miercuri, 9 iunie 2021

Wrong side of the tracks

 Angela Carter - Wise Children, Vintage Books, 2006

Emma Rice's stage adaptation of Wise Children is the best scripted drama I have ever seen on a stage. So, once I found out the play is based on a book and that, furthermore, the book is actually quite a popular one, naturally, I wanted to read it.

I can fully see the appeal. Wise Children is expertly crafted literature, with a lot of show-stopping moments. Moments when you actually feel like stopping your reading just to contemplate the beauty of its prose. That is rare. I am curious about Angela Carter's other writing, although it's a safe assumption that the lady was a master of her craft. Yes, was. Life cut short. Died in 1992 at the age of 51. Lung cancer. Hey-ho.

While I was admiring the writing, however, oftentimes I have asked myself. Is this maybe a bit... over-written? Although over-written is probably not the best choice of words. 'Baroque' is what Ali Smith calls it in the 2006 introduction, and I can fully get on board with that.

The book is luxurious in detail and scarce in action. In fact, it doesn't even feel like a linear novel as much as a conglomerate of snapshots, a series of photos which, in quick succession, give the impression of movement. Sometimes there are large gaps. Sometimes one or the other of the tableaus gets lost in a different position than its natural place in the storyline. All without a warning, all without any particular regard for the effort it elicits from the reader. Because yes, beautiful as it is, it can be hard going. 'Heavy writing', I called it.

I suppose, in a way, it's exactly like listening to a stream of stories from an old lady that at times sound like digressions, at times like senseless blabber, but it's all so fascinating that not only you keep listening, you are actively engaged in trying to put everything in order. I'm pretty sure this was the intention.

The old lady in question is Dora Chance, twin sister of Nora and the protagonist of the book, born in 1915, but with a story that starts 2 generations previous and goes all the way towards the late years of the 20th century. All of it imagined, of course, but so vivid that it might as well be true. After all, who is to say that one cannot turn an invisible corner on Brixton Road, or Coldharbour Lane, and end up on Bard Road, the street where the Chance sisters live, but that cannot be found on a map?

This book is quintessentially British, quintessentially London. A certain part of London, of a certain time. Brixton looks a lot different now than in 1990 - everything changes. It's still 'the wrong side of the tracks' though - it has been since the days of Shakespeare! Because some things never change, isn't it?

Speaking of Shakespeare... yes, he is almost a character. So much in the book goes back to Shakespeare! And Carter creates a playful reverent/irreverent relationship with the Bard that I feel it should become representative for the way any culture looks upon its agreed-upon highly esteemed heroes. Yes, you can both admire Shakespeare and make fun of him. Nothing wrong with the cat using Shakespeare's open-top bust as a litter box. But why, oh, why, Angela, must you be looking for the ugliest, dirtiest, most reprehensible details of any single story. Why focus on the ugliest aspects of human nature?

Honest question, I don't understand. For instance, Charlie Chaplin, to this day one of the most venerated figures of South London. Do you know what Carter/Chance has to say about him? 'Hung like a horse'. Not even a bad thing per se, although surely he was known for more than that?

Dude asks Dora for an autograph? She can see the bits of sperm stuck in his mustache after blowing his boyfriend during the movie. All of it in good humor, sure, but was it really the most striking aspect about the fellow?

I hope you get the gist.

And finally, my big question: why is it that, while the play Wise Children is an explosion of joy and exuberance, of dance and song, suddenly turned on its head by the twist at the end that leaves your heart in tatters - why is it then that the book feels like the exact opposite of that? An undertone of sadness throughout, but with the most luminous end, of all the possible uplifting ends imaginable? What compelled Emma Rice to turn the story on its head? Why is it so effective with such a small change? How come both work just as well? What devilish works are in play so that by changing what happens at the end you change how we feel in the beginning? Which one is better?

The truth is, after the first read, I don't fully understand the book. Got distracted by enjoying the writing, I suppose. So I guess to fully do it justice as a reader I'll have to read it again at some point. But what if the second read will be just as enjoyable as the first, and I still won't get to understand it? It's almost like it's been written to be felt.

Speaking of, I most certainly want to see the play again. For those of you who haven't, you're in luck: it's available online.

Quotes, so you can feel what I mean about the writing:

24: 'You always like to think a bit of love, or at least a little pleasure, went into your making but I do not know, I cannot guess, if the dark-eyed stranger who put his hand up the skirt of the penniless orphan was cynical, or tender, or desperate, or carried away by the moment.'

54: 'I loved it and have always loved it best of all, the moment when the lights go down, the curtain glows, you know that something wonderful is going to happen. It doesn't matter if what happens next spoils everything; the anticipation itself is always pure.'

125: 'When I was young, I'd wanted to be ephemeral, I'd wanted the moment, to live in just the glorious moment, the rush of blood, the applause. Pluck the day. Eat the peach. Tomorrow never comes. But, oh yes, tomorrow does come all right, and when it comes it lasts a bloody long time, I can tell you.'

140: 'We felt we had been dislocated. Or, as if we, too, had surrendered to the dream but did not know for sure who dreamed us.'

144: 'We were quite surprised and felt shoddy, by comparison, as if we lived in an ethical twilight, a cockroach world of compromise, lies, emotional sleight of hand. And so we did, I suppose. We called it 'Life'. [...] It's the American tragedy in a nutshell. They look around the world and think: 'There must be something better!' But there isn't. Sorry, chum. This is it. What you see is what you get. Only the here and now.'

168: 'We were doomed to either flash or squalor.'

169: 'I've never known such profound silences as those Lynde silences especially when her daughters were there, silences in which the unspoken hung like fog that got into your lungs and choked you.'

178: 'though never my favourite tipple, any port in a storm'

192: 'It's every woman's tragedy [...] that, after a certain age, she looks like a female impersonator.'
Mind you, we've known some lovely female impersonators, in our time.'

Hard to describe how funny this line is when said by a female impersonator.

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