Angela Carter: Nights at the Circus


You know that scene in Amadeus where the Austrian emperor comments on Mozart’s music that it contains “too many notes”?  That’s how I began to feel after a while about the individual episodes, destinies, and narrative detours making up the sum total of this book — they simply started to run into each other.  Adjoa Andoh, who reads the audio version, said in an Audible interview about Nights at the Circus that Angela Carter is “generous” with her use of words (and towards her characters) … which I don’t necessarily mind; in fact, I’ve been known to downright revel in exuberant prose, but I confess that Carter has tested even my limits here.

Based on a simple premise — journalist interviews “human swan” trapeze artist in the attempt to show her up as a fraud, instead falls in love with her, and ends up joining her circus as a clown so as to follow her to Russia –, this is an exploration of the world of Victorian carneys, circuses, and freak shows, of the divisions of class and culture(s), and of the exploitation of women and of the disabled (especially those perceived as freaks).  If, going in, you have any misconceptions about the nature of Nights at the Circus based on its title and setting, or based on the fact that it is frequently described as “magic realism”, at least in the audio version Adjoa Andoh’s earthy reading will disabuse you of any such notions literally from the first word on: there is no question that Fevvers, the book’s protagonist, is cockney to the bone; and more generally speaking, between them Carter and Andoh leave no doubt about the fact there is (or was) nothing remotely glorious or magical about the behind-the-scenes world of Victorian carneys — nor about the previous lives of most carney artists, or the destiny awaiting them once they were too old to be able to perform.  While pulling off enough of the veil for the reader / spectator to understand that much of what (s)he sees is an illusion, the lines are occasionally blurred, and not all is revealed to the naked eye — and even where Carter applies her exuberance to the plainly ridiculous, never once does she lose an ounce of respect for her characters (nor, for that matter, does Andoh’s narration).  Yet, this is one book where I’ll likely want to revisit the printed version at some point in the future, because Andoh’s performance, splendid as it is, is so dominant that I couldn’t help wondering sometimes if the characters — first and foremost Fevvers herself, but others as well — would have sounded exactly the same in my head without anybody else’s intervening interpretation.

In the meantime, though, give me Fellini’s La Strada (and The Clowns) any day of the week …

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