I finished Angela Carter’s Nights At The Circus a couple of weeks ago but it’s taken a while for me to decide what to say about it. There aren’t many books that overwhelm me, but Carter’s epic, picaresque, bawdy, monstrous novel just about managed it. I felt almost bilious with words by the end, for Carter’s style is scandalously generous with brilliant descriptions, stunning word portraits that pack every event out with jewel-bright glimpses into the different layers of her fictional world. It would be like wading through treacle if it weren’t for the rude, delightful humour with which she laces her observations. This is a rich, difficult, punchy, vibrant book. Approach it with caution and reserve a room in the sparse prose health farm afterwards for some detox.
Essentially it’s a bizarre and beautiful love story, featuring that Cockney mutant, the famous trapeze artiste, Fevvers, a woman with no navel and a pair of wings on her back. Come to interview her in her London theatrical lair (‘a mistresspiece of exquisitely feminine squalor’) is the well-travelled but oddly impervious American journalist, Jack Walser. Up until now, his journeys into the far, dangerous corners of the world have given him material to write inventive copy but failed to touch his soul. No surprises for guessing that this is about to change. Over the space of one night (in which the clock strikes midnight three times), Fevvers and her stepmother-come-mentor, the terse, magically gifted Liz, tell him the story of Fevvers life so far, a fantastic, mythic tale that stretches Walser’s credulity but leaves him hypnotized. The cold grey dawn finds him making plans to join the circus undercover and accompany them on tour across the Siberian wastes. This first section of the novel is just so extraordinarily wonderful that it tended to overshadow the rest of the book for me. It shouldn’t be this way, because what follows is every bit as inventive, beautifully written and stunningly accomplished, but there it is. I’m human and fallible. You can’t help but fall in love with Fevvers and her captivating autobiography, messy, dirty, egotistical, utterly delightful prima donna that she is.
So. Walser joins the circus as a clown and the company sets off on its epic journey. The circus is Carter’s perfect vehicle, combining vaudeville and slapstick with the closest we get on this earth to humanly produced magic. The showy beauty of the circus and its underlying degradation are lingeringly explored, and Carter creates a cast of misfits and conmen, the flotsam and jetsam of humanity, to people her pages. Some fare better than others, notably the women, and one popular way of approaching Carter’s work is to read her through a feminist lens. Certainly this is not a text where you’ll find dependent, submissive women; Carter specializes in creative survivors, who make the best of a bad lot, like the tragic circus waif Mignon: ‘She had the febrile gaiety of a being without a past, without a present, yet she existed thus, without memory or history, only because her past was too bleak to think of and her future too terrible to contemplate; she was the broken blossom of the present tense.’ Mignon may have been abused and beaten throughout her life, but her ghostly resilience keeps her clinging to life long enough for her luck to change. That’s one of the happier stories we get. Carter reserves the full force of her blackly violent imagination for the clowns, however, and if you ever harboured secret fears of their antics, Carter’s novel is not going to rehabilitate their act for you. The troupe of clowns in this novel are the embodiment of the daemonic, the wellspring of crazy energy that refuses to be captured or tamed, the savage ludicrousness that undercuts our futile attempts at assigning ourselves dignity and meaning, and the bleak despair of the human condition transformed into black humour. The dance of the clowns is regularly used in the text to bring on apocalypse:
‘It seemed that they were dancing the room apart. As the baboushka slept, her too, too solid kitchen fell into pieces under the blows of their disorder as if it had been, all the time, an ingenious prop, and the purple Petersburg night inserted jagged wedges into the walls around the table on which these comedians cavorted with such little pleasure, in a dance which could have invoked the end of the world.’
Oh this is a black and disturbing text, under its shiny circus costume, and the company comes to grief in its overambitious journey and must face down any number of demons, conflicts, disasters and deaths before the end is reached. Carter is so subtle in her underlying preoccupations; they are stitched so tightly and seamlessly into the diamond brilliance of her prose that it takes a while to unpick them. But once I’d laid this book down, and let it simmer for a while in my mind, I felt that what mattered most was its historical context, set in 1899 and climaxing as the New Year dawns. The shoddy glamour of the circus, the exhilarating lure of the fantastic, the extravagant ambitions of the performers all seem to represent the shimmering if misled optimism of the nineteenth century bumping up against the disquieting negativity of the twentieth. For me, it’s all concentrated into the story of the Sleeping Beauty, another mutant who, with Fevvers, is kept semi-prisoner in a brothel of freaks, a woman in a semi-permanent state of coma:
‘it seems as if her dreams grow more urgent and intense, as if the life she leads in the closed world of dreams is now about to possess her utterly, as if her small, increasingly reluctant wakenings were an interruption of some more vital existence, so she is loathe to spend even those few necessary moments of wakefulness with us, wakings strange as her sleepings. Her marvelous fate – a sleep more lifelike than the living, a dream which consummates the world.
‘And, sir,’ concluded Fevvers, in a voice that now took on the sombre, majestic tones of a great organ, ‘we do believe… her dream will be the coming century.
‘And, oh God… how frequently she weeps!’
If you want to try something spectacular, something profoundly disturbing, something utterly challenging, then try this. It will repay your attention and your energy. On an entirely different note, does anyone have a copy of Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman that they would like to mooch? I’d love to read this but just cannot get hold of it. Email me if you do.