A Personal Appreciation
(written immediately after news of her death)
By Jeff VanderMeer
She was a wise child herself, with a mobile face, a mouth which sometimes pursed with irony, and, behind the glasses, a wryness, at times a twinkle, at times a certain dreaminess, with her long, silvery hair and ethereal delivery, she had something of the Faery Queen about her, except that she was never whispy or fey.
--Marina Warner, A Virago Keepsake, 1993.
I fell in love with Angela Carter shortly after a 1991 writer's convention. I had bought a British first edition of her extraordinary novel, Nights at the Circus and I fell in love quite literally -- sweaty palms, palpitating heart, acute lightheadedness. What brilliance! What brashness! Here was an author who dared to tell stories within stories, create a plot as dense and baroque as her style -- and still, in the end, deliver on an emotional level.
Can you remember the sense of enrapturement that stole over you as you read countless fantastical stories in your youth? Stories which only later did you discover bore the names "Bradbury," "Lewis," "Tolkien"? I have lost that sense of wonder through years of critical reading: reading to become a writer. But Carter's work -- a unique synthesis of Conrad, Swift, and Carroll -- restored that feeling to me.
I read Carter's The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman only two months ago and literally cried out in delight every few pages because of the brilliance of the language, the muscularity of descriptions such as "the louring mountains." Louring: alluring, glowering, and looming all bundled up into one word. Louring. A tiny example, I know, but it rolls off the tongue as if it were meant to be there. As a writer, I know of no greater pleasure than the discovery of passion, eccentricity, and technical precision in the same package.
Yet I doubt that many people will mark her premature passing at the age of 52. I doubt many people will even recognize the name. Unlike the myriad fantasists who have pulled themselves out of the gutter of "genre" fiction, Carter was "literary" from the start and thus easily ignore by the genre. Never mind that Carter stands among the greatest of all 20th Century fantasists, eclipsing lesser talents such as Bradbury or Ellison.
I fell in love with Angela Carter's writing only a year ago, but she has taught me so much in that brief span. She has taught me control of language, a sense of the spectacularly absurd, the unsettling, the transcendent. She will continue to teach me as I search out every last one of her books.
However, you cannot teach the kind of passion that infused Carter's work. You cannot teach that style: dense and convoluted and sensuous. You can't even imitate it, just as you can't imitate Conrad without appearing foolish. If you are like me, you mourn her passing and hope -- really deep in your gut -- that, someday, you may write half as well.
At the conclusion of Nights at the Circus, a cynical reporter catches up with the bawdy circus performer with improbable wings. He has pursued her half way around the world. He had hoped to prove her a fake, but he discovered instead that he has fallen in love with her:
He was as much himself again as he ever would be, and yet that "self" would never be the same again for now he knew the meaning of fear as it defines itself in its most violent form, that is, fear of the death of the beloved, of the loss of the beloved, of the loss of love. It was the beginning of an anxiety that would never end, except with the deaths of either or both; and anxiety is the beginning of conscience, which is the parent of the soul but is not compatible with innocence.
Angela Carter is dead and I really feel as if I have lost someone close to me, a comrade I counted on to outlast me so that I would be able to read her works long into my own twilight years.
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