Well it’s taken me a week and more to do battle with Carter on this one and I’m wondering where to start. Had I any knowledge of Freud, more than a passing acquaintance with Jung, and had I read more than a couple of De Sade short stories many years ago then I might have a better idea of what else I might need to know to really get to grips with this.
I have read Hoffmann, quite a bit of Carter, and many, many, fairy tales and myths all of which rang bells whilst I was reading, but even so I think I’ve got only the haziest idea of what Carter was trying to do with this book. It didn’t help that it felt quite dated/ very much of its time depending on your point of view, and also like relatively young work. I was surprised to find that it came if not quite mid career, then certainly well into it. It’s far more experimental than any other Carter I’m acquainted with, and altogether more explicit as well – the whole book is soaked in blood, sweat, semen, tears and urine. It should perhaps be more shocking, maybe back in 1972 it was, but it’s also somehow cold in a way which makes it really very easy to accept actually quite horrible things, which raises some questions for me about what I’m prepared to entertain in my imagination.
Perhaps it helps that the descriptions are wrapped up not just in words, but also in the most impeccable art historical traditions; Brueghel and Poussin are specifically mentioned but there are whole sequences that feel like reading a Hieronymus Bosch, or walking through a Henri Rousseau forest, and certainly like being part of any surrealist painting you care to think of. There are moments of Cubism and suggestions of Delacroix and the romantics, all I think quite deliberate. The central premise of the book (as far as I can work it out) is that anything that can be imagined can be, that nothing once imagined can be destroyed, and that it’s all powered by our desires.
The action takes place across time; or more precisely in nebulous time, sometimes it’s the present, sometimes the past and sometimes somewhere in-between. It starts in a city at war – Dr Hoffmann is laying siege to reality and things have reached such a state that it’s almost impossible to tell what’s real and what’s not, or even to define what real is. I found it a tough but basically rewarding book, it made me think about it all the way through, and basically I enjoyed the ride, although it was far from comfortable bed time reading and I’m looking for a couple of quick light reads to come next.
Carter was a woman with a remarkable (and slightly intimidating) breadth of knowledge; it’s a huge shame that she died so young. The richness and texture she brings to any story is rare enough but the way she twins it with a blood spattered brutality really gets under my skin. There were certainly moments when I was reading this book that I felt the boundary between page and experience was being broken down – that it would be very easy to be swallowed up by the general sense of anarchy.
I’m very much looking forward to paperback-reader's review of this; I want to know what others make of it, especially anyone with a more formal education in English Lit than I have, so Claire – I’m relying on you for some proper insights!