Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Bloody Chamber and the Bloody Chapter

This morning I started Angela Carter's collection of rewritten fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber. Carter's work is--it probably doesn't need to be said--quite different from what I just finished reading, Jose Maria de Eça de Queirós' novel The Illustrious House of Ramires.

Ramires is a 19th century novel, a traditional 3-act hero's journey story which ends on a sweet and sympathetic note despite the fact that the big reversal at the end of Act 2 is so violent and bloody. I plan to read more Eça de Queirós in the future.

But let's get back to Ms Carter. I got well into the title story of the collection on the bus this morning. It was clear from a few pages in that this is a retelling of Bluebeard's Castle, and so of course I'm wondering now if Carter will take the story in one of the two traditional paths trod by rewriters of this tale (the wife either becomes her husband's next victim or she somehow takes control over him in a surprising twist). Hopefully Carter is going to surprise me and do neither of these things. Really, though, how she ends the story is the least important thing. I don't read for plot.

Carter's prose, possibly because it's so different from that of Eça de Queirós, is exhausting me. Maybe I'm just in that "getting to know you" phase through which I always labor whenever I begin reading a book and things will settle down after another couple of pages. Maybe not. Bloody Chamber is so far told almost entirely in summary, by which I mean that there are no dramatized scenes. The writing is rich and the language is alive with imagery, but it's all held at a distance; we are never inside the story even though it's a first-person narrative. Carter has a lot of ground to cover so her use of summary makes sense, but I'm hoping that she puts me into the story present soon. I hope the entire book isn't written at this narrative distance.

Carter's prose also exhausts me because it is so thick and imagistic. The sexual metaphors come constantly: the train's "pumping pistons," the husband's "leathery scent," the causeway "rising from the sea," et cetera. Those are the least of them. Try this excerpt:

Even when he asked me to marry him, and I said "Yes," still he did not lose that heavy, fleshy composure of his. I know it must seem a curious analogy, a man with a flower, but sometimes he seemed to me like a lily. Yes. A lily. Possessed of that strange, ominous calm of a sentient vegetable, like one of those cobra-headed, funereal lilies whose white sheaths are curled out of a flesh as thick and tensely yielding to the touch as vellum. When I said that I would marry him, not one muscle in his face stirred, but he let out a long, extinguished sigh. I thought: Oh! how he must want me! And it was as though the imponderable weight of his desire was a force I might not withstand, not by virtue of its violence but because of its very gravity.

I should quote Carter about the collection's dark eroticism: "I was taking ... the latent content of those traditional stories and using that; and the latent content is violently sexual."

I had no idea when I picked up this book that "violently sexual" retellings of fairy tales had become Carter's thing and that "The Bloody Chamber" is taught in almost every modern fiction class in the English-speaking world. And possibly because of my deeply-ingrained prudery I wouldn't have purchased the book had I known all this, so it's good that I was ignorant in the store and all I thought when I saw the row of her books on the shelf was, "Hey, she's supposed to be a pretty good writer. Isn't she dead or something?"

But enough about Angela Carter. Maybe more tomorrow; maybe not. I also wanted to say that I'm continuing, with some difficulty, to write the first draft of my new book and the absolute disorganization of what I'm putting onto the page is driving me mad. It's all coming out of any order and for the life of me I can't figure out what goes where, so I'm just for now trying to capture all of it, throw it all up onto the canvas as it were, with the hope that I'll be able to make sense of it later. I don't like working this way. I like to have a more deliberate process, even during a first draft. This book is not cooperating. It's much harder work than I like.


  1. I went to a Southern Baptist college in Alabama. In my early twenties, I was obsessed with Angela Carter and I convinced a professor to put The Bloody Chamber on the syllabus for an upcoming class.

    She did and my classmates were FREAKED by it. One girl told me that the stories made her feel like she was looking through a keyhole at something really naughty she wasn't sure she wanted to see. :)

  2. Some of my current writing reminds me of looking through a keyhole at something I'm not sure I want to see. So maybe reading Angela Carter will be good for me.

    I doubt I'll be shocked, but I hope I'll be made uncomfortable at least. That's worth the price of admission. I am going to think about the novels of William Burroughs and Erica Jong while I read The Bloody Chamber, maybe. See how that situates things for me. The more I read, the more I wish I had already read, you know?

  3. I need to read more. I have the hardest time reading while I'm drafting a book, and since I'm working on Scales now, my reading has stopped. Although I'd put it all on hold to read your book or one of Davin's. :)

    Angela Carter sounds up my alley. I think I might have to check out her work.

  4. My reading slows way down when I'm writing on anything like a regular basis. Which is about to start, darn it. You'll have something from me soon, I promise!

    I thought of your prose when I was reading Carter. I couldn't decide if you'd like her or not. Sometimes we want something unlike us, you know? But you should give her a look. There's a sort of "forces moving beneath the surface" in her stories that you also have going on. Your prose is lighter, more mobile than Carter's. But yes, you should definitely read her so you can tell me what you think of it!