Susannah Clapp, A Card from Angela Carter

From last weekend’s column.

I spent the evening after I finished this leafing through Shaking A Leg, Carter’s collected journalism and being reminded of just how much I enjoy her voice. I’m not sure how much of a compliment to Clapp it is to say that what I liked so much about her book was another writer’s voice, but still.

This blog has been quiet lately; here’s Carter on a missed deadline:

Pieces had to be wheedled and winkled out of her during epic exchanges on the phone. “I’m sorry I’m such a lousy deadline-keeper,” she wrote from London, enclosing a delayed review. “But it’s been the end of term & I had lots & lots of term-papers and I went deaf & I trod on a rabid squirrel & All has been Hell.”

 

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It’s easier to kill some writers than others.

As a reader, I’m mostly in favour of the death of the author. Authors are all very well in their place, but no one wants then getting in the way while we’re reading; it can be distracting and it often limits the ways in which we can engage with the book. Sometimes it’s necessary to admit that an author is still alive (when, for example, they’re a horrible bigot who may use the money from their royalties to fund further horrible bigotry) but most of the time it’s convenient to pretend they don’t exist. Biographies and memoirs of authors generally do not interest me; nor do collections of their correspondence.

But then there’s Susannah Clapp’s A Card From Angela Carter, which I enjoyed far more than I expected to. Clapp was Carter’s friend for many years (and her literary executor after the author’s death in 1992); A Card From Angela Carter is a short literary memoir constructed around some of the postcards that Clapp received from Carter over the course of their friendship. Each postcard (presumably not an exhaustive set) is pictured, and used as a starting point for Clapp’s reminisces of Carter’s life, or musings upon some aspect of her work.

One reason I enjoyed it so much, perhaps, is that I first read Carter in school and some vestiges of hero-worship still remain. With adulthood has come the ability to critique, and to admit that I don’t always find her (politically or artistically) flawless, but part of me is still the teenaged fan who wished she could have known her. Then too, in her fiction as well as her non-fiction (she was a journalist and reviewer as well as a novelist) Carter is never a remote authorial presence whose existence can be forgotten. She is always unmistakably herself, and this is one of her great strengths. Clapp notes that even as a teenaged feature writer at the beginning of her career, Carter would deliberately insert herself into her work. “She began using the first person – in places that person did not usually reach – as a way of making sure she got a byline: her gambit was to use ‘I’ so often that a sub-editor couldn’t be bothered to keep taking it out”.

Due to its brevity and the way it is structured A Card from Angela Carter is scattershot, a series of interconnected impressions of the author rather than an attempt to capture all of her. This works well, and Carter’s own words shine through. I spent the evening after I read Clapp’s book skimming through Shaking a Leg, an anthology of Carter’s nonfiction, and remembering how much I enjoy her voice. As Clapp herself says, “During my twelve years on the editorial staff of the London Review of Books, hers was the copy I was keenest to read. She was the only reviewer who could deliver with equal pungency on the ANC and on Colette, and who could tell us that D. H. Lawrence was ‘a stocking man, not a leg man’.”

Occasionally Clapp’s own voice turns into something rather special as well, as when she describes events after Carter’s funeral, as security guards appeared to protect the author’s close friend Salman Rushdie. “it was as if Birnam Wood had come to Putney Vale. The surrounding trees rearranged themselves. They shifted and they sprouted feet. They marched and dispelled, shaking themselves free of foliage.”

A Card from Angela Carter ends with Carter’s memorial service. It’s tempting to say something unbearably trite about authors living on in their work, but her friends and family presumably know how far from true that is. But there’s more life and personhood in a sentence of Carter than most writers can hope to aspire to, and Clapp’s book does a wonderful job of reminding us of this.

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Favourite bits that didn’t make it into the review include a postcard in which Carter begs to be given “any Brontë stuff” that comes in for review, because no one else has written about them properly.

And this:

“Like Angela, Empson was a high-wire stylist, an atheist and an admirer of Andrew Marvell; like her, he had lived in Japan. They met later when Angela went to hear him lecturing – her with her flyaway hair, him with the slipping-down beard that he wore round his neck like a bib – but all Angela reported to me about the critical illuminator of ambiguity was that he made (not for her) a seduction drink from tinned raspberries and condensed milk.”

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