In the first of a new series of exclusive interviews that will be appearing on Angela Carter Online, I sit down to talk with Edmund Gordon, author of the first authorised biography of Angela Carter.
Caleb Sivyer: For readers unfamiliar with your work, could you tell me a little about your background?
Edmund Gordon: My background is in newspaper journalism and literary criticism, although I drifted into both professions more or less by accident. I studied philosophy at Trinity College, Dublin, and then didn’t have much of an idea of what I wanted to do beyond a desire to write. So I moved to Berlin, where I started working on an atrociously bad and basically unfinishable novel. I supported myself by writing for travel guides, and I also started writing some book reviews for English language magazines in Berlin, just to make a bit of extra money really. And it was in Berlin that I first read Angela Carter – I’d heard Ali Smith describing Carter as her favourite writer, and then shortly afterwards I came across a copy of The Magic Toyshop in a second-hand bookstore, so I bought it, and I was just blown away, really. I then returned to Britain after a year, and did an MA in modern literature at UCL, where I wrote my dissertation on Penelope Fitzgerald, whom Carter was no great fan of – and I continued to review books throughout my MA.
So by the time I finished my MA I’d already started to develop a career as a freelance critic. I was doing a lot of book reviews for a while after that. I was writing for the Times Literary Supplement, the Observer, the Guardian, and latterly for the London Review of Books a little bit, the Sunday Times quite a lot, the Literary Review. And as I became a bit more established as a critic, I started to receive other sorts of journalistic commission – I interviewed Debbie Harry for The Irish Times, I wrote a couple of travel pieces for The Independent… You don’t make much money through freelance journalism, but there are various perks: people start to know who you are after a while, and you start getting invited to parties and things, which is fun. And it was at a party that I met Susannah Clapp. I’d read several of Carter’s other novels by that stage, and I’d read around her a bit. And I knew that she had known Susannah Clapp and that they’d been part of the same kind of circle and they’d known each other at the London Review of Books. So I raised my love of Carter’s work with her and I said to her how extraordinary that nobody’s written a biography, I wonder why? And she said, I can tell you why, because I’m the literary executor. And she explained that a lot of people had expressed an interest in doing it shortly after Angela died. I think a lot of people assumed that Lorna Sage would do it. But it was felt that a proper biography shouldn’t happen at that stage because Alex (Carter’s son) was still a little boy and it was felt that he should be involved in the decision. So I think I was the first person who’d come along since Alex reached adulthood who the estate thought might be able to do it. And so after that I had to meet various people, it was a sort of progressive interview. So I met Deborah Rogers, who was Angela’s literary agent and who was very involved early on. I met Mark, her widower, and Alex, and I suppose I didn’t freak them out – they didn’t think I’d be a terrible person to do it. And Susannah did actually know my literary criticism – she knew my work for the TLS and the LRB, and thought well of it, which made things easier. I was a sort of known quantity in that respect.
CS: Yes, had Sage not died in 2001, I wouldn’t have been surprised had she written a biography of Carter. After all, they were friends, were they not?
EG: They were great friends. Sage did write an essay for Granta called ‘Death of the Author’, which was a kind of long biographical essay. And she then converted that into a short book, which is called simply Angela Carter and is part of the Writers and Their Work series, which is really useful. For a long time it was the only real biographical resource.
By contrast, I didn’t know Carter. I was only nine years old when she died: I was born in 1982. So I didn’t know her and indeed I didn’t live through most of the historical period she lived through. I think that sort of distance comes with both advantages and disadvantages, and I’m sure that somebody like Lorna Sage would have written a very different book to me. She would obviously have started out with a greater degree of intimacy with the material, she’d have known what it was like to be in a room with Carter, which I had to go to second-hand material for my sense of, I had to go on other people’s observations. At the same time, there is a kind of useful critical distance that comes from not having known somebody: you come to the material with fresh eyes, you are not wrapped up in your own biases to quite the same extent as anyone who knew her would have been. You’re sort of trying to find a path between other people’s biases a lot of the time.
“I was even dreaming about her quite regularly towards the end of writing this book. That has stopped, thank goodness!”
CS: Would you say that your image of Carter, and indeed your representation of her in the biography, comes from her texts?
EG: Initially, certainly, I came to her as a reader and as an admirer, and then I got to know her better through her unpublished writing – her letters and her journals. As my sense of her developed and became more complex I was also drawing on the memories of her that many other people had, and indeed on video footage. There’s an awful lot of surviving film footage of her, and radio interviews and recordings of her giving lectures. So by the end, I had a very good sense of what she sounded like when she spoke, her mannerisms and so on. I was even dreaming about her quite regularly towards the end of writing this book. That has stopped, thank goodness!
CS: I remember being quite surprised by the particular sound of Carter’s voice the first time I encountered it. Although her voice changes quite a lot, I was surprised at those moments when she appears to adopt, perhaps self-consciously, an educated-sounding voice.
EG: Absolutely. I think it’s partly a generational thing. As Martin Amis says somewhere in his memoir Experience, “it used to be cool to be posh”. I think there is partly that. But you know, she was not entirely un-posh. She had working-class roots but she was one generation removed from them. Her father was a Fleet Street journalist, she was very middle-class and she went to a private school. But what is extraordinary about her voice is that it suddenly shifts between registers, and indeed between accents. Last night [at the British Library celebration of Carter] when they showed two clips of her, she sounds sort of Northern sometimes and south London sometimes and very genteel and posh sometimes. It is an odd voice. But then I also think that in her work, there’s so much about performance and she obviously was a highly self-conscious person, and it is the voice of someone who’s quite self-conscious, somebody who is very aware of how they sound and how they’re coming across.
CS: Yes, that’s true. I have started rereading all of Carter’s novels for the website and I was struck by how much Shadow Dance, for example, is about artifice. There are so many costumes, and false noses, and the bar in the opening scene is described as completely fake…
EG: A “mock-up, a forgery, a fake”…
CS: Yes, exactly. It suggests to me that Carter is clearly someone very intrigued by the fakeness of everyday life, that we are all sort of faking our lives, we’re playing roles.
EG: I think that from a biographical point of view, she was somebody who found social interaction quite difficult and quite sort of thwarting a lot of the time. She was a self-conscious person, she was physically self-conscious, and she was somebody who performed a role quite deliberately a lot of the time and who believed that you did inhabit your self by performing it, that you perform the kind of person you want to be and through doing that you sort of become that person.
“She has a line somewhere about how our lives are all about our childhoods and I did come to see how important her childhood had been […] and she spent a lot of time kicking against her upbringing.”
CS: How has your view of Carter changed from when you first encountered her work to now that you have finished the biography?
EG: I think it’s developed rather than changed. It’s become more complex. I didn’t have any great eureka moments when my understanding of her completely shifted and I thought “right, she’s not like that at all”. But I had various moments of my understanding becoming more complex. What I just said about the self-consciousness, I suppose that was the closest to a kind of eureka moment. She’s such a confident writer and so her lack of physical confidence, for example, came as a bit of a surprise. When she gave a lecture, she used to begin it with an apology: she’d always begin her lectures by saying “I’m terrible at discourse but I’m much better at repartee so I’ll be okay when it comes to the questions” – which really suggests somebody not very confident about themselves and about how they come across socially. I think that that was, in terms of her personality, the closest I came to a eureka moment. And I found it quite moving really… I think she was very intellectually self-confident. I think she had the confidence that her writing was good and that her ideas were sound and unusual and worth listening to. But I think in terms of how other people responded to her, she was not confident. She wasn’t confident about the figure she cut necessarily.
When I first read her in Berlin, what I was really drawn to was the linguistic and imaginative wildness, and that has remained unchanged. That has remained what I love about her work, and that’s what made me think I could spend what I knew would be a four or five year period writing about her. I thought this is someone I’m not going to grow bored of, and also not grow to dislike. There’s also the comedy, the wit. So I don’t think my ideas about her changed in that respect. How else did they change? She has a line somewhere about how our lives are all about our childhoods and I did come to see how important her childhood had been, and how a huge part of the personality that she projected was a reaction against the person her mother expected her to be, who her parents expected her to be, and she spent a lot of time kicking against her upbringing.
CS: I think that one aspect of my appreciation of Carter’s writing that has changed over the years has been my interpretation of textual irony and humour. Whilst at first I tended to enjoy Carter’s texts in quite a literal way, taking everything at face-value and enjoying even the moments of horror and strange pleasure, I later re-read those texts open to the possibility that much of it was meant to be taken ironically, especially given my greater familiarity with Carter’s sense of humour and love of winding people up.
EG: I suppose I was always quite attuned to her irony, I found her very funny when I first started reading her, especially her journalism, which can be laugh-out-loud funny – but I think you’re certainly not alone in reading her like that. A lot of people take her very literally and I think it’s… you know, I do have some problems with the way she’s been written about a lot of the time. I think people have written about her in a very po-faced way. They’ve also written about her almost exclusively through the lens of her feminism… I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to deny her feminism in any way, or trying to dilute it – she was a very strong, very conscious feminist – but that’s by no means all that she was. She’s sometimes discussed as if everything she was writing must have been a kind of didactic feminist allegory, and I think that’s what put me off reading her before I heard Ali Smith recommending her. I thought that if Ali Smith likes her she must be good, but before that I thought that she just sounds dreadful, she just sounds like a hectoring writer.
CS: As if she was only writing political fiction?
EG: Yeah… I mean, she certainly was a political writer, in that she believed that everything is political, but I don’t think that she was writing… you know, there are moments in Nights at the Circus, there are very clearly some didactic elements to that book but even there, there’s a lot that’s superfluous, a lot of padding, a lot of it is sheer art and sheer entertainment, and she was interested in entertaining.
CS: Yes, I remember my first impressions of Carter’s work centred on the pleasures of her texts, and also the lushness and sensuality of her fictional worlds. When I first encountered stories such as ‘The Bloody Chamber’ and ‘The Erl-King’, I just enjoyed them for the strange and seductive worlds they conjured up. My political or feminist appreciation of Carter’s work came later and almost entirely as a result of reading academic studies of her work.
EG: I think that’s what’s wrong with a lot of academic writing, though, that it does forget enjoyment, aesthetic pleasure, as the main reason that we read. You know, there has been some great academic work done on Carter – I’m thinking of Andrew Teverson’s work on alternative sources for The Bloody Chamber, Anna Watz’s work on the surrealist influences on Carter’s writing, and the work that’s currently being done by Polly Paulusma on the influence of folk music, stuff like that – but there’s also been some pretty tedious academic work done. There’s been a lot of exegesis of the most tedious type where you just…this is what she was saying…and well, no, if that was what she was saying, she’d surely just have said it rather than going to the enormous trouble of writing a novel.
CS: Yes, Catherine Belsey has recently said in an interview that for her the most important thing is the pleasure of reading, rather than judging and separating works into “serious literature” and “entertainment”.
EG: Yes, I agree, and that’s a sort of Leavisite hangover, thinking that we have to divide things up into the good and the frivolous, but at the same time there is… I mean, I think it is important to distinguish between Shakespeare and Mills & Boon, for example, but the distinction we should be making isn’t between serious literature and entertainment, but between complex and banal forms of entertainment. All decent literature entertains, and literary criticism has to entertain as well if it’s going to find an audience beyond the handful of specialists who read everything that’s published on a given subject. The best literary criticism affords the same sorts of pleasure – aesthetic, intellectual, emotional – as any other sort of literature. And the best literary criticism takes account of pleasure, too. Stuff which is just sort of looking at ideas, looking at the stories as encoding ideas, I just find quite boring a lot of the time.
CS: Yes, though I wonder if Carter is partly responsible for that kind of work as she said somewhere in an interview that she doesn’t really believe in character, that texts are really just ideas and arguments in fictional form. Perhaps some critics have used that as a lens through which to read her work?
EG: I think that’s probably right. She didn’t do herself any favours sometimes. But she can’t take all the blame. She did say other stuff as well. She said that she never knows what a book is about until she’s finished it, but that kind of thing has been forgotten. I mean, it’s true that she was interested in medieval literature and she was interested in that idea of literature which does work as allegory…
CS: As in The Faerie Queene, for example…
EG: Yes, quite… But she said so many different things, and one thing I was very conscious of when writing the biography is, she changed. She changed as a person hugely from when she was twenty to when she was fifty, and so when you ascribe a view to Angela Carter, really it should be qualified by which Angela Carter held that view, whether it was the fifty-year old or the twenty-year old. In some ways she emerged quite fully-formed as a twenty-six year old novelist with Shadow Dance, but in other ways she didn’t and her ideas changed a lot over the course of her life. I was sometimes quite anxious about that when I ascribed a view to her, sort of trying to make it clear that this was something that she said and thought at this age but not necessarily something which could then be taken out of that context and ascribed to the person she was twenty years later.
“[O]ne thing I was very conscious of when writing the biography is, she changed. She changed as a person hugely from when she was twenty to when she was fifty”.
CS: Was that something that you planned from the beginning, this idea of Carter as a constantly changing person? Did you feel early on that you wanted to write about her in this way?
EG: Well, I was very conscious of telling a story and I was very conscious that storytelling distorts truth to some extent, but that there’s no other way of doing it. Writing a biography is in some respects a completely impossible endeavour because you just can’t fit someone’s entire life and personality into a 500-page book. It requires grotesque acts of compression and distortion and omission. There’s a vast amount that I could have put into the book and didn’t, and one principle of selection has to be whether a given piece of material forms part of the story that you’re trying to tell. I was conscious of having an overall narrative arc, but also smaller narrative arcs within the different sections of the book. So I see the first part of the book, which goes from her birth until she leaves Paul Carter, as being her sort of coming to freedom really, sort of fighting off first of all her mother’s influence, and then Paul’s, and then really taking charge of her life. Then the second arc, which is Japan, is her deciding who she is in some ways. And then the third is really getting happy. And the real tragedy of it is that, unlike a fairy tale, the happy ever after is so short, it’s just a few years at the end.
I do feel that any decent literary biography has to attempt to answer the question: “how did this person come to write these books?” And that’s not to try and explain away the mystery of art; it’s not to say “Why did this person become a writer?” which is, I think, an impossible question to answer, or “How did these books get written?” But it is, “Why did this person write this book rather than a different book?” And I don’t want to make any great claims for the quality of my book, but I do think that at least it attempts to answer that question, which a lot of literary biographies don’t even bother doing. So I was trying to answer that throughout as well, trying to show how her personality formed these books. Of course, if you say something in a biography or a non-fiction book which you know not to be true – well, you’re a complete scoundrel! However, the facts don’t get you very far at all. I mean, the facts are really where someone was at a certain time. And beyond that, almost everything is interpretation.
“I do feel that any decent literary biography has to attempt to answer the question: ‘how did this person come to write these books?’”
CS: In the introduction of the biography you reproduce a passage from Carter where she discusses the differences between biography and autobiography, between writing a life of someone and writing autobiography. She says that autobiography is closer to fiction than to biography. I thought it was interesting that you chose to raise that issue at the start of the book, encouraging the reader to start thinking about what kind of book this might be.
EG: I did that partly because by the time I wrote the introduction I’d already written the first few chapters and I was aware that I was sometimes calling her out for romanticising her own life. You know, when she talks about her grandfather and she says that he became radicalised and chaired a meeting at which Lenin spoke. Well, I went into the National Archives to look at his military service record, and it was clear that he did not become radicalised. He was a very diligent, dutiful soldier. But then there were other points when I was just forced to take her word for things because I didn’t have any other evidence, and so I thought a lot about how to synthesise these two different kinds of writing. I thought I’m going to have to do something in the introduction, and I found that a very interesting passage because it suggested that for her autobiography and biography are not only different genres, but different forms entirely. And really, I thought, all I can do is hold my hands up and say “yeah, they are”. That’s what you have to do, you have to tow a line between somebody’s experience, which expresses itself via autobiography and can be full of distortions and factual omissions, and then what can be proved, the hard facts that can be proved. Biography is always going to be a strange synthesis of these two forms. I mean, I don’t know how a biographer could spend five years doing this and come out of the experience as naïve about the form as many biographers appear to be. Many biographers appear to think that they have told the definitive truth about their subject and that strikes me as a complete impossibility, and I’m amazed at how many of them don’t draw attention to that, and don’t sort of hold their hands up and say “this is a version”, “this can only be a version”. And it’s a version full of compromise, and full of distortions of one kind or another, and also full of testimony, which is always unreliable.
“[Carter] says that [her grandfather] became radicalised and chaired a meeting at which Lenin spoke. Well, I went into the National Archives to look at his military service record, and it was clear that he did not become radicalised.”
CS: Yes, you give an example of this in the introduction: Veronica Horwell claimed to have observed Carter smoking a cigarette towards the end of her life, which was immediately disputed by Edward Horesh and others.
EG: Yes, Carter’s family were really upset about that incident. Mark Pearce said that there was no way that it could have happened as he was constantly with her during her illness and that she was never out of his sight. And apart from that, the story that Horwell tells about the pomegranate that Carter supposedly gave her… It just doesn’t sound very plausible. But then I’m not accusing Horwell of lying: I just think that memories can become corrupted. I mean, there were other examples of that when I was researching the book. One person who I interviewed, a very close friend of Carter’s…I interviewed him, I spent hours talking to him and he told me some great stuff. Right at the end I said “do you remember, how did you hear that she’d died?” And he said “oh I was watching Eastenders and the programme was interrupted with a bulletin about her death.” Of course that didn’t happen! But it was obviously so psychologically important to him, that it had somehow become distorted in his mind.
I was recently looking at Lyndall Gordon’s biography Henry James: Two Women and His Art, which opens with an incredibly cinematic scene. After Constance Fenimore Woolson died, James was named as her executor. There’s some suggestion that she’d been in love with James, had let him know but that he had rejected her. She subsequently threw herself off a balcony in Venice and so James went over to deal with her estate effectively. And so there is this incredibly cinematic scene which opens Lyndall Gordon’s biography (her biography is about Constance Fenimore Woolson and Minnie Temple, and how they both influenced James’ writing). And this scene has James taking Constance Fenimore Woolson’s clothes, and going out into the deepest point of the lagoon in Venice and chucking these clothes over the side of the gondola, trying to drown them with the pole, but they keep rising to the surface inflated with air, almost as if she herself was rising to the surface. It’s an incredible scene! I mean, it’s like something not just from a novel but a sort of surrealist film. It had never appeared in any previous biographies of James but has subsequently appeared in pretty much every book about him, including Colm Tóibín’s wonderful novel The Master. I was quite curious about where Lyndall Gordon got it from, so I looked at her footnotes. It turns out that she got it from some woman who had known James not very well, who outlived him by about thirty years, and who towards the end of her life told the BBC this story in an interview. That strikes me as ridiculously tenuous! I mean, she could have just made that up, but it’s now become fact, it’s become part of the accepted story of Henry James. It’s just very interesting what counts as legitimate biographical evidence, the way that testimony like that can work its way into biographies and nobody bats an eyelid. And I suppose that I wanted to, while not banning myself from using that kind of material – as it would have been a very colourless book if I hadn’t used any of the stories I heard about Carter except the ones that could be proved beyond any shadow of a doubt – just alerting the reader to the fact that they are stories, and that sometimes there’s no way of knowing the truth about them.
“It’s just very interesting what counts as legitimate biographical evidence, the way that testimony like that can work its way into biographies and nobody bats an eyelid.”
CS: Biographers sometimes get criticised for a lack of objectivity or comprehensiveness. For example, some reviewers took Adam Phillips to task for ending his Becoming Freud: A Jewish Life when Freud is aged 50 or for not reproducing a suitable number of quotes from Freud’s works. However, in this book, Phillips quotes Freud as saying that every story we tell is a story of our wanting. This appears to undermine the idea of an objective narrative of a life. Do you feel that the biographer can tell an objective story of someone’s life?
EG: No, you can’t do that at all. What you can do is make sure that you are not knowingly telling a falsehood at any stage. There are such things as facts and I think if we start abandoning that belief then biography dies. There are such things as facts and you have to be true to the facts. But between the facts there’s an awful lot of space. When there was a direct contradiction between two accounts, I always tried to gesture towards both of them. But often I just had one account and you just have to go with it. But yes, of course, the way that you shape a story is an entirely subjective decision, entirely bound up with all sorts of conscious and unconscious desires and biases. I told the story of Carter’s life in the way that I did partly because I perceived it as a very moving story, and I wanted to preserve that.
CS: I found the biography very moving, especially the final chapter in which you discuss the various people who were involved in the biography but who sadly did not live to see its publication.
EG: Yes, well it’s the passing of a whole generation. That whole world is receding into the distance and I found that very sad. I actually found the last chapter, when I was describing Carter’s illness and death, so difficult to write. I had to keep stopping because I was in tears, and going for a walk and coming back to the writing later. I remember reading Claire Tomalin’s biography of Katherine Mansfield years ago and just being in floods of tears towards the end. I think writing biography can sometimes seem like a not very noble calling. It can sometimes seem a bit grubby, like a higher form of gossip in some ways. And of course it’s also like any kind of journalistic endeavour: you take people’s stories and you make your own story out of them, which is not always a nice thing to do to people. But I remember when I was reading Tomalin’s life of Mansfield, and that was long before I started working on my own book about Carter, I remember thinking that if you can make someone cry about a person they never knew, a person who died decades before they were born, then that’s quite a wonderful thing to have done. It’s opening up the empathy in the world a bit… That sounds incredibly grand, but if you’ll forgive me a brief moment of pomposity, I do think that one of the higher claims that can be made for biography is that it can open up our capacity for empathy a little bit.
CS: Are you a fan of biography as a genre and were there any particular biographies that inspired you during this project?
EG: Yeah, I think in different ways, different biographies were inspirations. I’ve always read biography but when I started work on this, I started reading a lot more biographies, just to see how different writers dealt with various technical challenges. I think my favourite living biographer is probably Richard Holmes. He’s just such an amazing stylist; he makes biography seem like such a romantic calling. His book Footsteps, which I teach on a graduate seminar here at Kings College, is such a lovely book. He follows in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson, Percy Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft and Gérard de Nerval across four different essays, each of which contains a journey that he takes in the footsteps of his subject but also each of which encodes a metaphor about biography as a practice. And he’s just got a lovely style! He writes like a novelist or even like a poet in some respects. His two-volume biography of Coleridge is also well worth reading: a great example of biography as epic narrative. I think he’s a fantastic writer. Michael Holroyd is also a fairly phenomenal biographer. And Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf is a really fantastic book. I think what’s fantastic about that is the coolness of her appraisal, her refusal to give in to sensationalism at any time, and her honesty when she doesn’t know things, which a lot of biographers don’t find it easy to admit to. Instead, they sort of try and write over the gaps. Also, Lee’s ability to hold up contrasting points of view and talk about both of them, and the attention she pays to the work. She’s one of the most literary of biographers in that sense.
There are other biographies which were not particularly useful to me in writing about Carter but which I do think are brilliant in themselves. One example is Jonathan Coe’s life of B.S. Johnson, which is one of the very few genuinely formally interesting biographies around. I mean, it’s actually quite difficult to do formally interesting things with biography because the story always begins with a birth and ends with a death, and in between you get many of the same milestones: education, love, career, and so on. At the moment there’s a great vogue for sort of, you know, starting halfway through, or writing group lives, but that becomes very quickly as conventional as any other form of writing. Coe’s life of Johnson is a genuinely interesting one. In his book, each chapter takes a different form: so it’s a life of Johnson through the novels he wrote, a life through different voices, a life through various fragments, and so on. I don’t think that something like that would have been appropriate to Angela Carter, partly because she was not a formally experimental novelist, she was somebody who in fact did tend to tell fairly straight stories in terms of their chronology, though not of course in terms of their content. But she wasn’t particularly interested in formal experimentation of the B. S. Johnson sort.
CS: Could you imagine trying to write a biography that emulates Carter’s particular style? Would something like that have made any sense to you when you first started this project?
“I was quite conscious of my position. You know, partly as a male biographer writing about a feminist hero”.
EG: I think there would have been a few problems with that. One is quite simply that I wouldn’t have been able to. I write like me, I don’t write like her, and I think that it would have been a pale imitation had I tried to emulate her style. Secondly, I was quite conscious of my position. You know, partly as a male biographer writing about a feminist hero – but partly just as any biographer, just in terms of basic human decency, not shoving myself into the foreground. You know, taking a backseat, allowing her to speak for herself as much as possible, providing the flavour of her personality through judicious quotation of her published and unpublished writing. I think that if there had been any sense that I was competing with her, it would have been disastrous.
I do think that biography is an art but it’s definitely a sort of secondary art; it’s an interpretative art, it’s an art which is parasitical in some respects, it’s an art which relies on somebody having lived a life and done interesting things and, in the case of literary biography, having written interesting books. Roger Lewis’s biography of Anthony Burgess is kind of amazing, but also kind of an abomination in that it doesn’t tell you what you want to know about Burgess. Lewis thrusts himself into the foreground and so you learn more about Roger Lewis than you do about Anthony Burgess in some respects. So no, emulating Carter’s style didn’t really occur to me. Nor did it occur to me, except in the most fleeting manner, to have lots of hijinks with magical realist elements or surrealist elements –I don’t think that would have been appropriate. I think partly because it’s the first biography and I did have a great feeling of responsibility. You know, I just thought “Don’t fuck this up! You’re the first person into the tomb, as it were. Don’t leave a mess for the people who come after you.” You know, I’m sure that there will be future biographies and I think that those future biographies can perhaps do different things, experiment in terms of form, indeed they may have to because they won’t have access to the witnesses I had access to. But yeah, I thought it was important to do quite a straight cradle-to-grave kind of a life.
“[E]mulating Carter’s style didn’t really occur to me. Nor did it occur to me, except in the most fleeting manner, to have lots of hijinks with magical realist elements or surrealist elements –I don’t think that would have been appropriate.”
CS: Have you come across any criticisms of your biography, and if so what was your reaction to them?
EG: A couple of reviewers did suggest that to write a traditional cradle-to-grave biography of a deeply unconventional subject such as Angela Carter was somehow wrong. That’s obviously not my view. Richard Ellman’s life of Joyce – widely regarded as the greatest biography of the twentieth century, and of a subject just as unconventional as Angela Carter – didn’t suffer from taking a traditional form. Reiner Stach’s recent three-volume biography of Kafka – also praised to the heavens – would have been incomparably poorer if it had been peppered with cod “Kafkaesque” gestures. To suggest that they should have done that kind of thing is to commit a version of the imitative fallacy. But if the worst thing people have to say about my book is that I started at the beginning, then I reckon I’ve got off pretty lightly. I’m sure that had I written a more modishly structured biography, there would have been far more complaints! Far more people would have said, you know, this is the first biography of Angela Carter and we want to have a “cradle-to-grave” life.
CS: The vast majority of the reviews for your book that I have read have been very positive.
EG: Yes, it’s had a really lovely reception. The nicest thing has been that everyone who knew her has been really enthusiastic and really warm about it. Her son wrote me a really lovely email about it. Her friends, Carmen Callil, Susannah Clapp, and various others – everyone I’ve heard from in fact has had lovely things to say about it. But I had no idea that that would happen when I was doing it, and in my darkest moments, when I was working late into the night and losing all sense of perspective, I really feared that people might say that I’d desecrated her memory.
CS: Which parts of the biography did you enjoy writing most and which bits did you find the most challenging?
EG: Well, the research was enjoyable almost throughout, the experience of just sort of soaking myself in her journals and in her writing, the going around meeting her friends, travelling, discovering Sozo Araki, her Japanese lover, and travelling to meet him was fantastically enjoyable.
CS: Yes, I was amazed to read that you went on the Trans-Siberian railway, following in Carter’s footsteps…
EG: Oh that was actually quite grim! I hated it! I really hated it! But it gave me a strong sense of Carter’s bravery. There I was, a man in the 21st Century with a mobile phone which, whenever we came into a town or a station at least I had reception, so I could text my wife and stuff. I thought, how brave to have recently left her husband and to be taking this journey as a woman in 1971, when a woman travelling by herself was really quite a rarity, and to be going through the USSR! Absolutely extraordinary! Doing that kind of thing was partly an attempt to be like the biographers I admire, like Richard Holmes, who travels and sort of walks his subjects back into life. And I think it’s a very useful thing to do, because you do get a sense of your subject, following them like that. You know, I travelled to all of the places Carter lived throughout Britain, and I spoke to pretty much everyone who knew her. I mean, it’s a fairly fascinating process, it’s a very weird process in that you live someone else’s life as much as you live your own life for several years and you become so sunk in that person’s life. You have what Richard Holmes describes as “timewarp”: on one occasion in Footsteps, he describes signing a cheque in 1971 and he signed it 1771 because he was just so steeped in the 18th century. And I had experiences like that where I really did begin to… I just knew Carter’s life back to front and was really not entirely present in my own life, especially towards the end.
On the other hand, I found the actual writing of the book quite stressful a lot of the time. There were so many technical challenges: how to move seamlessly between different modes of writing – the narrative, the historical, the essayistic, the literary critical – how to finesse the chronology such that something that took place over several months, and something else that took place on a single day during the same period, are narrated in a coherent manner… I was so terrified of fucking it up, especially towards the end. I did at several points think “This is my first book and I’ve bitten off way more than I can chew with this.” The amount of material was quite overwhelming and I suffered archive fatigue fairly regularly…just sitting in archives…and then I’d discover a new archive that contained her papers and I’d think “God! Please not another!”
“I just knew Carter’s life back to front and was really not entirely present in my own life, especially towards the end.”
CS: That reminds of Ray Monk’s biography of Bertrand Russell. Russell apparently wrote tens of thousands of letters during his life and so trying to write a comprehensive biography of such a writer must have been an immense task.
EG: Absolutely! Well, Ray Monk is amazing. He did Robert Oppenheimer most recently and knew nothing about nuclear physics, so he just spent several years learning about nuclear physics before he even got around to the archives. I don’t have that kind of patience!
CS: And Monk wrote a brilliant biography of Wittgenstein as well!
EG: Yeah! And what you have to do, really, is get to a stage where you know the material so well that you don’t even refer to it when you’re writing – and then you have to come back and make sure you haven’t invented it all! But, I mean there was so much and I was scared about leaving out masses of stuff – I’m still a little bit scared of that of course. In my sitting room at home, I’ve got large numbers of papers, my own personal Carter archive, which I’m a bit scared to sort through in case I suddenly think “My god, I didn’t put that in!” So I found some of that stressful. I suppose I didn’t work in the most orderly way. I didn’t know what I was doing to begin with at all, so probably the first year I spent on it could have been spent much more efficiently. If I write another big non-fiction book then it will probably progress more quickly. And then at the end, I was working so hard for the last year, I was just working kind of 15 hour days and like day after day, just writing…and to a deadline. I mean, I missed my deadline by about six months but I was very conscious of it, of the whizzing sound it made as it passed me!
CS: I hope biographers have generous and empathetic editors who are flexible with deadlines as it sounds like a sort of thankless task on some level, to have to go through all of that material and then make a coherent narrative of it. I’ve experienced that agonising over deadlines and the guilt of missing them during my PhD!
EG: Absolutely, and you’ve got no idea when you write a PhD or a book like this. The first time you write something of this length you have no real idea of how long it will take you. In my proposal for this book I said that I thought it would take 4 to 4 ½ years but I had absolutely no idea. It was just a sort of wild stab in the dark! But my editor, Parisa Ebrahimi at Chatto & Windus, was wonderful: she’s very sympathetic and intelligent and easy to work with, and very forgiving of missed deadlines.
CS: Could you talk about your choice of title, The Invention of Angela Carter, and the epigraph about self-possession taken from Carter’s journals. Where did these choices come from and at what stage during the writing of the biography?
EG: They emerged in the process of writing. The title is meant to be a play on words, it’s meant to be her inventiveness and her powers of invention, plus her self-invention, plus the ways in which other people have invented her. So what we were talking about earlier, with the deceptions of memory and the unreliability of the testimony of a lot of people, I was thinking early on that I needed to make that a major theme of the book. And the more I read her, the more I was struck by the extent to which performance and people performing their selves is so important to her work. And I then became very aware of how she had really created this kind of person that she wanted to be and chosen to be that person and made herself that person. And that struck me as the story, the main story. It then came to me that I should call it The Invention of Angela Carter. I quote her using this phrase at one point in the book: she talks about self-invention and how we invent ourselves, and I thought that that needed to be the title.
“The title is meant to be a play on words, it’s meant to be her inventiveness and her powers of invention, plus her self-invention, plus the ways in which other people have invented her.”
Self-possession is a slightly different idea I think. She wanted to be a free person, a free woman. They’re certainly connected ideas, both in terms of what society dictates, the myths that underwrite our existences, she wanted to be free from all that, she tried to be conscious enough of what those forces acting on her independence were to resist them. And I suspect that her desire to resist those forces came from her having had to resist her mother’s interference and later the constrictions of her marriage. She was very keen to be in possession of herself. I think that probably is connected to self-invention in that she wasn’t going to allow other people to decide who she was, she was going to invent the person that she was – she was going to create herself.
CS: And that seems strangely fascinating to me given her interest in Freud and in psychoanalysis more generally. One of the big stories that Freud has given us, after all, is the idea that we are not as in possession of ourselves as we might like to believe. That we act out dramas not consciously scripted by us and that other people project images onto us so that we perform roles in response to others. Throughout the biography, it is clear that Carter was very aware of this and fiercely resisted being defined by others, having things projected onto her by others.
EG: Yeah, one thing that is remarkable about her and which made my job a lot easier is how honest she always was with herself. When she seduced Ko, the nineteen-year old Korean man, she wrote: “the need to be in control, I’ve never realised it was so strong in me before, I needed to be given an extreme example”. So she was quite good at seeing what unconscious desires did underwrite her conscious desires. I mean, she was remarkably open and unillusioned about herself and her own desires. “I try to be on the best possible terms with my unconscious,” she wrote, “and, fresh out of bed, scrutinise my dreams.”
CS: And that echoes Freud again: in The Interpretation of Dreams, he is unusually candid about himself, and he talks about his own dreams at length.
EG: Freud was hugely important to her – and other psychoanalytic writers such as Melanie Klein. And certainly, for a while, R.D. Laing was very important to her. I mean, I think she was quite typical of her generation in that she sort of fell under Laing’s spell for a while and then came out from under it later on. But she thought, contra Laing, that there is no such thing as an essential, unified self, but that the self is constantly shifting. I tend to agree with her about that. The biographer’s job is trying to find as many different facets of the self as possible and represent them all, and somehow bring them together into a coherent character.
CS: It’s been more than two decades since Carter died. What do you imagine she would make of the world today?
EG: She’d be horrified! And her horror would probably manifest itself as anger. I wish we could hear what she had to say about Trump and Brexit, because I think she’d have been appalled at Blair let alone Trump! She did have a healthy disdain for the metropolitan chattering classes, so she might have been more sympathetic towards some of the impulses that have led to Trump and Brexit than many sort of London literary types have been – but she would have been appalled by the xenophobia and racism which are on the rise at the moment. I think that she would have written some wonderful things about it and it’s a great shame we don’t have her voice or the voice of anyone quite like her.
“I wish we could hear what she had to say about Trump and Brexit, because I think she’d have been appalled at Blair let alone Trump!”
CS: Is there anyone who inhabits a similar space to the one Carter inhabited? Do you think there is anyone today who writes funny, angry commentary in a similar way to Carter?
EG: Jenny Diski was doing it very well but she’s dead as well now. She died only a couple of months ago – it’s very sad. In terms of journalistic voices, hers was closer to Carter’s than anyone else who has been writing for a while. She was able to be angry and funny at the same time, just as Carter was. There are some good cultural critics around now but I wouldn’t say they were particularly Carteresque in how they go about it. I mean, there are several people who write for the London Review of Books whom I enjoy reading a lot. I think that James Meek’s work is consistently brilliant. I’ve enjoyed reading Christian Lorentzen on American politics recently, and David Runciman on British politics is always worth listening to. Andrew O’Hagan, Katrina Forrester, Colin Burrow, Adam Mars-Jones… Away from the LRB, I think Leo Robson, who writes for the New Statesman and the New Yorker among other publications, is one of the best literary critics we’ve got in this country at the moment – he thinks more deeply about books than pretty much anyone else. But I don’t think anybody writing now is really Carteresque. I mean inevitably, any great or even halfway decent writer writes in their own way, and nobody is going to write in precisely her way again. She was of her time and place.
CS: Do you imagine that Carter’s own style would have changed had she lived? In your biography, you suggest that she changed a lot in the last decade or so of her life. Might she have eventually become part of the establishment?
EG: Carter was fond of winding people up a lot of the time and I strongly suspect she would still be trying to wind people up, but who knows. Look at Salman Rushdie! I mean, he was, politically, completely on side with her, he was a thorn in the side of the establishment, he was somebody who was constantly winding people up…and he’s now a knight of the realm! It’s very depressing to consider what has happened to some of that generation – they’ve become the establishment. And there is a danger that she would be a national treasure, were she still alive. It’s kind of hard to imagine, although she did like flattery. She liked to be told that she was a great writer and she wanted to win prizes. I think she would have been fairly horrified by Rushdie accepting a knighthood and I think would have turned down a damehood had she been offered one, but who knows, I mean flattery does go to people’s heads. Most of that generation have become unutterably tedious as they’ve gotten older, with a few exceptions…
CS: Carter was pretty brutal about Ian McEwan’s talents as you note in the book! She believed that he was overrated by the establishment.
EG: Yes, you can see why she wouldn’t have liked his stuff – he’s never been an exuberant stylist. He doesn’t leave “blood and brains everywhere”, which is what she looked for in a writer. I do think there’s more to his work than she allowed, though. He’s an exquisite craftsman, he’s got that Jamesian ability to just shape a novel perfectly. The one of his I did really like recently was On Chesil Beach. I thought that was really good. Amis remains brilliant in fits and starts – there’s still no-one who can touch him for comic timing or jazzy phrasemaking when he’s on form. And I think Ishiguro remains very interesting. I mean, he’s not a stylist either but I think he writes really odd, off kilter, slightly disturbing books.
CS: Yes, Ishiguro certainly seems to challenge certain audiences. I have heard many readers say that they loved The Remains of the Day but were put off by something like The Unconsoled.
EG: That’s his masterpiece, I think. With The Remains of the Day, I think many people thought here’s somebody writing about life in English country houses, a sort of twentieth century Jane Austen, but it’s more a work of surrealism really. It’s also a deeply moving work. Ishiguro is amazing at creating these worlds in which something is missing. You don’t quite know what’s missing at first, and so it creates such an eerie space. And he is also, formally, quite experimental. Both The Unconsoled and When We Were Orphans are quite experimental. Normally in a book with an unreliable narrator, you know that the narrator is unreliable because there’s something outside the narrator’s perspective which alerts you to his unreliability. You know, there’s another character who will say something which just doesn’t quite chime with the narrator’s account. When We Were Orphans is a book where the narrator, it becomes increasingly clear, is unreliable – but there’s nothing in it which contradicts the narrator’s account. It’s just that his account becomes less and less plausible. So it’s almost a sort of Expressionist novel, where the entire landscape of the novel bends towards the narrator’s desire. I think he’s pretty fantastic. But most of that generation…
“I love Carter’s prose, I love her gift for metaphor.”
CS: It’s interesting that Carter never achieved the kind of success that these male writers have enjoyed, despite her stock rising considerably since her death. I have observed that many readers who enjoy writers like McEwan, Amis and Barnes find Carter slightly off-putting and less accessible.
EG: I think people read for different reasons. I mean, I love Carter’s prose, I love her gift for metaphor, but she did not write perfect novels, she wrote deeply flawed novels, a lot of them. For me, the prose carries you over the flaws and they’re always so intellectually ambitious that you forgive them. You forgive her falling short because she’s trying to leap so far. But some people prefer perfect, neatly made things. I mean, I like that sometimes as well. I like a rich and varied diet of fiction.
CS: So what’s next for you? Any more Carter projects?
EG: No. No more Carter. I don’t want to become the Angela Carter guy. I want to step back and not do more. I say that slightly hesitantly in case I do in fact end up doing more Carter stuff! I may write another biography at some stage but it certainly won’t be my next book because I want to do something shorter, which I can get into and out of in a couple of years rather than spending five years, which seems to me an awfully long chunk of a life. I have a few ideas that I’m toying with at the moment, a couple of non-fiction ideas and one for a novel. I haven’t yet committed to any of them. I’m doing some reading around various topics.
CS: What about that unfinished novel you started in Berlin?
EG: No, I looked at that again. It’s got some good stuff in it but it’s got a lot more bad stuff than good stuff and I sort of lack the energy to go back and sort the wheat from the chaff. There might be some bits from it which can be salvaged and placed in a different context, specific sentences and characters and other things. But no, either a kind of shorter narrative non-fiction book or a different novel.
CS: And what about future Carter publications? Might we, for example, see her letters or journals published in the near future?
EG: Yeah, somebody was asking me about this the other night. I do think her letters will be published but I believe there are libel issues at the moment and so it’s unlikely that they’ll be published for another twenty years or so. She badmouths a lot of people who are still around and who are capable of suing a publisher. And so if there was an edition any time soon, it would be quite a heavily bowdlerised version.
CS: There have been a number of new academic publications on Carter in the last year, and more on the horizon I believe.
EG: I think Carter is surviving tremendously well and I think it’s partly that she does have this linguistic vitality, and that ages very well. The last Royal Society of Literature event that I did before yesterday’s one was about Angus Wilson and that was about three years ago. That was during this moment when people decided to try and revive Angus Wilson’s reputation, and it was a complete failure and nobody reads Angus Wilson still! I mean, I like his stuff, I think it’s quite funny, but there’s a lot of social minutiae and social observation, and that ages terribly. With Carter, there’s very little of that, she’s not actually interested in the sort of direct realist conditions of life in 20th century Britain. She’s more interested in the underlying structures of society and those change much more slowly. And people who have a gift of metaphor and of language. I mean, it’s hard to think of writers who survive for centuries who are not exuberant stylists…
CS: Yes, one writer who has survived a long time and who Carter drew on is Edmund Spenser. Both writers create very evocative, very rich images and scenarios that are not confined to a particular time and place. Perhaps it’s those rich images that have the power to survive over long periods of time.
EG: Absolutely. I think that if you’re a writer, if you’re any kind of writer who isn’t going to make the best-seller list, what you hope is that you’ll sell over a longer period, like The Faerie Queene has. Was it The Sunday Times that published, a while ago, the books that had sold the best over the thirty years or so that they had been doing their weekly best-seller list, and it wasn’t the books that you’d expect, it wasn’t the sort of Bill Brysons, it was Dickens and other classics. And Carter sells really quite well still. The Bloody Chamber and Wise Children continue to sell really well. And for Virago, Carter is, I believe, still one of their best sellers. And there are more Carter events on the horizon. There’s going to be a TV documentary about her in 2017 as well, I believe.
CS: I look forward to that then. Thank you for time today.
EG: Thank you. It’s been an absolute pleasure.
Edmund Gordon is Lecturer in Creative Writing at King’s College London. He is the author of The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography (2016), which is published by Chatto & Windus. He also writes for The London Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, the Guardian, the Observer and the Sunday Times. In December 2012, Edmund was a recipient of the annual Royal Society of Literature and Jerwood Charitable Foundation’s award for authors engaged on their first major commissioned works of non-fiction (for his biography of Angela Carter).