Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Carter and Poe

I’ve frequently wondered: why isn’t Angela Carter more widely read in the States? She was friends with Rushdie, who wrote a moving essay about her at the time of her death, and she seems to still be read seriously in England in general. But here she’s a cult figure at best (with Rick Moody being the only writer that I know of to continually name her as an influence--and I think he studied with her for a time too).

I suspect it has something to do with the various reasons Poe has always been more appreciated in Europe and Latin America than in the States. Borges, Cortazar, Nabokov, and Bolano have all talked about Poe’s influence--Bolano even said in one interview that as a youth there was a time when all he read was Poe--but here he seems to be thought of as generally too decorative, too morbid, too artificially Baroque, too “European,” too art-for-art’s sake. The anti-Whitman. (Which isn’t exactly fair: Whitman could have a very dark side too.) Borges loved Poe’s fascination with mysteries, and with the weirder side of the occult, along with Poe’s penchant for logic games; Nabokov liked Poe’s sense of literary self-awareness, his way of making his works self-consciously constructed objects; Bolano was influenced by Poe’s fascination with art and crime, or the artful crime.

Carter shared with Poe a love for an incredibly “poetic” style, her stories and novels teeming with monstrous, beautiful imagery, as well as his way of blending the negative with the ecstatic (sexual, intellectual, even gastronomic). One of my favorite Carter novels is The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, and one of my favorite sections is about “the Count” and his mysterious valet. The Count is a mixture of de Sade, Huysmans, and Vincent Price: “He has scarcely an element of realism and yet he was quite real. He could say nothing that was not grandiose. He claimed he lived only to negate the world.” At one point, the narrator and the Count go to a brothel called the House of Anonymity, a place of hallucinatory and nightmarish excess (one of the chambers is called “The Bestial Room”), and where the madam wears “a mask of supple, funereal black leather like the masks worn by old-fashioned executioners.” I especially love the phrase “the old-fashioned” masks. She and Poe, like the Surrealists, had a strong taste for discarded fashions and discredited ideas. And there’s something subversive in that taste, a contrarian desire to not want to go along quietly with pervading social trends, with the neatly linear notion of history, etc.


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