Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman

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!

The Wolf print is one I bought because it put me in mind of  'The Company of Wolves' - thats how much of a geeky fan I am.


  1. Eek - you're relying on me?! Oh my goodness.

    Brilliant review, Hayley, although now you have me exceptionally nervous (and a wee bitty anxious) about reading it.

    Have you read The Passion of New Eve? Carter's work definitely seemed to go though a transition in the Seventies that was far more experimental and concept-driven than her earlier work and the later novels had a grotesqueness and ribaldry to them but were steeped in so much humour and character-driven plot.

    I'll be linking to this post in a collation post.

  2. No pressure... I'm looking forward to seeing what you think because I think it will help me clarify what I thought. I have the passions of new eve but haven't read it yet, not sure I'm in the mood to either, but I did pick up Shadow Dance in oxfam today and may well read that before the end of the month.

  3. This was the second Carter novel I ever read (the first being The Passion of New Eve) and it's probably my least favourite to date. To be honest I can't quite remember why; I just have a vague impression of not having enjoyed it quite as much as her others. I think I'd pick up on more of the allusions now, so probably I ought to try it again.

  4. I think it was worth reading, and I'm glad I saw it through, but I wouldn't read it again for fun (I don't think) there are Carter's i far prefer.

  5. um..i have just finished reading Heroes and Villains By Angela Carter.i am new to her work but found it very enjoyable..i found her writing style reminded me of Sylvia Plath poetry..speaking as a man i found Marianne to be an admirable heroine..reminded me of an Hayo Miyazaki character.
    The feminine perspective very, rewarding.I understood the magical realism in the book very well.
    Thankyou for posting this review of Dr.Hoffman.having felt stimulated by Heroes and Villains..i'm about to start Hoffman.. it will be a tresure box i am sure.The Title reminds me of Luis Bunuel Film That Obscure Object Named Desire(The frustrated male perspective)!..and wasn't it a Albert Hoffman who experimented L.S.D.?..i had better get reading.

  6. Hi Paul, I hope you carry on enjoying it. I assume Hoffman is also a reference to ETA Hoffmann. Carter is a fascinating writer, though probably at her most challenging here. I found the later novels much easier to enjoy but definitely appreciate the effort demanded by works like this one.

  7. I'm reading it at the moment and have to say its thrilling. Key mantras such as "no hidden order" give us an insight to the ambitious scope of the book. Is freedom from quantative order freedom? Does humanity have an identity beyond aristotlean ringfencing?