Monday, July 26, 2010

Nights at the Circus & Wise Children: Angela Carter's Last, Great Novels

Maybe I should elaborate.

Angela Carter's final two novels before her early death from lung cancer in 1992 are also, for my (pretend) money, the two greatest show biz novels ever written. I started reading Nights at the Circus on the subway ride from my parents house to Windsor Terrace on the very first day of my taking up residency in Brooklyn. For some reason, this feels deeply symbolic to me in ways that feel profound, but difficult to articulate. Why is it that one's life tends to change in so many ways at once? I spent a great deal of time my first winter in the wilds of Brooklyn wondering what I was doing there and I read an awful lot, but it started with this one book.

Nights at the Circus is written in three parts (or acts, or rings if you like). So many novels about theater, or show business wind up being a little like the novel equivalent of one of those HBO bio pics. Don't misunderstand me, I love HBO bio pics - but I mean they tend to be I guess really linear and about the subject matter in a way that really great literature rarely is. Nights at the Circus is a truly great book that most people I know have never read. Which just kills me.

It begins at the cusp of the 20th century in London. Jack, an American reporter sits in Sophie Fevver's dressing room as she tells him her extraordinary life story. Fevvers is the toast of Europe, the greatest aerialist alive - billed as "The Cockney Venus" she has two wings on her back, and may be part swan, part clockwork or a complete hoax. Her tag line is , "Is she fact or is she fiction?" and it's really the question of the book. In all Angela Carter's books and stories, people are always changeable, nothing is carved in stone. Women turn into tigers, men wake up women, you name it. But in her last two great novels, this mutability, her obsession with facades and performance is self-consciously theatrical. She achieves the tone in Circus of a gritty, music hall, magic realism, burlesque that is quite literally completely unlike anything else I've ever read. Little Fevvers was found as an infant on the doorstep of a London brothel just beginning to sprout little tufts of down on her shoulder blades ("Looks like the little thing is going to sprout fevvers!"), was raised there, eventually finding herself in a freak brothel run by an evil, tiny dried up puppet of a woman (who may actually be a puppet). The old whore who raised Fevvers may be an anarchist (the kind that blows things up), and the reporter wonders if Fevvers is actually a man, and if anything he is told is true.

The second act is set in St Petersburg as Fevvers has been engaged by Colonel Kearney's Circus for their Grand Imperial Tour of the Russias and Japan (to be followed by their Great Democratic Tour of the United States). Jack has signed on as a clown, and there is lots of truly disquieting drunken clown mayhem and strange self loathing monologues by the monstrous Buffo the Great who turns the American into "The Human Chicken". There is the ape act, with the drunken Professor who beats his poor, long suffering mistress (who used to work for a crooked spiritualist, playing dead children), the Abyssinian Princess (ahem.) who tames tigers, a high wire act that loathes Fevvers (understandably), a love sick strongman named Samson. And Colonel Kearney himself, the ringmaster and circus owner, a huckster from Kentucky with a remarkable pig named Sybil. The story telling is strange, meandering, and baroque. The third act is set in Siberia, and here it takes a turn into the truly bizarre and nearly mystical. Circus impresarios, murderesses, would-be rapists, amnesia, winged women, tigers caught in mirrors, a Russian Grand Duke, explosions, freaks, whores, truly educated apes. Lots of it is funny, some extremely unsettling. The whole thing is just gorgeous. Angela Carter books aren't about plots, hers are usually absurd burlesques, mad enough to demonstrate that plot should never be the point of good literature.

Wise Children is my favorite novel. In the world. That I've ever read. Ever. Which actually makes it a little hard for me to speak about it rationally, as I'm determined not to resort to the listicle. It's the story of a (mostly) English show business dynasty as told by elderly former chorine Dora Chance (the rest of the family possess the surname Hazard, of course!). In the true Shakespearean tradition the book is full of twins (I think there are FIVE sets), it's besotted with Shakespeare from top to bottom (intended). Dora and Nora Chance are (probably) the illegitimate twin daughters of the great stage star and Shakespearean, Melchior Hazard. As Dora says at one point, being illegitimate, she and her twin go on the halls. And that's really the meat of the book. It's about art and entertainment high and low and everything between. And about family. About parents and children and people who are parents in name only and about the people who raise and love them. The cast is enormous, and nearly everyone in the book is "family" in some way or another to the two Chance sisters, either by marriage, blood, adoption or coercion. Their father, Melchior, never acknowledges them officially - his American brother, Perry, steps up, puts his name on the birth certificate and becomes their adored and adoring uncle.

I mean it when I say nearly every sort of enterprise that might hire an actor makes an appearance: Shakespeare (of course), music hall, vaudeville, burlesque, English pantomime, Hollywood movies, game shows, commercials, children's television, cooking shows, and on and on. The Chance sisters are raised in a theatrical boarding house by their beloved Grandma Chance (vegetarian, pacifist, nudist and drinker of créme de menthe). The appearances by real life luminaries are blessedly few and far between. Famous people are mentioned occasionally, but they remain off stage. There's a lovely description of a Fred and Adele Astaire routine - the girls' first show, and the first time they see their father in the flesh. There is also a whole Dan Leno routine in a seaside theater in Brighton, and he becomes an actual character in the book, playing Bottom in a disastrous movie version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. I had no idea that Dan Leno was a real person until I read my always charming inamorato's book on vaudeville. I may have even said out loud, "Oh! He's real!" to an entire subway car.

One of the most wonderful things about the book is Dora's voice. She's a smart, working class dame who learned how to write from her former boyfriend, just referred to by his nickname, Irish. He's clearly drawn from a mixture of Fitzgerald and Faulkner in their Hollywood years. She's by turns hard boiled and sentimental, and the set pieces are wondrous: the winter orgy outside of a burning mansion, the set of the aforementioned film of Dream, the entire Brighton sequence. The last line of the book, after a raucous party filled with centenarians, butterflies and incest, is "what a joy it is to dance and sing".

Wise Children is cast pretty much entirely with people who until fairly recently wouldn't have been allowed to be buried in cemeteries along side so-called decent people. Self-invented actors and performers and impresarios. That is to say, my kind of people.

Note: There will likely be further posts later. My Angela Carter claims don't rest just on these two novels. There is also the criticism, the translations, many other novels, the radio plays, and the truly glorious short stories and fairy tales.


That Fuzzy Bastard said...

I've always thought HBO piobics were much less linear and boring than Hollywood biopics, actually! THE ALLEGEDLY TRUE ADVENTURES OF THE TEXAS CHEERLEADER-MURDERING MOM and THE TRIALS OF CLARENCE THOMAS are, like, a million times more interesting than RAY or WALK THE LINE.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Ahem---biopics, I mean. That's a weirdly hard word to type.

Caviglia said...

I was thinking more of the show biz biopics, like the Dorothy Dandridge or Josephine baker ones. The others fall more into the "true crime" category for me. But I realize this may be a distinction only I make.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Ah, I gotcha. I do love the idea of the Clarence Thomas movie being classified as "true crime".