I’ve taken a brief break from the cold, barren landscapes of Arctic literature, needing something a bit more meaty and lively, and saw that the Guardian book club were reading Nights at the Circus as their February read. I’m not a member of the Guardian book club, I don’t participate, but I do love Carter and Nights is one of her books that I’ve never quite got around to, or tried and failed in the past, and it felt like time. I adore Angela Carter. I still remember the shiver of encounter back when I was doing my A level in English Literature and we had a trainee teacher who came in one week and tested her skills on us, and she chose The Lady of the House of Love from Carter’s unworldly short story collection The Bloody Chamber, and it was so visceral and real, so gory and dark and physical, that I still, even all these years later, remember how it made me feel. Shortly afterwards I sought out more Carter for myself discovering first The Magic Toyshop and from there I’ve never looked back. There is something so unique about Carter. She digs out life’s entrails and uses them to auger such extraordinary visions – packed with incomprehensible events and the most marvellous metaphors and similes – that the whole glorious spectacle assembles itself into some curdled vision of life that crawls over on its tangled limbs and smacks you lustily in the mouth leaving a smear of yesterday’s fish pie on your cheek. That’s Carter: writing so bloody it leaves you feeling a little sticky.
Nights, I’m glad to say, fulfils all Carter’s usual promise. This is the story of Sophie Fevvers, a winged-woman circus performer, Helen of the high-wire, hatched not born, a woman who is as much myth as reality and who is under the scrutiny of Jack Walser, a young American journalist, who takes a break from his usual war stories to debunk the myth, to untangle the real woman from the fictional winged-Victory. He meets with Fevvers after the show, finding her in the company of ex-whore and adoptive mother Lizzie who is as eloquent and mysterious as the winged woman is. Walser soon finds himself out of his depth:
“With that, she batted her eyelashes at Walser in the mirror. From the pale length of those eyelashes, a good three inches, he might have thought she had not taken her false ones off had he not been able to see them lolling, hairy as gooseberries, among the formidable refuse of the dressing-table. He continued to take notes in a mechanical fashion but, as the women unfolded the convolutions of their joint stories together, he felt more and more like a kitten tangling up in a ball of wool it had never intended to unravel in the first place; or a sultan faced with not one but two Scheherezades, both intent on impacting a thousand stories into a single night.”
Hairy as gooseberries indeed! Fevvers leaps into existence, sharing her story with a sceptical and confused Walser. She spins him the yarn of her history, her years growing up in Ma Nelson’s whorehouse, the growing of her wings, her discovery of flight. After Ma Nelson’s death, she and Lizzie – of Italian extraction – move to live with Lizzie’s relatives in their ice cream parlour, but this idyll doesn’t last long and poverty forces Fevvers to sell herself again, this time to Madame Schreck who runs a subterranean freakshow-come-whorehouse from which Fevvers is again sold, this time to a creepy penis-worshipping recluse who hopes to capture ‘Azrael’s’ powers in his quest for eternal life. Fevvers escapes him and returns back to Lizzie and her family, where the circus and the mythology of the winged aeraliste begins to form around her.
Walser is sceptical but also entranced and overwhelmed by everything that Fevvers is. Despite aiming to debunk her (are the wings real? Walser is not the only one to wonder) be becomes a follower, an acolyte of sorts, convincing his editor to abandon the gritty, realist work he’d been writing to date and switch his focus to the fanciful life of Fevvers, ostensibly to dig out the truth of her story. Thus Walser joins the circus, in secret, and follows Fevvers to St. Petersburg where he becomes a clown, is attacked by a tiger and falls in love, though doesn’t recognise it. Fevvers for her own part continues to have her own adventures and ruthlessly follows the money where it takes her. For Fevvers is mercenary in spirit, whilst soft of heart, and ever aware of her extraordinary nature and her mythical appeal she trades herself for advantage, though it doesn’t always go as she hopes. The story culminates in a train wreck, a kidnapping, shamanism and the power and debilitating joys of love. As Fevvers ruefully acknowledges:
“The Cockney Venus! she thought bitterly. Now she looks more like one of the ruins that Cromwell knocked about a bit. Helen, formerly of the high-wire, now permanently grounded. Pity the New Woman if she turns out to be as easily demolished as me.”
Sometimes we have to spin ourselves in a yarn to believe we’re extraordinary.
The story of Nights at the Circus whirls and dips and floats around like Fevvers on the trapeze and it’s crazy and unbelievable, grotesque and florid and dazzling. It reminded me of all the manic promise of The Master and Margarita, but without the incomprehensibility or the underpinning ideology which made it so impenetrable. Instead Nights at the Circus is all heart, all bloodied and messy and beating wildly in your hands and as fragile and glorious and as beautiful. Carter has an extraordinarily sensuous way of writing, she appeals and appals in equal measure, not least of which in the character of Fevvers which is so three dimensional at times you can even taste her. Fevvers is a work of genius. She is vulgar and enormous, beautiful and disgusting all at once. She is the after-smell of last night’s dirty socks and underwear and she has terrible taste and a core of avarice that guides her into riches and peril in equal measure. She has the mouth of an educated whore, yet insists she is virga intacta and the feathers and her story are real. I find it hard to recall any more magnificent and tawdry a character, and yet one so oppressively powerful. For Fevvers is a powerful woman, she is a woman unapologetic about her appetites and her desires, she doesn’t care if she smells or belches, she doesn’t care what people think of her even if they doubt her, believe her a fraud. The only time she begins to deteriorate is when she begins to doubt herself, when she loses her confidence and her ability to sustain the myth. But like anything with Fevvers it isn’t long-lasting and she emerges, forceful and proud and triumphant: the winged Victory after all. I could go on, but instead I’ll defer to Carter’s greater capability:
“What made her remarkable as an aerialiste, however, was the speed – or, rather, the lack of it – with which she performed even the climatic triple somersault. When the hack aerialiste, the everyday, wingless variety, performs the triple somersault, he or she travels through the air at a cool sixty miles an hour; Fevvers, however, contrived a contemplative and leisurely twenty-five, so that the packed theatre could enjoy the spectacle, as in slow motion, of every tense muscle straining in her Rubeneseque form. The music went much faster than she did; she dawdled. Indeed, she did defy the law of projectiles, because a projectile cannot mooch along its trajectory; if it slackens its speed in mid-air, down it falls. But Fevvers, apparently, pottered along the invisible gangway between her trapezes with the portly dignity of a Trafalgar Square pigeon flapping from one proffered handful of corn to another, and then she turned head over heels three times, lazily enough to show off the crack in her bum.”
And that, to me, is what makes Carter so amazing. She can take you from awe to disgust in the space of 10 words, and yet what emerges is something so tangible that the characters, and their situation however grotesque, become oppressively real. Nights at the Circus is a fun, disturbing and mad read that grabs you by the goolies and squeezes mercilessly, laughing in your face and daring you not to enjoy it.