When I was given A Card From Angela Carter at a Bloomsbury party a while ago, I was excited to read it – but, at the same time, I worried that it might be a bit barrel-scrapey. The barrel that, as far as I know, has in fact scarcely been investigated. The publication of some of Carter’s postcards seems as though it would be the afterthought to a long series of edited diaries and letters – none of which have been published (or have they?)
But I needn’t have worried. The selection of postcards Angela Carter had sent to Susannah Clapp was really just an ingenious way for Clapp to organise her thoughts about a dear friend, and a refreshingly original take on the memoir genre.
I love biographies where the writer knew and loved the subject. Indeed, I’m reading one at the moment that is a strong contender for my favourite book of the year. So it is lovely to see Angela Carter as Susannah Clapp saw her – witty, a little rude, loyal, colourful, more political than I expected, and a lover of literature. It is the last quality which I noted down most (perhaps unsurprisingly). I was surprised, though, to learn that she didn’t like Dickens – that she didn’t find him funny. I know some people do not, but having read Wise Children (which, thankfully, is the novel Clapp talks about most in A Card) I assumed Carter had been influenced by Dickens’ own extravagant joie de vivre. But there are plenty of writers Carter did admire:
Yet for her deepest admiration she went further back. Chaucer – who was “so nice about women” and who, in the Wife of Bath, created a character she loved – was to her the “sanest, the sweetest and most decent of English poets”. She liked the idea that he wrote “before English became a language of imperialism”. She liked the notion that The Canterbury Tales, coming from an oral tradition, had to be direct and forceful enough to transmit when read aloud to a room full of people who were busy “sewing or shelling peas”. She liked the aspects of Chaucer’s work that pre-dated the novel, and half-disapproved of the genre in which she made her name. “I’m sufficient of a doctrinaire to believe that the novel is the product of a leisured class. Actually.” That ‘actually’ dangling from the end of a sentence was habitual when she spoke. Dainty but adamant, it was like the flick of a heel or the toss of her head. It warded off objections but also slightly invited contradiction. It both emphasised and slightly undermined what she had just said. Actually.
And then, of course – of course – there is Shakespeare. Wise Children is a love letter to Shakespeare – and Clapp’s first-hand knowledge of Carter offers an interesting perspective:
She favoured the bland lines that moved the plot on: “a ship has come from France”. She was dismissive of the routine idea that had he been alive now he would have been writing for television: he would more likely have been a used-car salesman.
As for the cards themselves – they’re reproduced in b/w in the book, and are mostly a little silly. There’s the car which looks like a chicken; the myth of mountains in love; the Charles/Diana divorce card… the Statue of Liberty in a lake; Betty Boop as a geisha, and (but of course) Shakespeare. Clapp uses these cleverly to organise her thoughts about Carter, only occasionally seeming to read more into the choice of card than was probably intended.
It could have all been the scraping of a barrel, but it actually turned out to be very innovative, and rather moving. For a writer as unusual as Angela Carter, only an unusual form of memoir would do, wouldn’t it?