Winners of the Somerset Maugham Award for young authors are required to spend their prize money on foreign travel. Angela Carter, the 1969 winner, lit out for the Orient. She abandoned Paul Carter, her husband of nine years standing. She loved him once but by this time he was withdrawn and depressed. The publication of her first novel, Shadow Dance, in 1966 had sent him into a three-week silent sulk. She’d later say she’d had ‘more meaningful relationships with people I’ve sat next to on aeroplanes’.
In Tokyo she found her way to a coffee shop where gaijin visitors hung out and where Japanese men, who looked to her like the ‘best kind of Red Indian’, circled around Western women. There she found herself the ‘object of a quite incredible erotic curiosity’. This was new for her. When a few months earlier she had attempted to seduce a man in Bristol, he had responded, she wrote, as Gulliver does when grabbed by the Brobdingnagian Glumdalclitch, with ‘terror and dismay’. In Shinjuku she was approached by Sozo Araki, who was beautiful, five years younger than her and several inches shorter. They adjourned to a ‘love hotel’. By the time she left Japan a fortnight later, she had decided she was in love with him. As she passed through the airport she tossed her wedding ring into an ashtray. Six months later she was back for a further year.
Carter hadn’t needed the inducement of prize money to cosmopolitanise herself. She was a south London girl whose father and mother came from a Scottish fishing port and a Yorkshire mining community respectively, but she was also forever outward-looking, nouvelle vague and internationalist. She died in 1992 at the age of fifty-one, not far from where she grew up, surrounded by the Victorian bric-a-brac with which she loved to clutter her home. But for all her fondness for English popular culture (folk song, circuses, music halls), there wasn’t an insular cell in her brain. She was drawn to all things alien, from the erotic beasts of her marvellous fairy tales to the challenging ideas she found in European theorists or Buddhist fables.
For a book about a writer who was so adventurous, intellectually and personally, Edmund Gordon’s biography is surprisingly conventional. It opens with a fine Carterian flourish as two grandmothers – Little Red Riding Hood’s and Carter’s own – are each subsumed into an imaginary wolf. But thereafter Gordon settles into a straightforward chronological account. This is the first biography of Carter (although Susannah Clapp’s vivid scherzo of a memoir has preceded it) and perhaps Gordon felt a duty to keep it neat and sober. Structurally his book is just one damn thing after another. Its substance, though, glints with well-placed detail and witty aperçus, and it pays proper attention to what matters most, Angela Carter’s writing.
It’s been a boon for Gordon that Carter was so acute and ruthless in describing her own novels. Here she is on The Magic Toyshop, insisting that the book’s alluring strangeness is not to be edited out: ‘it is meant to be off-balance & episodic & nightmarish.’ On Love: ‘This novel … is turning into a film by Alain Resnais.’ On Heroes and Villains: ‘it is a juicy, overblown, exploding Gothic lollipop.’
There are other memorable voices here too, such as the publisher’s reader who wrote of one of Carter’s stories that it is ‘like a death-threat that spells itself out backwards on to your mirror while you’re tweezing an eyebrow’. But Gordon himself must take credit for the adroitness with which he patches all these comments together with his own pithy and perceptive summaries to make this the most valuable kind of literary biography – the kind that sends you back to the subject’s work.
He traces the evolution of Carter’s remarkably well-furnished mind. When she was still at school her French teacher gave her a recording of poems by Baudelaire and Rimbaud. ‘That record was my trigger’, she claimed. High on its ‘linguistic razzmatazz’, she resolved to become a writer. She was already going regularly, alone, to the National Film Theatre, fascinated by classic German films (The Blue Angel, Pandora’s Box). She loved the way Marlene Dietrich looked as though she ‘ate men whole, for breakfast, possibly on toast’. Her experience of the 1960s, she later said, ‘can be logged in relation to Godard’s movies’. By the time she first walked into the office of New Society in 1966, all in black from floppy hat to fish-netted ankles, she looked to the editor ‘like someone off the Left Bank’. She revered Nabokov, the stateless stylist extraordinaire. Reading Ulysses was a revelation for her because Joyce ‘Europeanised, he decolonialised English … in doing so, he made me free.’ She chose to go to Japan because she had been reading Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters. The first conversation she had with Sozo in that coffee shop was about William Faulkner. She was rude and wild-looking. Her friend Christopher Frayling recalls how she would lob an expletive into a conversation that bored her ‘just to see what happened’. But intellectually she was extraordinarily sophisticated.
Gordon also pays thoughtful attention to Carter’s love life, which is interesting for the usual gossipy reasons but also, objectively, as a manifestation of her feminism. Her interest in the Marquis de Sade and her candour about the equivocations of female desire made her a controversial figure in the women’s movement, but she was unquestionably part of it. She defied traditional notions of gender, both in literature – ‘the greatest feminine writer who’s ever lived is Dostoevsky’ – and in personal relations. ‘Woman’s liberation = man’s liberation,’ she wrote, and she lived by that principle. In her relationship with Sozo Araki, and with her next, even younger boyfriend, the Korean Mansu Kō, she played a role that would have been traditionally seen as masculine. She was the one who earned most of the money, while her partner washed up or went out partying. When her relationship with Sozo ended she reflected that he couldn’t accept the role of wife. Sozo put it differently: he no longer wanted to be a ‘gigolo’.
When she got together with Mark Pearce, who was fifteen years younger than her and had had little formal education, she was again the breadwinner and left him to take charge of domestic work – what she called the ‘buggering about with dirty dishes’ that had so got her down in her first marriage. Mark cared for their son, Alex, and Angela refrained from interfering, even if his style of parenting was stricter than hers might have been. Their union seems to have been a very happy one, evidence that, as Carter wrote, ‘men are different to women … only in their biological organisation’.
One of Carter’s story collections is called Fireworks, which is fitting. Her best fiction is packed so tight with explosive ideas – with glittering, violent imagery culled from medieval romance, Freud and fairy tales, Lévi-Strauss and de Sade – that it sparks and flashes dangerously and emits an acrid, gunpowdery reek of transgressive thought and shameless pleasure. Let’s hope that this thoughtful and engaging biography will introduce a generation of new readers to her work.