"Reading a book is like re-writing it for yourself. You bring to a novel, anything you read, all your experience of the world." — Angela Carter

Month: August, 2012

Literary Maps by Geoff Sawers

These are literary maps of the UK, USA and Wales designed by Geoff Sawers. They would look great on the wall, and make me feel a little patriotic (God forbid) towards this little island of ours.


In Sylvia Plath Country by Erica Jong

The skin of the sea

has nothing to tell me.

I see her diving down

into herself—

past the bell-shaped jellyfish

who toll for no one—

& meaning to come back


In London, in the damp

of a London morning,

I see her sitting,

folding & unfolding herself,

while the blood

hammers like rain

on her heart’s windows.

This is her own country—

the sea, the rain

& death half ryhming

with her father’s name.

Obscene monosyllable,

it lingers for a while

on the roof

of the mouth’s house.

I stand here

savoring the sound,

like salt


They thought your death

was your last poem :

a black book

with gold-tooled cover

& pages the color of ash.

But I thought different,

knowing how madness

doesn’t believe

in metaphor.

When you began to feel

the drift of continents

beneath your feet,

the sea’s suck,

& each

atom of the poisoned air,

you lost

the luxury of similie.


Gull calls, broken shell,

the quarried coast.

This is where America ends,

dropping off

to the depths.

Death comes

differently in California.

Marilyn stalled

in celluloid,

the frame stuck,

& the light

burning through.

Bronze to her platinum,

Ondine, Ariel,

finally no one,

What could we tell you

after you dove down into yourself

& were swallowed

by your poems?

Erica Jong in Women’s Studies, Vol. 2 No. 1 (1974)

Yes, we who are full to the gorge with misery, should look well around, doubting everything seen, done, spoken, precisely because we have a word for it, and not its alchemy.

This is a quote from Dr Matthew O’Connor in Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood. It’s easily one of my favourite novels after studying it for my dissertation. I should be reviewing/analysing it next week, I’m not sure which yet.

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

After a three-year hiatus of reading exactly what I want, when I want, Nights at the Circus was the second book I decided to pick up. I’d been having some trouble getting into the swing of things; after my dissertation my mind seemed to work at two polar extremes: “READ ALL THE BOOKS!” at one end, and “Mmm… I’ll pick it up later” at the other. I’m quite certain that I have Angela Carter‘s Nights at the Circus to thank for restoring my mental status quo when it comes to reading. I simply couldn’t put it down, and when I had to I’d spend the intervening hours anticipating picking it up again.

The plot concerns Fevvers, or “The Cockney Venus”, as she’s billed on the posters for Colonel Kearney’s circus. She is peroxide blonde, over six feet tall and, unlikely enough, makes her living as a world-famous aerialiste at the turn of the nineteenth century. One more thing you should know (and I use the term “know” in the most relaxed sense possible) about Fevvers: she has wings.

The story opens as Fevvers charms journalist Jack Walser with her life story during an interview in her London dressing room. Hatched from an egg, raised in a brothel, conned into slavery by the owner of an erotic freak show, and finally led to the trapeze by an old acquaintance, Fevvers’ story requires the ultimate suspension of disbelief. Walser, being rather cynical, is unaccustomed to this sort of demand and joins the circus to uncover the truth, whatever it may be.

Taking us through Russia and Siberia, Carter introduces us to a veritable menagerie of eccentric characters (she does have a whole circus to get through) and their weird and wonderful back stories. A stretch of the imagination to begin with, Carter’s narrative moves further and further from reality as the novel progresses, and is all the more charming for it.

The novel, much in line with Carter’s usual style, is distinctly postmodern, and full to the brim with magical realism. The surreal playfulness of Nights at the Circus, along with the generally transitory feeling of the novel, works as a vehicle for Carter to contend with issues of individualism and the need for connection, feminism, time and reality. Towards the end of the novel, Carter invokes Foucault’s metaphor of the panopticon quite literally. The women of the prison, however, are able to escape due to the silent yet powerful bonds developed between the guards and the inmates, proposing an optimistic and feminist possibility for escape from modern disciplinary society.

Carter’s prose is magnetic and lyrical, her story captivating and her characters totally enchanting. Just as Fevvers walks the tight rope between fact and fiction, Carter skilfully creates a prose that is simultaneously fabulously entertaining and deeply sincere.

Top line: “In a secular age, an authentic miracle must purport to be a hoax, in order to gain credit in the world.”

You won’t find elsewhere: Waltzing tigers, fortune-telling pigs, a beautiful and detailed deconstruction of clowning, a cockney version of the winged victory.

Low point: If you’re not accustomed to reaching for your dictionary on occasion, Carter’s style may not be for you.