The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

TheMagicToyshopI used to have this fallacy that I like Angela Carter only with my brain – I used to think that she was a writer whose works provided the perfect pretext for any enthusiastic English major student to talk about symbols, metaphors, intertextuality and all kinds of gender-stuff. I really liked both of her books I read so far (this one, which I first read during my university years as compulsory reading, and The Bloody Chamber, which I read a couple of years later, just because I wanted to read it), but I liked both of them only in and with my mind – I didn’t love them because I thought they were much too cold. Anyway, I re-read The Magic Toyshop this year, and I no longer have this fallacy – now I love Angela Carter with all my being.

I guess I mentioned a couple of times already that I absolutely love coming-of-age novels, and without the least bit of planning, I always happen to read a coming-of-age novel every two or three months, because I like (and need) to re-learn (or re-experience) what it’s like to grow up. And The Magic Toyshop can also be classified as a coming-of-age novel (of sorts), but it’s completely different from any other teenager-novel I know. The coming-of-age novels I know usually concentrate on the changes that happen to a young person’s mind when he’s growing up (even if these novels also deal with first dates and first kisses). But The Magic Toyshop is such an incredibly bodily novel that I find it breathtaking and scary even as a grown-up.

The novel’s protagonist is Melanie, who, during the 15th summer of her life, slowly realizes that she’s no longer a girl – she’s an almost-woman now. Melanie spends the last innocent-idyllic summer of her life with discovering herself and her body, and with day-dreaming about a perfect man – a phantom bridegroom who will step out of a fairy tale (or a glossy magazine) one day and to whom she will lose her virginity (or better to say: she won’t lose her virginity to him – she will give it to him, gently, in between fluffy-white pillows and cool sheets). Melanie’s daydreams and her games of make-believe are weightless, and they are without consequences, but everything changes when – because of the sudden death of her parents – Melanie and her younger siblings are forced to move to one of their late mother’s relatives, Uncle Philip. Philip is a toy-maker, and he’s the owner of the titular magic toyshop. However, he isn’t your typical benevolent, jovial uncle – instead, he’s a ruthless tyrant who terrorizes his family in every imaginable way. And his toyshop isn’t your typical Disneyland-like, merrily-magical place – instead, it’s a place where magic is dark and destructive; where the toys are so lifelike and perfect that it’s just too uncanny; and where human beings are forced to act as if they were lifeless toys.

And it is here, in Uncle Philip’s magic toyshop that Melanie – who grew up as a spoiled child, and whose days so far have been filled with the dreams and concerns of a child – starts to learn about the nature of the „real” reality – she’s forced to learn about this. Partly because Philip doesn’t let her stay in her childhood world any longer, and he uses Melanie to act out his dark and violent fantasies on/with her (not literally, but metaphorically – but in his world, metaphors and symbolic deeds carry way more weight and meaning than any real act). And partly because Melanie gets to know Philip’s family: being accepted into the family circle of Philip’s wife, Margaret, and Margaret’s younger brothers, she observes and experiences such intense, passionate, undisguised, both enticing and repulsive feelings and relations that all her childish ideas about life, emotions and – most importantly – about physical attractions and repulsions are shattered for good.

In just a couple of months, Melanie learns that sexuality isn’t always like the way she imagined – it’s not necessarily pure-beautiful-nice. In the course of her coming-of-age, Melanie has to realize that it may easily happen that the other is filthy, or less-than-gentle, and she has to realize that the (possible) future/consequence of having to raise a herd of unruly kids in a dingy, murky flat, as the wife of a grumpy man is always already present – even when she and Margaret’s brother, Finn have kissed only once.

Finn, by the way, isn’t the oh-so-strong man of a romantic novel; he’s not a man who can make a woman swoon by simply looking at her. Oh no – Finn’s presence and his clumsy-yet-knowing advances aren’t so deeply unsettling and uncomfortable for Melanie because he’s – say – frighteningly masculine – but simply because he’s real, and he’s unlike any phantom bridegroom out of a magazine Melanie used to dream about. (Actually, Finn repeatedly scorns Melanie for speaking as if she were quoting from a women’s magazine, for instance, when Melanie tells him something like this: „I’d love to be in love with you, but I don’t know how to do it.”)

I have to add, though, that there’s hardly any actual physical intercourse in the novel, but every single detail (the objects, the settings, the food, the toys) carries a whole lot of erotic potential – to the extent that it’s frightening even for an adult, let alone for a 15 year-old girl, who’s a virgin. (I don’t know if all of Angela Carter’s novels are this physical-sensual. All I know is that The Bloody Chamber is also like this.)

But despite all its darkness, this is an extremely vivid, exuberant, vibrant novel. And above all: it’s beautiful. And now I don’t see it as the work of a cold-headed genius – but simply as the work of a genius.

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

I read The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter a couple of years ago, and it was such a good novel that I definitely wanted to read more by the author. Plus, as I was an English major student at the university, it is still important for me to get to know the work of such formative authors I only heard about as a student, but due to a lack of time or my different schedule did not have the chance to read their works.

Speaking about majoring in English, I must mention that after reading two of her books, I consider Angela Carter to be one of the most suitable authors for a course in English literature. Her books are full of literary and cultural references (of which, I guess, I only recognize about 1 percent); they can be read from a psychoanalytical, a feminist or a magical realist point of view; and whole courses could be filled with the analysis of her strong, often erotically charged words and symbols. Despite all this, Angela Carter doesn’t intimidate me, and I don’t consider her to be a writer whose work can only be appreciated and enjoyed if you happen to be a university professor of English literature.

The Bloody Chamber consists of ten short stories, and each one is the adaptation of a well-known tale or legend. Among them we find the stories of Little Red Riding Hood, Puss-In-Boots and the Beauty and the Beast. In her foreword to the book English author Helen Simpson mentions that The Bloody Chamber is not the rewriting of these tales from a feminist perspective, instead (according to both her and Angela Carter) it is a collection of stories which bring the hidden contents of the old tales to the surface and use these contents to write new stories on their basis. And I agree with Simpson and Carter.

While reading these tales, I indeed felt that Angela Carter wrote new stories, and the fact that her stories are based on tales known to virtually everybody is ’only’ important as this way the stories are provided with an extra layer of meaning. This of course entails that you don’t necessarily have to know the original tales in order to understand the tales of Angela Carter. I, for example, was not familiar with the exact story of Puss-in-Boots, but I greatly enjoyed Carter’s tale of the same title.

Angela Carter also creates an interesting effect by featuring modern devices such as the telephone, the train or the bicycle in the tales set in an unidentifiable period. By using such out of place objects in her stories, she creates a distance between the original tales and her own versions of them (since in the original texts, naturally, no such objects appeared), and also emphasizes that the violence and the erotic content present in the original tales is also very much there in the lives of heroes living in an era of technical achievements.

The short stories of this collection are, by the way, rather oppressive, stifling and orgiastic texts. A reason for this oppressiveness could be that most of the stories consist only of descriptive passages, and contain no dialog whatsoever which would make the story easier to read and digest. Another reason could be that Angela Carter obviously enjoys her own writing and luxuriates in dark words suggesting decadence, animalistic feelings, perverseness and corruption. In her world, the sweet smell of roses always mingles with the dazing stench of decay, and even the purest virginity always foreshadows future promiscuity and cruel sexuality.

Because of all these, it must be a real challenge for any translator to translate the work of Angela Carter. It can’t be easy to render the poetic and erotic language of Angela Carter in another language without the result being kitschy and ridiculous, and it must also take a lot of effort and ingenuity to make sure that the motifs surfacing at different parts of the same short story or appearing in several stories (such as the contrast between the cold North and the seemingly warm, friendly South; the roses which appear all the time; or the not entirely human lovers) appear where they need to appear, and that the bizarre words appearing from time to time resonate throughout the whole collection, and constantly remind the reader of the context in which they previously appeared.

And simply reading Angela Carter is quite a challenge for me – but it’s a pleasure as well. I have to pay a lot of attention to it but it’s worth the effort. My only problem with Carter is that she is a bit too clever and conscious for me (and I’ve never thought that one day I will object to these qualities). If only she were a bit more spontaneous and human, I could easily become her greatest fan. But this way I only know and understand what a good writer she was and I will definitely read her other works as well, but she will never become my favorite.