Nights at the Circus

Nights at the Circus by Angela CarterGuest Reviewer: Amber Ruth Paulen

Author: Angela Carter
Publisher: Picador (1984)
Number of Pages: 295
How long it took me to read: 2 weeks
Where I bought this book: The Open Door Bookshop in Rome, Italy
ISBN: 0-330-28836-9

Like a Moth to a Flame

Last year I read my first Angela Carter novel, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman. As the title suggests, it’s a strange and wonderful book full of surprising twists of story and language. So it was a delight to find her name on the cover of Nights at the Circus on one of my last trips to The Open Door Bookshop in Rome. The Open Door Bookshop is the only used English bookshop in Rome, and since I first came to the Eternal City nine years ago, it has been my favorite bookshop. Piles and rows of creased spines and dusty book interiors set up the literary magic cast whenever I dive into the book I buy from this shop. Rarely do I leave the bookshop empty handed.

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Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “ ‘But what followed after they put away their books was only poor girls earning a living, for, though some of the customers would swear that whores do it for pleasure, that is only to ease their own consciences, so that they will feel less foolish when they fork out hard cash for pleasure that has no real existence unless given freely—oh, indeed! we knew we only sold the simulacra.’ ” (p.39)

4. “And, more than the marks of fresh bruises on fading bruises on faded bruises, it was as if she had been beaten flat, had all the pile, the shine banged off her adolescent skin, had been beaten threadbare, or as if she had been threshed, or beaten to the thinness of beaten metal; and the beatings had beaten her back, almost, into the appearance of childhood, for her little shoulderblades stuck up at acute angles, she had no breasts and was almost hairless but for a little flaxen tuft on her mound.” (p.130)

3. “At this time, the cusp of the modern age, the hinge of the nineteenth century, had a plebiscite been taken amongst all the inhabitants of the world, by far the great number of them, occupied as they were throughout the planet with daily business of agriculture of the slash and burn variety, warfare, metaphysics and procreation, would have heartily concurred with these indigenous Siberians that the whole idea of the twentieth century, or any other century at all, for that matter, was a rum notion.” (p.265)

2. “ ‘—and for seven long years, sir, I was nought but the painted, glided sign of love, and you might say, that so it was I served my apprenticeship in being looked at—at being the object of the eye of the beholder.’ ” (p.23)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. ‘And once the old world has turned on its axle so that the new dawn can dawn, then, ah, then! all the women will have wings, the same as I.’ ” (p.285)

New Words

Words are wondrous creatures. Put them together and they paint a picture. Rearrange them and the scene changes. But to be able to see what they are saying, we must first know what they mean.

New Word: coccyx (noun)

Definition (Source: The American Heritage Dictionary, 1991): a small bone at the base of the spinal column, consisting of several fused rudimentary vertebrae
Origins: from Greek ‘cuckoo’; from the resemblance of the bone to a cuckoo’s beak
As in: “And there she was, again, Fevvers, the most marvellous, flourishing her coccyx at Walser as she took off for some empyrean or other out of the frame.” (p.100)

New Word: empyrean (noun)

Definition (Source: The American Heritage Dictionary, 1991): the highest reaches of heaven, believed by the ancients to be a realm of pure fire or light
Synonyms: heaven, the sky
Origins (Source: Online Etymology Dictionary): mid-14c. (as ’empyre’); from Greek ’empyros’ fiery; from ‘en’ + ‘pyr’ fire; confused by early writers with imperial; in Greek cosmology, the highest heaven, the sphere of pure fire; later baptized with a Christian gloss as the abode of God and the angels
As in: see quote above

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“Is Fevvers fact or fiction? This question immediately catches my attention when it’s presented in the form of Jack Walser’s doubts as he interviews Fevvers, the famous aerialist, the woman with wings. I’m enchanted with fiction that asks questions from the inside out. If fiction exists within the fiction, what do I believe or disbelieve? As a novice fiction writer, I marvel at how quickly and subtly Carter makes the existence of Fevvers a believable reality; how she casts away, or talks out, Walser’s doubts and then any doubts that I may have about a woman having wings. By the time I turn to the second part of the book, I’m ready to believe anything Carter serves up: monkeys can school themselves, tigers dance, and Fevvers fly.

“Setting Nights at the Circus in Colonel Kearney’s circus also contributes to the possibility of the impossible. Circuses, after all, are strange places populated by strange people and probably more so at the turn of the last century. I’m not fond of circuses, but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying these scenes and even finding them fascinating.

“One of my favorite strange and unlikely events takes place in the third and final part when the train the circus is traveling on through Siberia crashes. The car Fevvers and her friends are sitting in launches into the air and there is a moment of absolute weightlessness that Carter lengthens impossibly before everything comes crashing down. The crash feels improbable and absolutely necessary—how it happens is never really explained, yet I believe it did, perhaps because Carter goes so deep into the details of what happened that I lose track of the question of why it happened. Only a skillful writer can suspend my belief so convincingly.”

“This is a twentieth-century novel that takes place at the dawning of that century. Fevvers is a new type of free woman to herald in the 1900s. She is famous not only for her flying stunts in the circus ring, but also because she is a mystery, an anomaly. Because she has never existed before, she is released to build her own narrative, during the interview with Walser and throughout the whole book. Her wings, an outright symbol of freedom, make her departure from the condition of women—especially pertinent at the turn of the last century—a bold and inspiring statement. Not to mention she is the proud owner of a refreshingly curt eccentricity, which combines with her other traits to make her a character that I enjoy in life as much as in literature.

“Ten years ago, I set out to do what people said I couldn’t, or they couldn’t imagine me doing: at twenty-two I bought a one-way ticket from the States to Europe without plan of destination. Traveling alone through Europe and North Africa was the closest I’ve come to being a woman with wings building my own narrative, a condition that I’ve tried to apply to my life as I’ve settled. It’s not easy to keep renewing the sense of a blank slate and an endlessness of possibilities, but it’s a state of mind I like to keep close to renew my wonder and curiosity about the world.”

“To continue on about the women… Most of the women who populate Nights at the Circus are independent. These toughies have inspired lots of critics to categorize Carter’s penultimate novel as a feminist tract, even though these women are too individualistic to stick to any one ideology. While I’m not interested in the feminist background of the novel, being a woman I am interested in strong female characters who come from the pen of a strong female writer. Because men rule literature, when I find a female writer who writes well about women I am more inclined to listen. And Carter writes the situation of women extremely well.

“Plenty of the women in the novel overcome their situation, from the whores whose house burns down and who set out to begin new lives, to poor Mignon, beaten and used throughout her early life, who finds solace in another woman’s love. And then there’s Fevvers of course, always accompanied by her sidekick foster mother, Lizzie, who dabbles in witchcraft. One of the strangest chapters of the book is dedicated to a women’s detention center in Siberia; the women eventually escape to build a female utopia in the taiga.

“I would love to see these kinds of women in daily life. But that won’t happen often as long as I continue to live in Italy, where the average Italian woman is more overworked than other women in Europe, what with the cooking, the children, the job, the gym, and the bella figura—literally meaning “beautiful figure,” a social standard that keeps women in high heels even in the supermarket. To be fair, last spring I stayed at an agriturismo in the Umbrian countryside run by a mother-daughter duo who not only kept the rooms charming, but also grew grapes to make their own wine, kept bees for honey, harvested olives for olive oil, and tended a garden. The two were in charge of their castle and received joy from it.”

“Carter creates a rich Shakespearean landscape of language and imagery: the circus, Siberia, London, St. Petersburg, the wild animals, and the varied characters. I included quote number four above not because of its content but because of the rhythm that Carter employs to get her point across. Read it again and you’ll feel as if you’re getting battered along with poor Mignon.

“On top of the beats of her sentences, Carter’s metaphors surprise; the next time I read Nights at the Circus, I’m keeping my notebook closer to catch more of those twists of language that made me feel like I was basking in some warm spring in a humid forest, lush and delicate. Because it was, above all, the language that kept me going through the book, deliberately slowing my pace, repeating those especially delectable lines in my head. To keep her language inside me, I’ve pulled down from my shelf a large collection of Carter’s short stories and have started reading The Bloody Chamber for the first time.”

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