Tall Tales and Brief Lives: Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus
Nights at the Circus (1984), Angela Carter's penultimate novel, epitomizes her wildly
inventive, highly idiosyncratic mode of fiction, centered as it is on Fevvers, a Cockney artiste who claims to have grown wings. Most critics and reviewers have seen the main thrust of the novel to reside in the portrayal of Fevvers as a prototype of the New Woman whose wings help her to escape from the nets of a patriarchal nineteenth century culture into a twentieth century feminist haven of freedom. The novel ends with Fevvers astride her American lover, Walser (she now playing the missionary role), enjoying apparently two triumphs - sexual and psychological - in one: "'To think I really fooled you!' she marveled. 'It just goes to show there's nothing like confidence'" (295). Yet when Carter was asked by John Haffenden what Fevvers means by this, she replied, "It's actually a statement about the nature of fiction, about the nature of her narrative" (90). The more you look closely at this novel, the more you realize just how literal Carter was being in that reply. More than any other of her works of fiction, Nights at the Circus takes as its subject the hypnotic power of narrative, the ways in which we construct ourselves and our world by narrative means, the materiality of fiction and the fictionality of the material world, and the contract between writer and reader that, according to Carter, invites the reader at the end of this book "to take one further step into the fictionality of the narrative, instead of coming out of it and looking at it as though it were an artefact" (Haffenden 91). It is not just Fevvers who triumphs at having fooled Walser. It is Carter gloating over having fooled the reader into following her own narrative to this end point - and beyond.
What this suggests is that this entire novel operates in an important way as a form of metanarrative: one of its main concerns is with the potentialities and limits of the act of narration. On reflection one remembers that many of Carter's other works of fiction begin by making the narrative act their subject. The "Introduction" to The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972) opens with "I remember everything" (11). Four pages later Chapter 1 opens: "I cannot remember exactly how it began" (15). Memory is part of the bewilderingly contradictory nature of the art of narration. "Flesh and the Mirror," a story collected in Fireworks (1974) immediately implicates the protagonist in the narrative act by starting: "It was MIDNIGHT--I chose my times and set my scenes with the precision of the born artiste" (67). "Ashputtle or The Mother's Ghost," a story collected posthumously in American Ghosts and Old World Wonders (1993) is subtitled "Three Versions of One Story." The first version begins:
But although you could easily take the story away from Ashputtle and center it on the mutilated sisters - indeed, it would be easy to think of it as a story about cutting bits off women, so that they will fit in, . . . nevertheless, the story always begins not with Ashputtle or her stepsisters but with Ashputtle's mother even if, at the beginning of the story, the mother herself is just about to exit the narrative because she's at death's door: "A rich man's wife fell sick, and, feeling that her end was near, she called her only daughter to her bedside." (110)
Right from the opening sentence of this story we are invited to meditate on what follows as an exercise in narrative options. The actual opening of the story within the narrative framework is relegated to a quotation, drawing our attention to the fact that all narratives originate with the human voice telling a story and that all of them are retellings of an earlier telling. The emphasis is not on the what but the how, not on the fabula or story but on the syuzhet or way in which it is narrated.
Nights at the Circus opens with a similar focusing on the extraordinary nature of the act of narration:
"Lor' love you, sir!" Fevvers sang out in a voice that clanged like dustbin lids. "As to my place of birth, why, I first saw the light of day right here in smoky old London, didn't I! Not billed the 'Cockney Venus', for nothing, sir, though they could just as well 'ave called me 'Helen of the High Wire', due to the unusual circumstances in which I come ashore - for I never docked via what you might call the normal channels, sir, oh, dear me, no; but, just like Helen of Troy, was hatched. (7)
We are plunged straight into the narration of a very unusual narrator whose peculiar combination of Cockney English and classical erudition suggests her status as half human and half mythical - precisely the status of narrative itself. Her voice and her origins constitute an anomaly. Like narrative, she hasn't come from nowhere, but the method of her arrival in the world removes her from the realm of the normal. Even her choice of language veers from the clichéd ("first saw the light of day") to the witty use of an extended metaphor with double entendre ("come ashore . . .docked . . . the normal channels") Fevvers disembarks from what Salman Rushdie has called "the Sea of Stories." She is at once an original and an already established narrative type or actant. As Carter explained, Fevvers "is, fundamentally, the archetypal busty blonde: prototypes include Mae West, Diana Dors..." (Kemp 7). She originates in the vast narrative storehouse of performing heroines, but Carter then grafts onto this model additional characteristics (her wings) that belong to a quite different stock figure - goddess or (fallen) angel or bird-(wo)man. Both as narrator and narrative subject of her own narration, Fevvers is an oxymoron, characterizing in the way she tells her story the utterly contradictory nature of the narrative act she is embarking on (to continue the metaphor).
Like a writer, she is a performer whose stage (and narrative) act gives off "the greasy, inescapable whiff of stage magic" (16). Like any good artist she is a bit of a confidence trickster whose very appeal depends on her being suspect. The possibility that she may be a hoax is what draws her audiences, and Walser, and the reader. In this sense, as Michael Bell suggests, "her very authenticity is a fake" (30). Even the flight of this bird-woman, which has commonly been interpreted as "predominantly an image of liberation" (Palmer 199), is just as much an image of the precarious balancing act in the performance of narration. It is not a coincidence that in the introduction to Expletives Deleted (1992), a collection of her essays, Carter uses the image of the trapeze artist to characterize narrative: "We travel along the thread of narrative like high-wire artistes" (2). Consider Fevvers' first attempt at flight from the mantelpiece in the drawing room of Ma Nelson's brothel when for the shortest moment she hovers before falling flat on her face: "and yet, sir, for however short a while, the air had risen up beneath my adolescent wings and denied to me the downward pull of the great, round world, to which, hitherto, all human things had necessarily clung" (31). That feeling of suspense, of being momentarily exempted from the laws of material existence, is the narrative effect Carter herself is attempting to achieve in this novel.
Narrative temporality usually involves a duality or opposition between story time and narrative time. Narrators use one time scheme in order to evoke another. What is the true significance of the sound of Big Ben striking midnight again and again while Fevvers and Lizzie are telling their story? In the Envoi to the novel Fevvers admits that she and Lizzie, her cockney step-mother, played a trick on Walser that night with the aid of Ma Nelson's clock (292). But how could they interfere with the mechanism of Big Ben, at that time the time-keeper for the entire civilized world? What she must mean is that they cast a narrative spell on him, made him think that the passage of time was put on hold when it really wasn't. For the duration of their story they maintain the illusion that time is suspended. As Carter says elsewhere about the art of narration, "a good writer can make you believe time stands still" (Expletives Deleted 2). Big Ben and the external world of normality that it regulates is made temporarily to conform to the perpetual midnight recorded on Ma Nelson's clock, which itself acts as "the sign, or signifier of Ma Nelson's little private realm," where the only permitted hour was "the dead centre of the day or night, the shadowless hour, the hour of vision and revelation, the still hour in the centre of the storm of time" (29). Ma Nelson's realm is not just conjured up by an act of narration, but acts as a representation of the timeless fictive world created by narration. But the spell is by its nature temporary. And Carter positively revels in such temporal disruptions, because, as she writes elsewhere, in this way the reader is "being rendered as discontinuous as the text" (Shaking a Leg 465). She embraces the postmodern to the extent that it forces the reader into an active relationship with the text. In the third section of the novel Carter even manages to construct an internal double time scheme whereby Fevvers and Lizzie observe that in less than a week of their time Walser has managed to grow a long beard. Carter might well be parodying the most famous instance of a double time scheme in Othello, especially as she twice quotes from this play (228, 264). Most critics agree that the contradictions between short and long time in the play are meant to escape the notice of the audience. Carter, by comparison, has Lizzie draw attention to the discrepancy in order to demonstrate the power narrative has over our normal sense of measurable time in the external world. For a limited duration the imginative world of narrative can supplant the dictates of material reality. Imagined time coexists in our consciousness with measured time. Neither is more real and each has its turn at preeminence.
Narration, especially oral narration, needs an audience, just as a spectacle or performance does. And the audience needs to be kept in suspense until the end of the act. Will she reach the other end of the rope? Or, if she falls, will she really be able to use her wings to save herself? "[I]f she isn't suspect, where's the controversy? What's the news" (11)? Who better to represent the audience than the sceptic, Walser? Just as the larger audience gets its kicks from suspecting that Fevvers the performer may be a hoax, so Walser reflects this attitude by suspecting that Fevvers the narrator may be a hoax. Like all readers of fiction, Walser has to be lured out of his sceptical frame of mind and induced to accept the improbabilities of a world of invention. In fact Walser is the preeminent representative in the novel of the material world that relegates the stuff of fiction to a subordinate role - one of entertainment. An American reporter, he cultivates "the professional necessity to see all and believe nothing" (10). A "connoisseur of the tall tale," he is questioning Fevvers "for a series of interviews tentatively entitled 'Great Humbugs of the World'" (11).
Fevvers, however, proves more than his match. For all his professional detachment, he quickly becomes "a prisoner of her voice . . . Her dark, rusty, dipping, swooping voice, imperious as a siren's" (43). Half mythical, she shares with Homer's fabulous female creatures their hypnotic attraction - and their potential destructiveness. Indeed, Walser feels half stifled by Fevvers' overpowering presence: "If he got out of her room for just one moment . . . then he might recover his sense of proportion" (52). What he fears for is the loss of his fragile sense of self, which is also described in terms of the narrative pact between writer and reader: "there were scarcely any of those little, what you might call personal touches to his personality, as if his habit of suspending belief extended even unto his own being" (10). Notice that Walser suspends belief, not disbelief. He adopts an atheistic attitude towards the power of the artistic imagination. He stands opposed to Coleridge's (and most imaginative writers') desire to create "a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of the imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith" (Coleridge). Walser doesn't believe in either Fevvers' (narrative) act or himself. As the representative of the sceptical materialistic world, he is shown from the start to be flawed by his failure to admit into his life the world of fantasy, dreams and invention--at least until he meets Fevvers. It is his consequent lack of belief in himself that makes him vulnerable to her superior linguistic skills.
Fevvers has to overcome his scepticism by the sheer power of her rhetoric. Or rather, Fevvers and Lizzie between them (because the number of narrators in this novel multiply) "unfolded the convolutions of their joint stories together" (40). (Lizzie is an interesting counterpart to Fevvers, a more realist - and Marxist - narrator compared to Fevvers with her risky flights of fantasy.) Walser feels like "a sultan faced with not one but two Scheherezades, both intent on impacting a thousand stories into the single night" (40). Nights at the Circus aspires to be a miniature condensed version of A Thousand and One Nights, that classic quintessence of the act and art of narration. Fevvers knows as well as Scheherezade that to come to the end of her story is to face her own form of death - the death of the heroic persona she has constructed within her narrative. So she has to cast a spell over Walser with her voice. "Fevvers lassooed him with her narrative and dragged him along with her" (60). "The voice," Carter has asserted, "is the first instrument of literature; narrative precedes text" (Shaking a Leg 476). A defiant phonocentrist, for Carter "the really important thing is narrative" (Expletives Deleted 2). Where does she find the magic for her spell-binding use of narrative? Ostensibly she inherits it from Ma Nelson, the keeper of the brothel which was home to her as a child. She bequeaths Fevvers her ceremonial sword that she would "sometimes use as a staff with which to conduct the revels - her wand, like Prospero's" (37). Where Ma Nelson conjures up the sexual revels that take place in her house of ill fame, Fevvers becomes a different kind of "Mistress of the Revels" (49), conjuring up with her seemingly magical eloquence the spirits and baseless fabric of her vision, her story. Her greatest gift is not her ability to fly off the solid ground, but to retell the story of her flights of fancy that leave the ground of fact to which Walser is bound by his scepticism.
However Walser undergoes his own seachange under the spell of Fevvers' narrative wand or sword. The relationship between Fevvers and Walser develops into something similar to that between an oral narrator and a writer of narrative. Walser becomes at once Fevvers' amanuensis and a narrator in his own right. As Part One draws to a conclusion he finds himeself turning more and more a recording instrument for Fevvers and Lizzie. His desire to shape her narrative to conform to his own ideas of narrative reliability gradually succumbs to the force of her torrential narration. Fact or fiction? The distinction soon loses its clarity as it becomes clear that Fevvers needs to blur the two concepts in order to capture the interest of her audience in her performance - theatrical and narrative. "The hand that followed their dictations across the page obediently as a little dog no longer felt as if it belonged to him" (78). As "a passionate amateur of the tall tale," he can only admire Fevvers' narrative power: "What a performance! Such style! Such vigour" (90)!
But once he has decided to follow the circus to Russia, his role changes. Fevvers and Lizzie are no longer the principal narrators of the story. The anonymous third person narrator who is present in Part One takes over the main burden of the narration in Part Two. Meantime Walser has himself become a convert to the world of art - both a performer (an apprentice clown) and a narrator of events as they unfold. His first attempts at imaginative writing are clumsy and stereotyped.His typed despatch back to his editor smacks heavily of the overladen style of the travel writer:
Russia is a sphinx; St Petersburg, the beautiful smile of her face. Petersburg, loveliest of all hallucinations, the shimmering mirage in the Northern wilderness glimpsed for a breathless second between black forest and the frozen sea. (96)
His narrrative style is no match for Fevvers. But even his use of language stresses the illusionistic element that characterizes all forms of imaginative narration, with its references to the solid presence of the city as the "loveliest of all hallucinations" and a "mirage." Walser, the hard-boiled reporter, finds himself indulging in "the sugar syrup of nostalgia," which in turn is responsible for his "elaboration of artifice" (97).
No matter who assumes control of the narrative, the story teller of the moment is immediately overwhelmed by the narrative's need to extend itself beyond the factual and the verifiable. In Part One the mouthless Toussaint is forced to tell in written form the last part of the story of Madame Schreck which only he witnessed. The whole episode involving Madame Schreck, like that concerning Mr Rosencreutz, invokes and simultaneously parodies the genre of Gothic horror tales. Toussaint tells how he found the clothes of Madame Schreck but nothing in them, like "the shed carapace of an insect" (85). He is the first witness "to find her - not dead, for who can say, now, when she died, or if she had ever lived, but . . . passed away" (85). No sooner are we caught within the fabric of this Gothic fantasy than Lizzie detaches us with her metafictional appraisal of his performance: "That Toussaint! . . .He's a lovely way with words" (85). Carter may well have acquired this narrative oscillation from her admiration for Poe's Gothic horror stories. "His theatricality," she has written of him, "ensures we know all the time that the scenery is cardboard, the blade of the axe is silver paint on papier maché, the men and women in the stories unreal, two-dimensional stock characters, yet still we shiver" (Shaking a Leg 482). Like Poe, she inviters her readers to exercize both their sense of fantasy (and fear) and their objective critical faculties simultaneously.
This alternation between immersion in the narrative and detachment from it is typical of the way Carter balances the claims of fact and fiction throughout the novel. The factual is invariably exposed as a flawed account of the totality of human experience. Yet once we, like Walser, have been trapped in the dark interior of a fictional world such as Ma Nelson's or Madame Schreck's, Carter lets in the light of day to reveal the cheap and sordid props that have been used to create the illusion that had us in its grip. Just before the prostitutes abandon Ma Nelson's house they open the curtains for the first time since they've been there. "The luxury of that place had been nothing but illusion, created by the candles of midnight, and, in the dawn, all was sere, worn-out decay. We saw the stains of damp and mould on ceilings and the damask walls; the gilding on the mirrors was all tarnished and a bloom of dust obscured the glass . . ." (49). The passage from which this comes is not simply a symbolic representation of the passing of the Victorian age. It is also one instance of the many occasions when Carter demonstrates to her readers the power of narrative. Look, she seems to be saying, like Fevvers, I've fooled you again.
Then, before we know it, she is plunging us back into another strand of fictive narrative, transforming what has just been exposed to the light of day into a newly convincing fictive illusion: "... the parlour itself began to waver and dissolve before our very eyes. Even the solidity of the sofas seemed called into question for they and the heavy leather armchairs now had the dubious air of furniture carved out of smoke" (49). An alert reader will note that the narrator's (Fevvers') use of "smoke" neatly anticipates the action of the prostitutes that follows, which is to burn the house to the ground. Fevvers concludes: "And so the first chapter of my life went up in flames, sir" (50). This is metafictional with a vengeance. As narrator, Fevvers naturally shapes her life into digestible fictional chapters. She is simultaneously referring to the end of her life in the brothel now that it is burnt down, the end of her existing means of living, and to the end of the first segment of her narrative, the veracity of which can only be vouchsafed by the two objects saved from the fire - Lizzie's clock and Fevvers' sword (or wand), both items that appear to defy the normal laws of physics. The fictive illusion lasts for as long as it is being narrated, after which it doesn't simply end; it is consumed and turns to smoke. Yet, like the phoenix, it is destined to rise from its own ashes. Well-told narrative is powerful enough to expose its own procedures to the light of day and yet be confident in its ability to plunge the reader back nito the nighttime world of fictionality. Carter seesm to be implying that neither the world of fact or fiction is sufficient unto itself. Epitemologically opposed to one another, they nevertheless require the other for completion, that is, for an adequate explanation of life as we know it.
It has been observed that the movement of the novel "toward increasingly foreign and remote places is accompanied by a movement away from any stable ground of reality and toward the ever more fantastic" (Michael 495). Carter has described Part Two: St Petersburg as "very elaborately plotted, like a huge circus with the ring in the middle." She adds, "A circus is always a microcosm" (Haffenden 89). Inevitably many critics, like Paulina Palmer, have seen the circus ring "with its hierarchy of male performers" as "an effective symbol of the patriarchal social order" at the turn of the century (198). But it is more than just that. It offers an image of the world at large. Its ring is described as "the wheel whose end is its beginning, the wheel of fortune, the potter's wheel on which our clay is formed, the wheel of life on which we are all broken" (107). The world in its totality can only be comprehended by the use of such literary tropes. Like any other artistic performance the circus offers creation ("the potter's wheel") and destruction (the wheel of the torturer). It can "absorb madness and slaughter into itself" (180), as the clowns can, as the Princess and her tigers can, as the world of art and the imagination can.
In this section Walser, no longer just a reporter, finds himself drawn into Fevvers' ongoing story by a desire for her that has been generated by her spellbinding narration of her extravagant past life. Even love can owe its origins to the power of narration. When the tiger's attack blows Walser's cover the excuse he offers to Fevvers - "I'm here to write a story. . . About you and the circus" (114) - represents the appeal of one narrator to another. Walser has become simultaneously a performer in word and deed - "your correspondent, incognito" (91), and young Jack, the apprentice-clown. And his new occupation as a performer affects his performance as a narrator. Looking over his copy for his paper, he realizes the extent to which he has been precipitated into the language of hyberbole by his new occupation. "Walser-the-clown, it seemed, could juggle with the dictionary with a zest that would have abashed Walser-the-foreign-correspondent" (98). Clowning with words is now his dual occupation. In effect Walser now recognizes the inescapable ambiguity of the langauge he sought to tame and confine to the factual. Language juggles with its users as readily as its expert users juggle with language. Walser has become caught up in the poststructuralist world of signification disseminating without end. Nor can his developing sophistication in the use of language be separated from his developing maturity as a human being. Dressed in his clown's outfir Walser "experienced the freedom that lies behind the mask, within dissimulation, the freedom to juggle with being, and indeed, with the language which is vital to our being" (103). Narration, then, is no mere escapist fantasy for Carter. We remake ourselves by retelling our stories about ourselves better.
Walser, however, is a mere amateur in a community of professional circus performers. Not only do they outperform him in their acts; they also prove superior narrators. Buffo, the chief clown, tells a story about a multiple tragedy in his family in which all those he loved were wiped out in one fell swoop. When he is forced to perform the same afternoon, his grief-stricken cry "The sky is full of blood" only produces more gusts of laughter from the audience. In introducing it he says that this story is not just told about himself but "has been told of every Clown since the invention of the desolating profession" (120). He goes on to explain to his naive apprentice-clown, Walser, "This story is not precisely true but has the poetic truth of myth and so attaches itself to each and every laughter-maker" (121). Stories have their own form of truth and operate independently of their tellers, attaching themselves willy-nilly to protagonists of their choice, protagonists who fulfil a similar function in different times and places. Buffo here displays a sophisticated knowledge of the nature of the narrative act, possibly even an acquaintance with the theories of Propp or Greimas, both of whom recognized that a particular role or actant in a story can be filled by any number of successive characters or acteurs. It is also significant that the clowns' function is described in such a way that it exactly parallels that of the tellers of stories:
...even if the clowns detonated the entire city . . . nothing would really change. Nothing. The exploded buildings would float up into the air insubstantial as bubbles, and gently waft to earth again on exactly the same places where they had stood before. (151)
As comic performers they parallel Carter's own role as narrator of this book which she has said "was intended as a comic novel" (Katsavos 15). The clown and comic writer are each offered the same mixed blessing: "you can do anything you like, as long as nobody takes you seriously" (152). They play at life, creating the illusion that life is nothing but play. And yet Carter clearly believes that fiction has more to offer than sheer play.*
The circus is filled with performers each of whom has a different way of narrating his or her story. There is the Colonel, the comic representative of American capitalisman, unceasing player at the Ludic Game: "'Bamboozlem.' Play the game to win" (147)! There is the Princess who never speaks yet whose story nevertheless gets mysteriously told, as the omniscient narrator is quick to point out. There is Mignon, a waif of a woman, whose fictional ancestry derives from Goethe via Alban Berg (Haffenden 82), and whose past profession consisted of posing as a dead woman returned to visit her grieving relations, yet another variation on the art of artistic illusion. She and the Princess end up overcoming their language differences by communicating through their music. Once again art proves the channnel for the discovery of love. Art may be nothing but illusion; but the illusion can be powerful enough to transform the lives of those caught up in it. Above all there are Lamarck's Educated Apes. They teach themselves writing in order to be able to write out their own contract which gives them an escape clause and a bonus. Carter hilariously juxtaposes humans and apes in the scene where the Professor (an ape) gets Walser to strip (apart from a dunce's hat) and declaim Hamlet's well known soliloquy, "What a piece of work is man!" Meanwhile the class of apes solemnly take notes on his method of voice production to the background accompaniment of the Strong Man's accelerating grunts as he reaches orgasm with Mignon. The tragic is transformed into the comic as that piece of work, man, makes a fool of himself in Walser's case, and proves more animalistic than the apes in the Strong Man's case. Walser's borrowed Shakespearean eloquence only serves to place him on a lower rung of the chain of being than the self-educated apes.
Narrative can not only stimulate love in those caught in its spell: it can also lead to death. Even before much of the circus menage is blown up by rebels in Part Three: Siberia, its final performance in St Petersburg is marred by the Princess's enforced shooting of the jealous tigress, and Walser's narrow escape from being slaughtered as a chicken by the drink-crazed Buffo. Part Two ends with Fevvers' near death as a free woman at the hands of the Grand Duke intent on turning her literally into a bird in a gilded cage. Carter brilliantly juxtaposes the exit from the circus of the dead tigress and of Fevvers on her way to the Grand Duke: "At the courtyard gate, a glamorous droshky stood ready to receive her, behind the melancholy van from the knacker's yard. As a befurred footman handed Fevvers into one, the Strong Man pitched the carcass into the other" (182). The narrational meaning is clear: Fevvers is in danger of meeting a similar fate to that of the tigress, despite the glamorous trappings of her carriage. Critics such as Magali Michael see the Grand Duke's plan as a typical male attempt at "objectification," one more example of "the daily victimization of women" (502). But it is equally an attempt to freeze Fevvers in her role as freak performer, another object in his collection of exquisite miniatures. From the start of the novel Fevvers' appeal has been that of a spectacle: "Look! Hands off" (15)! She owes her independence to others' desire to look at her. "All you can do to earn your living," Lizzie tells her, "is to make a show of yourself" (185). Fevvers comes closest to extinction when the Grand Duke almost succeeds in fixing her for ever as an artistic object to be gazed at. In effect he would have robbed her of her ability to narrate her own story and so determine her own destiny. The act of narration is both employed and shown to be a self-liberating act. We can invent stories for ourselves that free us - socially, psychologically and politically - from those inherited stories of the past that serve to inhibit and constrain us. I narrate; therefore I become.
The gaze occupies an important place in this book. In his essay on "The Uncanny" Freud first theorized the operation of the gaze as a phallic activity linked to a desire for sadistic mastery of the object which is cast as the passive, masochistic, feminine victim of the gaze .Carter shows at least some acquaintance with the theory, perhaps via Laura Mulvey's appropriation of it in her celebrated essay on "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." She employs it not just to exemplify the way the masculine gaze subordinates the woman to his voyeuristic needs, but also to demonstrate how the gaze operates in the sado-masochistic relationship between writer and reader. In attracting the gaze of others, Fevvers is also reflecting the narrator's need to command the attention of listeners or readers. What she is inviting them to gaze at is the enigma of her status as a performer and narrator of her performance. "'Is she fact or is she fiction'" (7)? But the narrative act is filled with dangers. Fevvers' invitation to enjoy her as spectacle invites more aggressive responses than those of the non-touching curious public. Even Walser is seized by a desire to master this riddle and journalistically cut her down to size. More threatening are the attempts of Mr Rosencreutz and the Grand Duke to appropriate her otherness to themselves, to force her into becoming a subordinate part of their story, an exclusive object of their gaze.
The gaze involves a degree of reciprocity. The writer gazes at the world and then offers the world a narrative version of itself to gaze at. This interactive relationship is given fictional embodiment in this novel in Section Three where Carter describes the establishment by the Countess P--, an undiscovered murderess, of a panopticon, a prison for condemned murderesses built according to a design first outlined by Jeremy Bentham. The interaction between the Countess and her prisoners parallels that between a writer and her readers:
It was a panopticon she forced them to build, a hollow circle of cells shaped like a doughnut, the inward-facing wall of which was composed of grids of steel and, in the middle of the roofed, central courtyard, there was a round room surrounded by windows. In that room she'd sit all day and stare and stare and stare at her murderesses and they, in turn, sat all day and stared at her. (210)
Like the novelist, the Countess makes herself mistress of all she gazes at. Yet she is trapped by her own construction. She needs her gaze to be returned to reassure her of her power which involves deceiving her captive audience into thinking she is looking at them day and night (just as the omniscient narrator deceives her readers into thinking that she is omnipotent and present everywhere in her fictional world). In the end the prisoners find a way of planning their escape which appropriately enough involves their writing secret notes using their own bodily fluids. Isn't this a metaphor for readers' freedom to impose their own interpretation (based on their own bodily experiences) on the narrative, especially when it is what Barthes calls a "writerly" text? "The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author," Barthes wrote (Image - Music - Text 148), and death is exactly what awaits the Countess when her prisoners are born into their new life in which they are free to construct their own narrative of their lives.
However much Carter claims, both within the text and in her comments about the ending, to be inviting the reader to become a producer rather than a consumer of the text, the fact remains that she continues to exercize tight if inconspicuous control of the narrative throughout its duration. This raises interesting questions about how Barthes' advocacy of the writerly text is to be interpreted. Accoring to Barthes, "the writerly text is ourselves writing, before the infinite play of the world (the world as function) is traversed, intersected, stopped, plasticize by some singular system (Ideoogy, Genius, Criicim) which reduces the plurality of entrances, the opening of networks, the infinity of languages" (S/Z 5). Barthes is offering an eloquent and partisan defense of the essentially polysemantic nature of all fictional texts. Like most writers living in a poststructuralist age, Carter accepts the basic reality of such texts. But that does ot stop her from attempting to exclude specific interpetations of her text on which he launches preemptive strikes. When the female ex-convict determine to found their own utopia which will exclude any members of the male sex, they are forced to ask the male Escapee for a pint or two of sperm so that they can "ensure the survival of this little republic of women" (240). Carter allows Lizzie to deliver a blistering Marxist critiqe of this particular fantasy of forming an all-female socety: "'What'll they do with the boy babies? Feed them to the polar bears? To the female polar bears?" she asks (240-1). It is ironic that one feminst critic still manages to insist that in the novel "the perspective becomes increasingly woman-centered . . . and the emergence of a female counter-culture is celebrated" (Palmer 180). This only goes to show that, while on the one hand no author is prepared to accept their death at the hands of the newly born text, on the other hand an author's attempts to place limits however minimal on the galaxy of signifiers that constitute the writerly text (according to Barthes) is doomed to be thwarted by its readers. The difference between readerly and writerly texts is a matter of degree, not of kind. In laying bare this novel's narrative strategies and incorporating both writer and reader within the fiction, Carter is merely edging the text in the direction of the ultimately unattainable writerly extreme of the specrum.
Fevvers barely eludes the Grand Duke's carefully plotted scheme (he would make a good thriller writer) to reify her as an art object. How she contrives to escape is by a double act that constitutes one of Carter's most brazen instances of narrative manipulation in the book. While she puts on a sexual performance for the Grand Duke (masturbating him), she puts on a purely fictional performance for the reader. While bringing the Duke to a sexual climax she brings her fictional life in St Petersburg to its own climax by escaping in the Grand Duke's miniature replica of the Trans-Siberian Express:
In those few seconds of his lapse of consciousness, Fevvers ran helter-skelter down the platform, opened the door of the first-class compartment and clambered aboard.
"Look what a mess he's made of your dress, the pig," said Lizzie.
The weeping girl threw herself into the woman's arms... (192)
Before we readers have time to protest over the impossibility of such an escape (it defies all the laws of space-time), the new strand of narrative has caught us up and hurried us on into a new self-contained world of fiction that is of course just as reliant on illusion as was the last one.
In fact this new fictional world is the most extravagant of the three settings in the novel, a Siberia of the mind, a land given life purely by the narrator's brilliant use of language: "Outside the window, there slides past that unimaginable and deserted vastness where night is coming on, the sun declining in ghastly blood-streaked splendour like a public execution across, it would seem, half a continent, where live only bears and shooting stars and the wolves who lap congealing ice from water that holds within it the entire sky" (197). Vivid images like that of the wolves sweep us along with the narrative flood, and Carter has such confidence in its power that she can afford to leave hints of the wholly invented ("unimaginable") nature of a landscape that only "seem[s]" to be how it is described as being. Within another page Carter feels able to puncture our suspension of disbelief with impunity: "we were progressing through the vastness of nothing to the extremities of nowhere" (198). A little later the linguistically fabricated nature of this landscape is made even clearer by the use of a telling metaphor: "The white world around them looked newly made, a blank sheet of fresh paper on which they could inscribe whatever future they wished" (218). The Siberian landscape is nothing but an inscription on paper, and no sooner has she persuaded us of its presence than she destroys the illusion in typical postmodern fashion. Why? Because she believes that fiction constitutes not "a timeless, placeless dream world," but a form of "heightened reality" (Shaking a Leg 459). As such it needs to combine the tricks of the illusionist with the exposés of the sceptic.
When the train carrying the circus is blown up by outlaws Carter offers an equally brilliant instance of how words can be conjured with to make us believe anything, however improbable. The tigers had been housed in the "wagon salon" with its mirrors. After the crash "the tigers were all gone into the mirrors" (205). Carter's explanation of this surrealistic phenomenon is as intellectually convincing as it is mimetically impossible:
And, as for the tigers, as if Nature disapproved of them for their unnatural dancing, they had frozen into their own reflections and been shattered, too, when the mirrors broke. As if that burning energy you glimpsed between the bars of their pelts had convulsed in a great response to the energy released in fire around us and, in exploding, they scattered their appearances upon that glass in which they had been breeding sterile reduplications. (206)
The repetition of "as if" and the stress on "reflections" and "reduplications" clearly invites us to reflect ourselves on the nature of fictive reflection. The way the tigers survive as fragments of relected images is very reminiscent of René Magritte's paintings such as Le Faux Miroir (The False Mirror) where the reflection of sky and clouds has become the color of an eye's iris. Carter explains, "if dreams are real as dreams, then there is a materiality to symbols; there's a materiality to imaginative life and imaginative experience which should be taken quite seriously" (Haffenden 85).
Part Three continues Carter's exploration of the nature, the power and the limits of the narrative act. Where Part One borrowed heavily from the genre of autobiography, with two digressions into Gothic horror, and where Part Two with its intricate plotting parodies the well-made novel, Part Three pushes the limits of the picaresque mode to an extreme. Carter defines the picaresque as "a certain eighteenth-century fictional device . . . where people have adventures in order to find themselves in places where they can discuss philosophical concepts without distractions" (Haffenden 87). The concepts that are discussed in this final section are not confined to those of gender, as many of Carter's critics appear to assume. An equally dominant concept is the place of illusion in human life and consciousness, or rather the illusionistic nature of human experience. Where Fevvers was Carter's main vehicle in Part One for the exploration of this concept, it is Walser who enables her to pursue it into a surrealist world of dreams and visions in Part Three.
Suffering from amnesia, Walser accepts without question the value systems of the Shaman whose task "was the interpretation of the visible world about him via the information he acquired through dreaming. When he slept, which he did much of the time, he would, could he have written it, have put a sign on his door: 'Man at work'" (253). The Shaman, then, exists almost entirely in a world of dreams and fantasy. And it is fitting that Walser, previously the representative of a materialist civilization obsessed by facts should fall under the influence of this comic representative of the irrational and the surreal. Even the bear he lives with is "both a real, furry and beloved bear and, at the same time, a transcendentasl kind of meta-bear, a minor deity..." (257). Carter has great fun exposing Walser to the upside down values of the Shaman's shadowy world. But she is also clearly not interested in a narrative world that is nothing but illusion. Fact or fiction? As she has said, "Part of the point of the novel is that you are kept uncertain" (Katsavos 13). So Fevvers is reintroduced to counter the Shaman with her distrust of "mages, wizards, impresarios" who "came to take away her singularity as though it were their own invention" (289). In the god hut she turns the tables on him and restores Walser, not to the material world, but to the ambiguous world of narrative, where she needs him to restore her confidence in herself as enigmatic bird-woman: "'That's the way to start the interview!' she cried. 'Get out your pencil and we'll begin" (291). The novel ends where it begins, with the act of oral and written narration.
Both Fevvers and Walser, like the other characters in the novel, are repeatedly exposed to the reader as fictional constructs, illusionistic materializations of language. According to Carter, "Fevvers starts off as a metaphor come to life - a winged spirit" (Haffenden 93). In subscribing to the postmodern consensus that we as subjects are constructed by the symbolic order of language, Carter is simultaneously celebrating the power of language, especially narrative language, to shape human destiny. Fevvers' personality is produced by the employment of literary tropes, especially paradox and oxymoron. Both the descriptions of her and her actions rely on a conjunction of seeming opposites: "Cockney Venus," "Helen of the High Wire" (&), "winged barmaid" (16), "the Virgin Whore" (55), "the Madonna of the Arena" (126). In each case her mythological/religious status is undercut by an attribute that is thoroughly earthy. If wings make one think of angels and goddesses, the rest of her physique has been "thrown on a common wheel out of coarse clay" (12). She has "the shoulders of a voluptuous stevedore" (15), writes Carter, hilariously transferring the epithet "voluptuous" from Fevvers' shoulders to the stevedore. Fevvers is a combination of the mythic and the mundane. The champagne Fevvers drinks is kept in the toilet jug that is packed with fishmonger's ice to which still cling some fish scales. She has the "voice of a celestial fishwife" - another instance of oxymoron (43). In fact everything about is her and her story is distinctly fishy. Fevvers also displays a highly unlikely range of learning that, when brought into juxtaposition with her use of Cockney English, provides a preeminantly verbal source of humor throughout the novel. Abducted to Mr Rosencreutz's paradoxically newly built Gothic mansion, Fevvers has only to listen to his mumbo-jumbo for a short paragraph's length to be able to accurately place him in an esoteric world of pseudo theology-cum-metaphysics: "This is some kind of heretical possibly Manichean version of neo-Platonic Rosicrucianism, thinks I to myself; tread carefully, girlie! I exort myself" (77). The "thinks I" and "girlie!" belong verbally to a totally different social and intellectual discourse from what immediately precedes them or from her use of "exort" after them. Similarly her conduct veers from the god-like to the avaricious. "She was feeling supernatural tonight. She wanted to eat diamonds" (182). What imbues Fevvers with her vibrant sense of fictional life is just this conjunction of opposing qualities. At once venus and Scrooge her subjectivity is intertextually constructed out of paradox and enigma.
Walser adopts a different trajectory. Starting out as a sceptic who puts all his faith in facts, he has to lose his protective shell and acquire an inner life, "a realm of speculation and surmise within himself that was entirely his own" (260-1). Like the reader, he has to learn to accept illusion as playing as valid a role in human life as fact. Already in Part Two when he first makes his face up as a clown "he experienced the . . . freedom to juggle with being ..." (103) Walser here is given the same godlike powers as the novelist to reconstruct himself as a different subject. Yet he secretly continues his life as a reporter and exposer of the illusions he has become a part of. So in Part Three Carter has him undergo a form of death (memory loss after the train crash) and rebirth into a world far more illusionistic than that found in realist fiction. When in the last section of the book he becomes the Shaman's assistant, he enters a realm in which "there existed no difference between fact and fiction; instead, a sort of magic realism" (260). Walser is literally made to enter Carter's magic realist world of fiction where the miraculous forms an accepted part of the normal. Carter herself uses magic in her fiction because for her fiction is magic, with its "ability to create an absolutely convincing illusion" - which instantly exposes itself (Goldsworthy 6). She has called this book "a sort of Dickensian novel about people who absolutely could not exist" (Smith 75). It is no coincidence that at the end of the book Walser, like Fevvers, is "hatched out of the shell of unknowing" (294). Both arrive ab ovo, hatched from the fertile brain of their narrative inventor.
Once again Carter wishes to foreground the fictional means by which her characters are constructed at the same as she is convincing her readers of their credibility. Think back to Madame Schreck, for instance, whom Carter builds up as a money-grasping, exploitative old witch, only to expose the course Gothic accoutrements out of which she has been constructed after Fevvers has flown with her to the ceiling and left her hanging on the curtain rail. Here is Toussaint's account of her end:
It came to me that there was nothing left inside the clothes and, perhaps, there never had been anything inside her clothes but a set of dry bones agitated only by the power of an infernal will and a voice that had been no more than the artificial exhalation of air from a bladder or a sac, that she was, or had become, a sort of scarecrow of desire. (84)
Carter is going to considerable trouble to focus our attention on the artificiality of this character, clothed like a scarecrow (to frighten us) and given seemingly human qualities by a voice produced, like an organ's, by means of bellows, and by emotions (will and desire) that mechanistically animate her from within. In a similar vein Walser in his sceptical days wonders who had made Fevvers into "a marvellous machine and equipped her with her story" (29). But in many ways we all make ourselves up. Fictional subjects, like "real" subjects, can seem mere puppets manipulated and given a semblance of life by their narrator. Watching Fevvers and Lizzie walking home over Westminster Bridge Walser notes how they appear "the size of one big doll, one small doll" (90). In the same way the clowns are eclipsed by the faces they choose for themselves; they become what they choose, although once they have made their choice they are stuck with it for the rest of their professional life. Sitting down to dinner their white faces "possessed the formal lifelessness of death masks, as if, in some essential sense, they were themselves absent from the repast and left untenanted replicas behind" (116). Here we are at a double remove from the original subject, first painted to look other than himself, then revealed to be a fictional replica of that painted subject. Yet does not the double replication of fiction, which Carter makes sure to draw to our attention, serve to bring the artificiality of our own construction as subjects equally to our notice? Her metafictional commentary reminds us of our own discontinuity as subjects.
In this novel in particular Carter constantly draws our attention to the mechanics necessarily used by any narrator and always visible to any reader who cares to look for them. As we have seen she frequently resorts to metafictional interventions to ensure that we are not mistaking her narrative construct for the real world, however much it might parallel it. When Lizzie tells how they gave Sophie her nickname, she explains: "'Fevvers" we named her, and so she will be to the end of the chapter" (13). Fevvers' existence coincides with the duration of the narration. Yet no sooner has she drawn attention to the fictional status of her creature than Carter tempts us back into her fictive world: "'Let's get your make-up off, love" (13). One sentence will do the trick. Carter is not above having a little fun at the expense of literary critics and theorists who tend to resemble Walser at the start of the novel. When he reaches the climax of his act in the ring, Buffo "starts to deconstruct himself" (117), being nothing but a textual construct in the first place. And when the Escapee asks Fevvers to explain the significance of the mystic disappearance of the clowns who had been blown off the face of the earth, Fevvers responds: "'Look, love,' I says to him eventually, because I'm not in the right mood for literary criticism. 'If I hadn't bust a wing in the train-wreck, I could fly us all to Vladivostok in two shakes, so I'm not the right one to ask questions of when it comes to what is real and what is not..." (244). Yet this extra-textual reference to the likely reception of the text is simultaneously a defence of fiction's right to validate the irrational and the magical. That "significance" is thought to be the main concern of literary criticism is seen to be an impoverishment within the text itself.
The fictional text, then, celebrates its own fictionality, its capacity to dazzle and deceive. Fevvers' spreading laughter at the end of the novel is that of the comic narrator enjoying her narrative triumph in bringing off this book-length sleight of hand. In deceiving Walser she has also deceived the reader into believing in her, wings and all. Walser asks Fevvers, "why did you go to such lengths, once upon a time, to convince me you were the 'only fully-feathered intacta in the history of the world'" (294)? Fevvers, as she begins to laugh, responds, "'I fooled you, then!" After her laugh has spread to infect the entire globe "as if a spontaneous response to the giant comedy that endlessly unfolded beneath it," she concludes: "It just goes to show there's nothing like confidence" (295). An alert reader will pick up on "once upon a time," "the giant comedy," and "confidence." e The entire fictional narrative is a gigantic confidence trick, meant to fool us as convincingly as Fevvers fooled Walser, the fact-laden and skeptical auditor of her narrative. As Carter has explained, ending with Fevvers' "I really fooled you" (295) "doesn't make you realize the fictionality of what has gone before, it makes you start inventing other fictions..." (Haffenden 90). In fooling Walser, Fevvers has transformed his life. Dreams, fantasies and imaginings have now become a legitimate part of his consciousness. At the same time the absurdity of the Shaman's total immersion in this world alone has forced Walser and the reader to return to the outer world, although trailing clouds of glory with them . The end of this novel refuses closure in typical postmodern fashion. How can narrative die, especially in a world of unending signification? Less typical is Carter's resistance to endorsing either fact or fiction in isolation. Each world is dependent on and incorporates the other. So in returning the control of the narrative to the reader Carter ends by not ending her narration. Instead she returns it to the extra-narrational world of her readers who will have learnt from the book to recognize the necessary place in their lives for the ageless act of narration.
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---. Expletives Deleted. London: Vintage, 1993.
---. Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces. New York: Viking Penguin, 1987.
---. The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman. New York: Viking Penguin, 1982.
---. Nights at the Circus. New York, Penguin, 1986.
---. Shaking a Leg: Journalism and Writings, Ed. Jenny Uglow. London: Chatto & Windus, 1997
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The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1940-68. 217-56.
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Sue Roe. New York: St. Martins, 1987. 179-205.
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Copyright 1998 Brian Finney