracekeeper: “The widow thanked me afterwards with her damp swollen hands too tight on my wrists, speaking in fummels and haffs as if she could not get enough breath.  Her wedding ring dug into her finger, making the flesh bulge out at either side, and I wondered whether she would wear it until it engulfed: her own secret totem”

In stories such as Witch, Logan challenges the heteronormativity and misogyny inherent in so many fairytales, when the young woman wandering in the forest decides to stay put:

“She was honey on my tongue. She was the poison apple, the kiss that would wake me.  When she finally slid inside me, I knew the end of my story.  I never wanted to leave my bitch goddess warrior queen.  I knew what happily ever after was, and I wanted to be a wicked witch too.”

I’m so excited about Kirsty Logan after reading this collection, and eagerly await her first novel, published next year.

Secondly, it’s impossible to write a post about fairytales without mentioning Angela Carter.  She edited two volumes of the Virago Press’ books of fairytales, as well as writing her own short story collection along this theme, The Bloody Chamber (Gollancz,1979).  Carter’s stories are creepy and unsettling re-tellings of well-known tales, pulling the dark undercurrents of the fables to the fore.  Snow White is rewritten in The Snow Child as an incestuous tale of necrophilia, played out between a battling couple:

“Then the girl began to melt. Soon there was nothing left of her but a feather a bird might have dropped; a bloodstain, like the trace of a fox’s kill on the snow; and the rose she had pulled off the bush.”

In The Werewolf Little Red Riding Hood is far from helpless victim: “The child had a scabby coat of sheepskin to keep out the cold, she knew the forest too well to fear it but she must always be on her guard. When she heard that freezing howl of a wolf, she dropped her gifts, seized her knife and turned on the beast.

It was a huge one, with red eyes and running, grizzled chops; any but a mountaineer’s child would have died of fright at the sight of it. It went for her throat, as wolves do, but she made a great swipe at it with her father’s knife and slashed off its right forepaw.

The wolf let out a gulp, almost a sob, when it saw what had happened to it; wolves are less brave than they seem.”

The Bloody Chamber prompts a reconsideration of familiar tales that we imbue from childhood.  Carter is an intellectual force, funny and challenging; I was left thinking about these stories long after I’d read them.

To end, a modern fairytale, and the greatest Christmas song ever (but not the greatest Christmas video ever, which is Wham’s Last Christmas, obvs):

“Everything being a constant carnival, there is no carnival left.” (Victor Hugo)

Today is May Day, and I was thinking about the traditions of this time: celebration, revelry, pastoral fertility.  Please note I said thinking about, not participating in.  Confession time, reader: even though I’m in Oxford I didn’t want to do an all-night pub crawl/ball or get up at ridiculous o’clock to go to Magdalen Bridge for May Morning.  I lay in bed, and because Oxford is so quiet I could hear the choir and bells anyway, and it was beautiful.  Better warm in bed than in an inebriated crowd, I told myself.  Before I seem too virtuous, I should tell you that I’m really just lazy, because an hour or so later I got up for a champagne breakfast.  If this post seems even more waffly and incoherent than usual, you know why.

So, the traditions of May Day, and choosing books for this post made me think about the carnivalesque in novels.  Mikhail Bakhtin said that the carnivalesque (this is a shockingly rough paraphrase) is a time when social hierarchies are overthrown in energetic riot: as norms are disregarded, reversed and subverted, anything can happen.  Sounds like the spirit of May Day to me. Hence, for this post I’ve picked two novels that are carnivalesque/subversive in some way.

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The Battle Between Carnival and Lent – Pieter Bruegel the Elder 1599 (Image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pieter_Bruegel_d._%C3%84._066.jpg )

My first choice is Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter (1984, Chatto & Windus).  The minute I started to think about carnivalesque, this is what sprang to mind. I thought the summary on the dust jacket was spot-on, so here it is:

Fevvers: the toast of Europe’s capitals, courted by princes, painted by Toulouse Lautrec, the greatest aerialiste of her time. Fevvers: somersaulting lazily through the air, hovering in the moment between the nineteenth century and the twentieth, between old dreams and new beginnings, born up by the spread of wings that can’t be real! Or- can they? Fevvers: the Cockney Venus, six foot two in her stockings, the coarsely lively and lovely heroine…Obsessed with Fevvers, constantly bamboozled by the anarchist sorcery of her dresser and confidante, Lizzie, the dashing young journalist Jack Walser stumbles into a journey which takes him from London to Siberia via legendary St Petersburg and out of his male certainties, into a transforming world of danger and joy, the world of Colonel Kearney’s circus…Featuring a cast of thousands, including : the clown’s requiem, the tigers’ waltz, the educated apes, the bashful brigands, the structuralist wizard. Not forgetting Sybil, the Mystic Pig.”

Just brilliant. I’ve said before that there’s no-one like Angela Carter, and Nights at the Circus is her writing at her very best.  Fevvers voice leaps of the page at you in the first paragraph:

“Lor’ love you sir!” Fevvers sang out in a voice that clanged like dustbin lids. “As to my place of birth, why, I first saw the light of day right here in smoky old London, didn’t I! Not billed the ‘Cockney Venus’ for nothing…Hatched out of a bloody great egg while Bow Bells rang, as ever is!”

If that all sounds a bit “cor-blimey-luvvaduck-rent-a-cockney”, don’t worry.  With Angela Carter you are never in the land of the stereotype, but in an exuberant world of characters the like of which you will never have met before, or since.  She is master of the original and evocative image (“like dustbin lids”) and while her work is carnivalesque and destabilising, it’s also great fun.  The circus is Carter’s world, which means anything can happen.  But beneath all the sparkle and pizzazz, she creates a world of substance.  Buffo the clown reflects:

“We are the whores of mirth, for, like a whore, we know what we are; we know we are mere hirelings hard at work yet those who hire us see us as beings perpetually at play. Our work is their pleasure and so they think our work must be our pleasure, too, so there is always and abyss between their notion of our work as play, and ours, of their leisure as our labour.”

Carter uses magic realism to explore how we construct reality, and how easily it can be deconstructed.  Where better to do that than the circus? She plays with notions of gender and sexuality, challenging the idea that they are fixed entities, and explores how identity can be constantly created and recreated.  Jack falls in love with Fevvers, unsure of who, or what, it is he loves: if he gets behind the image of the Cockney Venus, who will be there?  Is she part bird?  And who will he be in response?:

“When Walser first put on his make-up, he looked in the mirror and did not recognise himself. As he contemplated the stranger peering interrogatively back at him out of the glass, he felt the beginnings of a vertiginous sense of freedom , that, during all the time he spent with the Colonel, never quite evaporated; until that last moment where they parted company and Walser’s very self, as he had known it, departed from him, he experienced the freedom that lies behind the mask, with dissimulation, the freedom to juggle with being, and, indeed, with the language which is vital to our being, that lies at the heart of burlesque.”

Angela Carter clearly had a fierce intellect and something interesting to say about how we make our worlds.  But she also didn’t let that get in the way of a good story.  Nights at the Circus is a fantastic read, in all the senses of the word.

Secondly, Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726, full text available online).  Obviously, this novel is hugely famous (even if you haven’t read it I bet you know what physical feature distinguishes a Lilliputian).  Lemuel Gulliver relates fantastical tales of his travels, and in the process Swift offers a satire on travel narratives (which were hugely popular in the eighteenth century as people travelled further and wider) and on the human condition.  I chose it for this theme as it is full of inversions and reversals; Gulliver travels to Lilliput, where he is a giant, then to Brobdingnag where he is minute; to Laputa which he considers crude and unenlightened, then to the Houyhnhnms who consider him a “yahoo” barbarian.  Gulliver’s Travels is episodic, so I’m just going to pick out a couple of events.  Firstly, one of the most famous ones: many writers at the time were obsessed by bodily functions, and Swift is no different, though thankfully not nearly as scatological as some of his contemporaries.  Here is Gulliver putting his urine to good use in Lilliput:

I was alarmed at midnight with the cries of many hundred people at my door; by which, being suddenly awaked, I was in some kind of terror….her imperial majesty’s apartment was on fire, by the carelessness of a maid of honour, who fell asleep while she was reading a romance.  I got up in an instant; and orders being given to clear the way before me, and it being likewise a moonshine night, I made a shift to get to the palace without trampling on any of the people.  I found they had already applied ladders to the walls of the apartment, and were well provided with buckets, but the water was at some distance.  These buckets were about the size of large thimbles, and the poor people supplied me with them as fast as they could: but the flame was so violent that they did little good… this magnificent palace would have infallibly been burnt down to the ground, if, by a presence of mind unusual to me, I had not suddenly thought of an expedient.  I had, the evening before, drunk plentifully of a most delicious wine called glimigrim, (the Blefuscudians call it flunec, but ours is esteemed the better sort,) which is very diuretic.  By the luckiest chance in the world, I had not discharged myself of any part of it.  The heat I had contracted by coming very near the flames, and by labouring to quench them, made the wine begin to operate by urine; which I voided in such a quantity, and applied so well to the proper places, that in three minutes the fire was wholly extinguished, and the rest of that noble pile, which had cost so many ages in erecting, preserved from destruction.

And just to finish, here is a bit of the more heavy-handed satire for you, when the king of Brobdingnag responds to a summary of British politics:

“He was perfectly astonished with the historical account gave him of our affairs during the last century; protesting “it was only a heap of conspiracies, rebellions, murders, massacres, revolutions, banishments, the very worst effects that avarice, faction, hypocrisy, perfidiousness, cruelty, rage, madness, hatred, envy, lust, malice, and ambition, could produce.”

I’ll leave it to you to decide if such motivations have left politics these days…

Gulliver’s Travels is a complex book, and one that is very hard to pin down: it is funny, it is sad, it can be read to children, it is baffling to adults.  It shifts meaning and genre according to who is reading it: truly carnivalesque.

I was hoping to end with a clip of Bellowhead performing One May Morning Early: apt, no?  But YouTube failed me.  So here they are singing about a carnival romance instead:

 

 

“Beginnings are always messy.” (John Galsworthy)

This week I started my final year at uni.  Things could get a little patchy on the blog front from here on in, but I really want to try and keep it going on a regular basis, so hopefully service will be uninterrupted by essays, tutorials, presentations, deadlines, exams….eek.  In honour of the new term, I thought I’d look at beginnings in books.  Not that this is a great new beginning for me – as a mature student I’ve been here many, many times before, so much more than is necessary.  But a beginning it is, and so on we go!

Firstly, Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson (Black Swan, 1995).  This was Kate Atkinson’s first novel; nowadays she is well-known as the author of the Jackson Brodie novels (Case Histories, One Good Turn, When Will There Be Good News, Started Early Took My Dog) but this was before she turned her hand to detective fiction.  Let us just pause for a minute to consider the BBC trailer for their excellent adaptation of the Brodie novels:

Was that just an opportunity to gratuitously observe the craggily gorgeous and highly talented Jason Isaacs without his top on?  Yes it was.  (But I do recommend both the books and the TV series). Now back to books.  BTSATM is told from the point of view of Ruby, from the moment of her conception.  The novel begins:

“I exist!  I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock on the mantelpiece in the room across the hall.  The clock once belonged to my great-grandmother (a woman called Alice) and its tired chime counts me into the world.  I’m begun on the first stroke and finished on the last when my father rolls off my mother and is plunged into dreamless sleep, thanks to the five pints of John Smith’s Best Bitter he has drunk in the punchbowl with his friends, Walter and Bernard Belling.  At the moment at which I moved from nothingness into being my mother was pretending to be asleep – as she often does as such moments.  My father, however, is made of stern stuff and he didn’t let that put him off.”

When I was thinking of books to write about for this theme, this is the passage that immediately sprung to mind.  I think it’s just brilliant, and such a confident debut.  The two word opening sentence is really bold and creates a lively, engaging voice for Ruby.   The rest of the paragraph introduces so much about the rest of the story; it’s an enormously skilled piece of writing.  Firstly, the fact that it’s narrated from conception, that the foetal Ruby will be able to hear her mother’s thoughts, tells you that the story is not conventional.  Secondly, two of the women from Ruby’s family are already introduced, and the story will tell Ruby’s life but also be interwoven with the stories of other women in her family: her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother will all feature in third-person narratives alongside Ruby’s first person tale.  Thirdly, although the tale is highly inventive, it is not whimsical, and instead grounded in an earthy realism, as evidenced by Ruby’s unromantic beginnings.  And finally, as the end sentence shows, there’s a good dose of humour in there too.

BTSATM won the Whitbread book of the year in 1995, and I hope this beginning has given you a taste of why.  As Ruby takes you through the story of her life up to present day (around 1993), her unique voice creates vivid portraits of her family, and why and how things got to be the way they are.  All of Kate Atkinson’s novels are highly readable and expertly plotted, I urge you to give her a go.

Secondly, Angela Carter’s second novel, The Magic Toyshop (1967, my copy Virago 1994). Carter was a truly unique, arresting voice in fiction and I don’t always find her writing comfortable, but then I don’t think I’m supposed to.  The novel begins:

“The summer she was fifteen, Melanie discovered she was made of flesh and blood.  O, my America, my new found land.  She embarked on a tranced voyage, exploring the whole of herself, clambering her mountain ranges, penetrating the moist richness of her secret valleys, a physiological Cortez, da Gama or Mungo Park.  For hours she stared at herself, naked, in the mirror of her wardrobe; she would follow with her finger the elegant structure of her ribcage, where the heart fluttered under the flesh like a bird under a blanket…”

While the opening to BTSATM told you a lot about the novel, I think this opening tells you more about Carter as a writer.  She had a skill for making the everyday somewhat disconcerting, and I think the opening line shows this.  It states a truism, but you know there’s more happening than is immediately apparent.  Carter was concerned with women’s sexuality, but in a way that her characters are not necessarily sexual in response to other people – when others become involved, things become complicated and the sexual response less clear (her novel Love brutally details this type of experience). She often wrote in a magic realist style, and while this isn’t evident in this paragraph, the simile “like a bird under a blanket” demonstrates her odd approach to images, and how unsettling she can be.  Although the paragraph appears celebratory, a bird under a blanket is a horrible image of unnatural surroundings, containment and probably death.  To put this alongside a 15 year old girl who goes on in the paragraph to laugh “out of sheer exhilaration” at herself is disturbing, and hints at the violence that often lurks in Carter’s worlds.

Needless to say, this adolescent idyll doesn’t last long.  That night, Melanie finds out her parents have died in a plane crash, and she and her brother and sister have to move to London to live with her uncle Philip and her aunt Margaret, the latter of whom never speaks. Philip is a tyrant, and owns the toyshop of the title, where he works on puppet shows.  Despite the title, this is not a fairytale: “She turned over some of the stock.  Repelled yet attracted by the ferocious masks, she finally tried on one or two, but there was no mirror where she could see herself, although she felt peculiarly feline or vulpine according to the mask she wore.  They even seemed to smell of wild animals.” Creepy.  Carter is not an easy writer, but her inventiveness and intelligence make the challenge worthwhile.  If you fancy giving her a go but want something less intense, I recommend her picaresque later novels, Nights at the Circus and Wise Children.  There’s no-one like her.

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