Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces by Angela Carter is her first collection of short stories, published in 1974, and is, in part, inspired and influenced by her experiences of living in Japan. After the publication of her third novel, Several Perceptions in 1968, Angela Carter won the Somerset Maugham Award, giving her the money and the means to leave her husband and travel to a place that was as far removed from England and ‘Judaeo-Christian’ society as possible. In her selected pieces of journalism in Nothing Scared (which I am halfway through), Carter mentions that ‘In Japan, I learnt what it is to be a woman and became radicalised’ (pg.28). It is clear, then, that Japan had a great influence not only in her life but in her career as a writer.
I approached Fireworks with the rather vague notion that it would include nine short stories set in Japan. However, I was surprised to find that only three stories – A Souvenir of Japan, The Smile of Winter and Flesh and the Mirror – are explicitly set there. The rest are wonderfully surprising in their scope. From the eden-like garden in Penetrating to the Heart of the Forest to a destitute and decaying London on the brink of destruction in Elegy for a Freelance, Carter effortlessly moves from one completely original and unrelated story to another. However, one of the recurring themes that connect these ‘Profane Pieces‘ together is the idea of mirrors and reflections. Mirrors serve as reflections of the self and to the self, but they also serve a much greater purpose in Carter’s prose. They reflect an uneasy alignment between the self and other, the self and appearance.
A Souvenir of Japan is narrated by an unnamed Western woman, living temporarily in the suburbs of Tokyo, and chronicles the failure of her relationship with a young Japanese man. Carter explores Japanese culture and folklore intensely in this short story and, after reading her New Society articles on Japan in Nothing Sacred, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the narrator’s experience and Carter’s own experience. For example, Carter also lived in a quiet suburb of Tokyo and had an affair with a Japanese man. As Ali Smith states in the introduction to the new edition of Lorna Sage’s Flesh and the Mirror: Essays on the Art of Angela Carter:
‘The short story form, from her first collection, Fireworks, onwards, allows Carter to infiltrate story with essay, in other words narrative with discussion’.
‘Introduction to the New Edition’ in Flesh and the Mirror: Essays on the Art of Angela Carter, Ali Smith, Pg.15
I found this to be the case with A Souvenir in Japan. Carter doesn’t just tell us a wonderfully touching story about a failed romance between two distinctly different individuals, but she also incorporates the Japanese way of life and Japanese sensibilities that may seem completely alien or extremely traditional to a Western reader. We learn that Japan is ‘a man’s country’ and we are told the folktale of Momotaro ‘who was born from a peach’ and we are also made aware of the respect held for mirrors:
‘Speaking of mirrors, the Japanese have a great respect for them and, in old-fashioned inns, one often finds them hooded with fabric covers when not in use. He said: ‘Mirrors make a room uncosy’. I am sure there is more to it than that although they love to be cosy. One must love cosiness if one is to live so close together. But, as if in celebration of the thing they feared, they seemed to have made the entire city into a cold hall of mirrors which continually proliferated whole galleries of constantly changing appearances, all marvellous but none tangible’.
‘A Souvenir in Japan’ in Fireworks, Angela Carter, Pg.9
We learn that Japan is, most importantly, an ever-changing place of contradictions.
The Executioner’s Beautiful Daughter is, in comparison, a very cold and haunting tale of familial violence and incest. From a quiet Tokyo suburb the reader now finds themselves ‘high in the uplands’ of an unnamed country, in a hostile and unwelcoming village. Although named after the daughter, the story, in fact, follows the actions of the executioner himself, who ‘always wears a curious mask. This mask is made of supple, close-fitting leather dyed an absolute black and it conceals his hair and the upper part of his face entirely except for two narrow slits through which issue the twin regards of eyes as inexpressive as though they were part of the mask’ (pg.14). We then move into the world of an Asiatic Professor, travelling through Europe on his puppet tour in The Loves of Lady Purple, which reminded me almost of The Magic Toyshop and Uncle Philip’s eery puppet productions in the basement of his dilapidated South London house. Lady Purple feeds off the ageing professor until she eventually comes to life, becoming what he made her.
I could go through each story, one-by-one, though I fear that I could go on for ever so I will finish by mentioning one of the stories that caught my attention the most. Flesh and the Mirror, one of the Japan stories, recounts the return of a young woman to Tokyo. She is sad to realise that the one she loves has not come to meet her. As she wanders around the city ‘crying bitterly’ she remembers how she ‘used to salivate[..] at the suggestion of unpleasure, […] sure that that was real life’. She lives her life as a performance, not really ‘experiencing experience as experience’ and ‘pulling the strings of […] her own puppet’. However, what is most interesting about this short story is its play with mirrors.
‘Mirrors are ambiguous things. The bureaucracy of the mirror issues me with a passport to the world; it shows me my appearance. But what use is a passport to an armchair traveller? Women and mirrors are in complicity with one another to evade the action I/she performs that she/I cannot watch, the action with which I break out of the mirror, with which I assume my appearance. But this mirror refused to conspire with me’.
‘Flesh and the Mirror’ in Fireworks, Angela Carter, Pg.65
This hotel mirror only reflects the truth and the narrator cannot hide from it or transform herself into what she wants to see. Having taken a lover from off the street, she feels as if she has acted out of character – ‘I saw the flesh and the mirror but I could not come to terms with the sight’ (pg.65). She seeks out her original lover and spends the next night with him acting out a performance of guilt and intimacy. As she realises she cannot keep up this fakery ‘the city vanished; it ceased, almost immediately, to be a magic and appalling place. I woke up one morning and found it had become home’ (pg.70). Although I am still trying to figure out what exactly Carter means by this, I have been helped along a bit by Lorna Sage’s Introduction to Flesh and the Mirror: Essays on the Art of Angela Carter:
‘On the face of things she is renouncing ‘magic’; in fact I think she is denying that magic is alien or strange, and so becoming a citizen of strangeness. It is the sexual tourist, or – to put it more politely – the orientalist, who finds the city and the ‘arbitrary carnival’ of its streets exotic. A true denizen of the mirror, one who can accept ‘the fact, the act’, will be at home because she is naturalised, can acknowledge her own inalienable self-consciousness … It was here, I think, that Carter’s project of estrangement became truly her vocation (‘the fact, the act’), a matter of experience’.
Introduction to Flesh and the Mirror: Essays on the Art of Angela Carter, Lorna Sage, Pg.28
Although I still need to reread these stories and unpack them a little more to try and make sense of them fully, I found them to be a truly amazing collection to read – particularly in conjunction with Angela Carter’s New Society articles about Japan in Noting Sacred. You can definitely see the influence the country had on her even in the pieces that aren’t directly set in Japan. Fireworks, like with all of her work, is beautifully written in the rich and luscious prose that I have come to love Angela Carter for and which is so characteristic of her.
I read this as part of Angela Carter Week (8th-15th June), hosted by Caroline @Beauty Is A Sleeping Cat and Delia @Postcards From Asia. I know this post has come a day late but I found the week so successful (I still have to review Nothing Sacred) and it has been wonderful reading what everyone else has read from Angela Carter’s oeuvre. I have many more Carter books to add to my TBR pile now!