Scourge of the sacred cow

18th July 1997 at 01:00

Like many novelists, Angela Carter was also a talented journalist, a fact to which the latest volume of her collected works bears eloquent testimony. Michle Roberts remembers a rare talent

Sadness at Angela Carter's untimely death takes a different twist with the appearance of each volume of her collected works, published posthumously. Here she is, very much alive; but there will be no more. Then another lot of writing appears, and you feel bereft and amazed all over again. Here's the evidence proving her a major British writer of this century: prodigiously talented, versatile and various, a dazzling stylist. We've had the collected short stories, then the dramatic works, and now the series concludes with her non-fictional prose. How rich a category that is: memoir, autobiography, essays and reviews all jostling together.

Angela Carter earned her living from books, with short stints as a teacher of creative writing. Like most writers, she supplemented her income with a variety of journalistic projects. Some of these, for example her work for New Society under supportive editors such as Paul Barker, who encouraged her to say the sharp, unpalatable truths she excelled in, have been published before, but it's good to be able to place these in the context of a lifetime of thinking.

This will be a useful source book for anyone wanting to study Carter outside her novels and short stories; its inclusiveness is valuable for scholarly reasons, even if some of the pieces now feel dated and can be easily skipped. Carter wrote brilliantly on the Habitat ethos in the early Seventies, for example. But how you long for a piece on shopping for identities today, when Habitat is selling to the Parisian middle classes a rustic chic for their country cottages in Provence beyond the reach of the peasants who subsist on vinyl suites and plastic knick-knacks. Perhaps only the English could export their pastoral fantasies to their ancient enemies with such panache and make a profit out of it. One longs for Carter's observations.

Many of her best pieces are about the glories and eccentricities of English life, outside London and inside the inner city. The first, autobiographical section paints pictures in close-up of a highly original family between the wars, rubbing our noses in the smells, sights and sounds of this idyllic landscape where wit, honesty and bizarreries flourished. Carter's sketches of northern towns and mores are clear-sighted, loving, unforgettable, often very funny. She sharpens her focus by insisting on the perspectives enforced by class differences, whether she's discussing the inability of foodies to relish anything not part of the fashionable Mediterranean diet, or contrasting the bourgeois repression of sexuality with the masculinist, orgiastic view of bonking beloved of the tabloids.

Her intelligence is piercing, formidable, daunting even. Yoked to her politically incorrect version of feminism, it produces marvellous, penetrating caricatures of feminine monsters like the Linda Lovelace of the early suck'n'tell book, of previously untouchable heroines such as Colette, or Dorothy Wordsworth, or Emily Bront . She can find the grotesque, the hidden secrets, in any subject. Show her a sacred cow and she's away. She's got no reverence, no easy compassion, no compunction. She's enjoying herself too much.

This book energetically demonstrates Carter's prowess with words. Reading her is like a drug-induced mystical experience; the prose glitters, stabs, hums. I've always admired her most as a teller of short stories, but now I see that as a journalist she excelled at dramatic monologue, scorching riffs about the way we live delivered with dandyish extravagance, precision, flair. Fantastic stuff.

Just occasionally she's less exhilarating and a touch sentimental, or too swaggering, as though she's just a bit unsure. This happens in some of the travel pieces. Difficult stuff to write: can you really rave about exoticism these days? Sometimes Carter's ironic mask slips, as when she writes about Turkey: "These are prosperous Third World peasants, with lots of delicious things to eat and pure air to breathe and a rich texture to their lives that we in Britain lost about the time of the Industrial Revolution." Er, yes? Can a tourist really be so sure? Similarly, her take on Venice mixes the decadent and the world-weary in a style all too reminiscent of other visitors, from Byron on. Whereas in Ilkley market, back on home ground, she is breathtakingly brilliant on what's going on under her nose that most other writers might never notice.

These are quibbles. This is a huge, ferociously enjoyable book, like a lucky dip in which there's a prize for everybody. You may feel provoked or irritated or horrified but you won't, I promise you, feel bored, if you keep it close to hand and pull out its plums as often as possible.

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