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Autobiographical Estrangement in Angela Carter’s ‘A Souvenir of Japan’, ‘The Smile of Winter’ and ‘Flesh and the Mirror’

Autobiographie et aliénation dans ‘A Souvenir of Japan’, ‘The Smile of Winter’ et ‘Flesh and the Mirror’ d’Angela Carter
Michelle Ryan-Sautour


Angela Carter’s predilection for estrangement is undeniable. However, this estrangement is not only apparent in the gothic modes of her fiction, but also in a few, rare, autobiographical pieces: ‘A Souvenir of Japan’, ‘The Smile of Winter’ and ‘Flesh and the Mirror’ (Fireworks 1974). The texts appear glaringly against a landscape of fiction in which the author’s textual death is clearly foregrounded with its baroque profusion of intertextual modes. As a partisan of Roland Barthes’ ‘Death of the Author’ Carter was vehemently opposed to ‘confession’ in women’s literature. However, interspersed with more gothic, or fantasy, pieces, these three pieces clearly function in the autobiographical mode, setting up an intricate game with genre that leads the reader to reflect on the connection between the real Angela Carter and the anonymous autobiographical ‘I’ of the narrator in her interaction with her Japanese lover/other in Japan. The pieces indeed waver self-consciously on the edges of the genres of confession, travel writing, and romance as the illusion of autobiographical depth or unity is dismantled from within and the I of the narrator/author is transformed into a spiral of loss of identity and performative reiteration. This paper aims to take a closer look at the autobiographical character of these pieces which appear at first glance as being atypical of Angela Carter’s aesthetics, but upon closer investigation reveal a subtle reflection on the themes of sexual/textual identity, alienation, and performance which dominate much of Carter’s fiction.

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  • 1 Lorna Sage quoting Angela Carter (Sage 1994a, 2).
  • 2 Lisa Appignanesi: ‘I find it very interesting that most of the women writers who have come out of t (...)
  • 3 The following title abbreviations will subsequently be used when citing the three stories: ‘A Souve (...)

1‘Ours is a highly individualised culture, with a great faith in the work of art as a unique one-off, and the artist as an original, godlike and inspired creator of unique one-offs’1 says Angela Carter, and her fiction openly dethrones this ‘godlike’ creator. The baroque plurality of discourses in her fiction displays a disclaiming [of] individual authority’ that Lorna Sage associates with a ‘nostalgia for anonymity’ (Sage 1991, 2), and the persona of Angela Carter is indeed elusive. Sage observes how ‘[p]ersonal biography rather slipped out of our conversation’ (Sage 1977, 57) in interview, and critics seem to shy away from investigating the ‘real Angela Carter’. Detailed biographies concerning Angela Carter’s life are strikingly absent in the current body of criticism concerning her work. The biographical sketch written by Lorna Sage upon Carter’s death, ‘Death of the Author’ (Sage 1992b), revealingly plays with Roland Barthes’ famous phrase in its self-conscious evasion of traditional biographical modes, and even Sarah Gamble’s recent Angela Carter: A Literary Life (Gamble 2005) highlights its status as synthesis with its pointed use of ‘literary’ in the title—it explores the life of Angela Carter primarily through the lens of Carter’s writing. Lisa Appignanesi also observes the autobiographical opacity in Carter’s fiction and comments on her deviation from the confessional modes of writing often associated with feminism.2 Three pieces in Carter’s Fireworks stand out glaringly against Carter’s landscape of fiction, as they resonate biographically with the author’s life: ‘A Souvenir of Japan’, ‘The Smile of Winter’ and ‘Flesh and the Mirror’ (Angela Carter 1974).3

  • 4 ‘So we did not quite fit in, thank goodness; alienated is the only way to be, after all’ (Carter 19 (...)

2The pieces were written when Angela Carter went to Japan in 1969 after winning the Somerset Maugham literary prize for Several Perceptions in 1968. According to Jeff VanderMeer, they correspond to the time of Carter’s divorce from her first husband and constitute a rare moment of autobiography in her fiction: ‘Never again would Carter commit such a personal account to fiction, certainly not in a manner that would so perfectly mirror her own situation at a particular time: a female, first person narrator coping with loss, with the ironies and inequalities of relationships’ (VanderMeer). The three pieces do indeed focus on the themes of estrangement and loss as the narrator confronts the other, alien world of Japan. Caryl Phillips suggests, in fact, that Carter’s writing about Japan be read ‘for what it tells us about her’ (Phillips 2006). Furthermore, Carter has often been associated with alienation. Sage comments on the ‘degree of loneliness and displacement about the impression she gives’ (Sage 1977, 57), and a quotation by Carter, ‘Alienated is the Only Way to Be’,4 as the title of the first chapter in Gamble’s biography, places estrangement at the forefront of the writer’s life.

3However, the alienation experienced by the author figures in these three pieces is problematic and cannot be limited to a simple, individual, unified autobiographical ‘I’. On the contrary, the image of the author, Angela Carter, beyond the surface of individual pathos and estrangement, flickers throughout the text in a ‘now you see me, now you don’t’ dynamic that exudes self-conscious playfulness. As the generic limits of travel fiction, confession and the personal autobiography blur, the reader’s attempts to situate the author become a politically charged game of fixing identity. As is often the case with Angela Carter’s work, this ‘I’ is not what it seems, or perhaps is only what it seems, as the reader is precariously positioned at the frontiers of fiction and non-fiction, fabulation and truth, and is thus drawn into a reflection about art and life, or rather life as art. This paper aims to take a closer look at the autobiographical character of these pieces which appear at first glance as being atypical of Angela Carter’s aesthetic, but upon closer investigation reveal a subtle reflection on the themes of identity, alienation, and play-acting that appear elsewhere in her fiction.

Playing With the Autobiographical Pact

  • 5Textuellement, je pars de la position du lecteur: il ne s’agit ni de partir de l’intériorité d’un (...)
  • 6 Lorna Sage indeed comments on how the pieces are very close to nonfiction: ‘Her 1974 collection, Fi (...)
  • 7 ‘Le pacte autobiographique est l’engagement que prend un auteur de raconter directement sa vie (ou (...)
  • 8 ‘Si l’identité est un imaginaire, l’autobiographie qui colle à cet imaginaire est du côté de la vér (...)
  • 9 ‘La promesse de dire la vérité, la distinction entre la vérité et le mensonge sont la base de tous (...)
  • 10 ‘À la différence d’autres contrats de lecture, le pacte autobiographique est contagieux. Il comport (...)

4In theoretical writings about autobiography, Philippe Lejeune’s famous reading ‘pact’ is placed at the forefront of generic status. The reader-author pact lies at the heart of an approach he describes today as being one of textual pragmatics5 and it isimbued with a playful dimension in Carter’s case as the primary question emerges: should these works be read as fiction or as autobiography?6 Lejeune throughout the years has come to adopt a controversial position when he clearly states that a ‘spirit of truth’ informs the autobiographical p.7, and it is thus incompatible with the suspension of disbelief that characterises the fictional p.8. His case is primarily based upon the codes of reading that invite a reader to adopt an attitude of autobiographical belief. Such codes might include, for example, a correspondence of narrator/author names, or a subtitle which, according to convention, propose a fundamental ‘promise to tell the truth’.9 In maintaining such a position, Lejeune inadvertently points to a form of what Jean Jacques Lecercle, in reference to Louis Althusser, calls interpellation in the pragmatics of reading. Even in a critical context where it is generally accepted that telling the truth in autobiography is impossible, much as the unity of an autobiographical self is an illusion, reading conventions are such that the reader continues to reach for such an illusion of truth and to ascribe an identity to the autobiographical author. This process is underlined when Lejeune characterises the autobiographical pact as a force, using the metaphor of a ‘contagious virus’ to describe how the reader is interpellated, pulled into an exploration of the other in the autobiographical text.10

5Carter’s three pieces appear to play with this interpellation in that they openly waver on the edges of truth, experimenting with the conflict between the fictional and autobiographical contracts. Paratextual references such as the 1987 Penguin edition’s title, Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces, with its use of ‘piece’ rather than ‘tale’ or ‘story’, open up the possibility of attributing a non-fiction status to the texts, and the word ‘profane’ could refer to the profanation of generic norms in the collection. Furthermore, the subtitle is curiously different in the 1981 Harper and Row edition‘Nine Stories in Various Disguises’and thus also suggests dizzying implications. The fictional status of the texts is officially affirmed with the use of the word ‘story’, a paratext which should lead one to identify the collection as fiction, the category in which indeed places it. ‘Disguises’, however, suggests a reflection on appearances and generic masquerade. The reader is thus left to wonder if the story is masquerading as autobiography or if autobiography is masquerading as story.

6Generic tension is maintained through the position of the stories in the collection. The ‘ornate, unnatural’ (Carter 1974, 133) style Carter associates with the gothic mode is conspicuously absent in the referential dimension of these three pieces which all propose an autodiegetic ‘I’ who is characterized as a woman, and a story line that hinges on estrangement in relation to the ‘Other’ of Japan. Organised in ‘chronological order, as they were written’ (Carter 1974, 133) the quasi-referential quality of the three pieces alternates with the marvellous mode of the other tales and results in a generic dialogue that troubles the reader’s attempts to adopt a stable reading position. The narrative ‘we’ at the end of the first piece, ‘A Souvenir of Japan’, which is set in Japan, blends with the ‘we’ at the beginning of ‘The Executioner’s Beautiful Daughter’ and draws the reader unexpectedly into a timeless universe of decapitation, incest, and pornographic violence. ‘The Loves of Lady Purple’ contrasts the marionette’s marvellous emergence into life with the melancholic meditations of the following piece, ‘The Smile of Winter’: ‘When the sun goes down, it is very cold and then I easily start crying’ (SW 41). This piece, in turn, shifts to the intertextual folk tale mode of ‘Hansel and Gretel’ in ‘Penetrating to the Heart of the Forest’ before arriving at the culminating autobiographical piece of ‘Flesh and the Mirror’. Constant shifts in pronouns, in combination with a contrasting and blurring game with generic modes, invite the reader to continually readjust his/her reading contract.

  • 11 Angela Carter quoted by Lorna Sage (Sage 1994b, 32).
  • 12 Canadian author known for the lyrical quality of her novel, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and(...)

7A question mark is also drawn around the generic modes within the three pieces as the reader is invited into an autobiographical impression of lost love and winter solitude. In ‘A Souvenir of Japan’ the story hinges on the tension between the narrator and her anonymous Japanese lover, and ‘Flesh and the Mirror’ appears as a second instalment in a romance series with its stereotypical plot of a woman jilted by her lover: ‘I had arrived back in Yokohama that evening from a visit to England and nobody met me, although I expected him’ (FM 67). Variations on the theme of crying in ‘The Smile of Winter’ encourage the reader to hesitate in regards to associating or not this woeful narrator with the name of Angela Carter. This is perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of the texts, if considered as autobiography, as this pathos is clearly incongruent with the image of an author who later writes: ‘I am moved towards it by the desire that no daughter of mine should ever be in a position to be able to write: BY GRAND CENTRAL STATION I SAT DOWN AND WEPT, exquisite prose thought it might contain. (BY GRAND CENTRAL STATION I TORE OFF HIS BALLS, would be more like it, I should hope)’.11 Carter’s play with the content and register of Elizabeth Smart’s12 book title, openly questions the ideology of victimization Carter so often decries in works such as The Sadeian Woman where she explores the potential for pornographic texts to counter the social myth of women as victims, taking for example, Sade’s Justine: ‘This good little girl’s martyrisation by the circumstances of adult life as a woman makes her the ancestress of a generation of women in popular fiction who find themselves in the same predicament, such as the heart-struck, tearful heroines of Jean Rhys, Edna O’Brien and Joan Didion who remain grumblingly acquiescent in a fate over which they believe they have no control’ (Carter 1978, 56). Pathos in relation to loss and betrayal as a dominant emotional affect in women’s autobiographical writing is indeed staged in the three texts at varying degrees, and unexpectedly teases the reader with fleeting impressions of intimate complicity with the author.

  • 13 However, this afterword did not appear in all collections of Fireworks. Apparently Angela Carter ch (...)

8The ‘signature’ of the texts intensifies the paratextual question of generic identity. Lejeune has identified the name as being an important element in the consolidation of the autobiographical contract: ‘Enfin, très souvent, le pacte autobiographique entraîne l’identité de nom entre l’auteur dont le nom figure sur la couverture, et le personnage dont l’histoire est racontée dans le texte’ (Lejeune 2005, 33). However, the absence of paratextual indications as well as the anonymity of the narrator in Carter’s three pieces highlight the tenuous link between the narrating I and the author/signature of the work. The pact therefore relies primarily on implicit clues such as the ‘Afterword’ in Fireworks in which the signing author unequivocally announces that the pieces were written during her stay in Japan: ‘So I worked on tales. I was living in Japan; I came back to England in 1972’ (Carter 1974, 133). The dates of writing and living in Japan, in combination with the referential frame of Japan in the three pieces, invite the reader to interpret the texts a posteriori as being autobiographical in nature.13 This referential dimension in its contrast with the more marvellous universe of the other stories places the reader at the precarious junction of a belief in the image of truth Lejeune identifies as being at the heart of the autobiographical pact, and an attitude of suspended belief, that is a temporary agreement to treat a fictional world as if it were true. The distinction between fiction and autobiography that Lejeune so strongly defends thus hinges entirely on the manner in which the reader is interpellated by the text.

9The title of ‘A Souvenir of Japan’ further accentuates experimentation with the autobiographical persona, as it announces the autobiographical dilemma of sifting through the fragments of memory. The gap between memory and life is structurally highlighted in ‘Flesh and the Mirror’, where, as Béatrice Bijon notes, there is a certain porosity between the past and the present (Bijon 278), and ‘The Smile of Winter’ also proposes a narrative which, with its predominant use of the simple present tense, creates an effect of confession and intimate reflection: ‘Because there are no seagulls here, the only sound is the resonance of the sea’ (SW 41)—the reader is invited to perceive the portrait of a moment in the narrator’s life.

10The author’s image is also placed at the forefront with the predominance of self-conscious narration. The narrating ‘I’ regularly addresses the narratee as ‘you’ and the semantics of the texts focus on writing, art, and illusion. In ‘A Souvenir of Japan’ the narrator comments on the process of characterisation in relation to herself and her lover: ‘But I do not want to paint our circumstantial portraits so that we both emerge with enough well-rounded, spuriously detailed actuality that you are forced to believe in us’ (SJ 10), and at the end of ‘The Smile of Winter’, the narrator comments on the intentions of the piece: ‘Do not think I do not realize what I am doing. I am making a composition using the following elements’ (SW 50). The characterisation of the heroine as writer/author/artist indeed encourages the reader to seek out the image of Angela Carter as the autobiographical force behind these ambiguous pieces. The texts openly play with the reflex of ascription that Lecercle identifies as an essential element in the reader-author contract as established through the text: ‘And, yet, such a prior intention is exactly what we construct when reading the text, what we ascribe to the text’s authorthere is always a point on reading Willoughby’s letter when I need to decide, in order to put an end to the in effect abyme of metalepsis, that Jane Austen intended it all’ (Lecercle 118). The blurring of generic limits in combination with a layering of narrative levels and an intrusive narrator/author figure, interpellate the reader through the contagion of autobiographical conventions. An ideological force indeed permeates the pragmatics of the three texts as the masks ascribed to the author fluctuate between the real Angela Carter, Angela Carter the writer, Angela Carter the reader, an anonymous narrator who is unrelated to the author, an anonymous writer, a lonely woman in Japan etc. The affect of intention that lies behind the autobiographical contract is thus transformed into a politically charged field of exploration.

11The virus of the autobiographical reading contract is indeed characterised by attempts to penetrate to the truth of the autobiographical other, a task which gains in intensity when this other appears veiled as is often the case in Carter’s fiction. In the tenuous border between autobiography and fiction, between a form of confession and a work of fictional art, a process of ascription which can be described as schizophrenic becomes apparent; the figure of the author is constantly displaced and undermined by a structure that not only denies generic stability but also, through the metaleptic intrusion of the narrator-author into the experiencing author’s adventures, encourages fluctuations in authorial ascription. The thematic and structural links between these pieces, as well as their interspersion in a heterogeneous collection, reveal a complex game of authorial and generic displacement which is intertwined with reflections on Japan and identity.

Japan and the Surfaces of Identity

  • 14 ‘[L]a place et la fonction du texte autobiographique dans l’ensemble de l’œuvre d’un auteur’ (Lejeu (...)
  • 15 ‘In other words, by travelling to Japan she would, in a sense, be free to reinvent herself without (...)
  • 16 ‘Indeed, since I kept on trying to learn Japanese, and kept on failing to do so, I started trying t (...)
  • 17 ‘Lisa Appignanesi: You said that it was also an apprenticeship in the interpretation of signs. Is t (...)

12The game of ascription is indeed heightened if, as Philippe Lejeune suggests, we consider the place of autobiography in Carter’s complete works,14 Japan seems to have been a turning point in Carter’s career. Although she only lived in Japan for a few years, this period is mentioned in virtually all of her interviews, and she repeatedly admits to its influence on her writing career. Caryl Phillips perceives Carter’s move to Japan as a need to ‘reinvent herself’ at a ‘critical time in her literary development’.15 Carter herself has noted how she spent time in Japan in the early ‘70s ‘thinking about abstraction’ (Sage 1992c, 193). She admits to having read Roland Barthes’s book about Japan, L’Empire des signes (1970), and some of Saussure’s work at this time, and recognises their influence (Sage 1987), acknowledging an increased interest in the interpretation of signs,16 a task which, according to her, is the responsibility of the artist.17 Her time in Japan has also been associated with the development of her feminism and an increased radicalism in her writing. She clearly admits in interview to a strong link between her experience in Japan and her increased political engagement: ‘I meant that everything I learnt in Japan and especially in the Women’s Movement seemed to apply to me personally’ (Kenyon 24–25). Lorna Sage also comments on how Carter’s transformation into a ‘vagrant’ brought her to focus on the activity of ‘looking’ and reflect on the idea of perceiving culture and self from the ‘outside’: ‘By now she had become a vagrant and an adventurer. Her first marriage was over and she went off to Japan, first on a visit and from 1970 lived there for two years. Although this experience is seldom directly reflected in the fiction (except for Fireworks, 1974) her habit of seeing yourself and your culture from the outside is everywhere evident in her later work. (Similarly with more theoretical material on displacement—structuralist stuff from Levi-Strauss, Barthes, Foucault)’ (Sage 1992a).

  • 18 Lorna Sage’s commentary on Carter’s fluctuation of ‘masks’ echoes the theme of elusive role-playing(...)

13A preoccupation with the theme of displacement is indeed self-consciously foregrounded in ‘A Souvenir of Japan’, ‘The Smile of Winter’, and ‘Flesh and the Mirror’. In ‘Flesh and the Mirror’ living in a foreign country is described as a source of desired alienation (‘That is why I like to be a foreigner; I only travel for the insecurity’ [FM 74]), and loneliness is welcomed in ‘The Smile of Winter’: ‘I came here in order to be lonely’ (SW 42). The seeking out of the foreign experience is shown to be a lesson that opens up to a dream-like reality: ‘The stranger, the foreigner, thinks he is in control; but he has been precipitated into somebody else’s dream’ (FM 69). It is indeed this dream that is embraced in the three pieces with the omnipresence of the Japanese who are metonymically transformed into ‘waves full of eyes’ (FM 68), setting up a dialectics of looking which emphasizes flesh and difference: ‘The children [. . .] giggle when they see me because I am white and pink while they themselves are such a serviceable, unanimous beige’ (SW 42). In ‘A Souvenir of Japan’ the narrator’s body borders on the grotesque in relation to Japanese concepts of femininity with the playful reference to Gulliver’s ‘Glumdalclitch’ and the musical conceit that identifies the narrator as a ‘fanfare’: ‘In the department store there was a rack of dresses labelled: “For Young and Cute Girls Only.” When I looked at them, I felt as gross as Glumdalclitch. I wore men’s sandals because they were the only kind that fitted me and, even so, I had to take the largest size. My pink cheeks, blue eyes and blatant yellow hair made of me, in the visual orchestration of this city in which all heads were dark, eyes brown and skin monotone, an instrument which played upon an alien scale. In a sober harmony of subtle plucked instruments and wistful flutes, I blared. I proclaimed myself like in a perpetual fanfare’18 (SJ 8). A dialectics of looking in relation to the feminine body is complicated in ‘The Smile of Winter’ where the village women, also virtual grotesques, question the narrator’s femininity through the idea of motherhood: ‘They make me feel that either I or they are deficient in femininity and I suppose it must be I since most of them hump about an organic lump of baby on their backs, inside their coats’ (SW 47). Women as a group and anonymous women appear consistently throughout the pieces, always in this exchange of observation and judgment. The experience of the Japanese woman as other is shown to question the identity of the narrator: ‘But I often felt like a female impersonator in Japan’ (SJ 8).

14This identity crisis is heightened by the central relationship with the lover that serves as the framing scenario. The proper name of this Japanese man remains a mystery. Despite the narrator’s provisional use of the label, ‘Taro’, in ‘A Souvenir of Japan’, the character appears primarily as ‘he’ or ‘him’ as if to emphasise the elusiveness of his identity in relation to the narrator, and he is repeatedly absent. The ‘I’ of the narrator is waiting for ‘he/him’ at the beginning of both pieces, and a sense of longing and desire pervades the texts as this ‘he’ is shown to be at the same time neglectful and fascinating: ‘He was nowhere to be found. I did not know his address, of course; he moved from rented room to rented room’ (FM 73). The scenario of the desperate lover is reinforced by reflections on the role of women in Japan—the narrator clearly describes Japan as being ‘a man’s country’ (SJ 7) and recognises the manner in which women are seen as objects: ‘Our polarity was publicly acknowledged and socially sanctioned’ (SJ 7).

15However the narrator’s self-conscious masochism is complicated by her ambivalent fascination with herself as other: ‘I had become a kind of phoenix, a fabulous beast; I was an outlandish jewel’ (SJ 8). Her grotesqueness actually places her in a position of power: ‘He told me that when he was in bed with me, he felt like a small boat upon a wide, stormy sea’ (SJ 8), an inversion which is reinforced by the Sleeping Beauty intertext of putting the lover in a ‘glass coffin’ (SJ 7) so as to study him, an objectification that is echoed in ‘Flesh and the Mirror’ where the lover is characterised as a ‘clockwork toy’ to be dismantled and explored (FM 75). In ‘A Souvenir of Japan’ the Japanese male other also appears as a sort of screen or signifier upon which the narrator projects different images as he is characterised in turn as an inhuman child, as a pixie, as a goblin, as an androgynous creature, as a fox, as a cat, (SJ 6) and he is even described in relation to Gauguin’s Tahitians (SJ 7) in a sort of mise en abyme of the artistic depiction of otherness. This man, as other, is indeed presented as a fantasy, as a series of ‘fleeting impressions of a weird visitor’ (SJ 7) that accentuate the role of the author as artist, as writer, who transforms otherness in the artful process of what the Russian formalists called ‘making strange’ (ostranenie). The evasive, ghostlike dimension of the lover is thus intertwined with his impenetrable role as a ‘work of romantic art, an object corresponding to the ghost inside me’ (FM 74–75), and as a mere reflection of the narrator: ‘I saw his face as though it were in ruins [. . .]. It had seemed, in some way, to correspond to my idea of my own face’ (FM 74).

16The artfulness of appearances is shown to be a predominant aspect of Japanese culture and constitutes a conceptual link between the three works: ‘they seemed to have made the entire city into a cold hall of mirrors which continually proliferated whole galleries of constantly changing appearances, all marvelous but none tangible. If they did not lock up the real looking-glasses, it would be hard to tell what was real and what was not’ (SJ 10). Invention and fantasy are linked with intangibility to reveal a troubling series of surfaces that defy penetration to authentic identity: ‘This country has elevated hypocrisy to the level of the highest style. To look at a samurai, you would not know him for a murderer, or a geisha for a whore’ (SJ 11). The conclusion of ‘A Souvenir of Japan’ dwells upon this defiance of the real as the lover’s relationship is described as reflections of ‘nothing but appearances’ (SJ 13), like a series of fireworks.

17The word ‘Fireworks’ resonates paratextually with the title of the collection as insubstantiality is foregrounded in the metatextual dimension of the pieces. Characterisation techniques that limit the man and the women to a series of impressions, and sketched outlines that minimise the three-dimensional impression of pathos, are self-consciously underlined in ‘A Souvenir of Japan’: ‘You must be content only with glimpses of our outlines, as if you had caught sight of our reflections in the looking-glass’ (SJ 10). Characters are placed on the same level as mirrors in a textual surface that downplays the idea of penetrating to a human essence. On the contrary, the works defy any such objective, as the self-consciousness of the narration, in combination with the generic ambiguity of the series, sets up a paradoxical game between simultaneously breaking the referential illusion of fiction and asserting the fictional quality of the image of the autobiographical real, thus amplifying the ‘schizophrenia’ in the reading contract outlined above. Even the provisional name given to the lover in ‘A Souvenir of Japan’, Taro (‘I learned his name was Taro’ [SJ 6]) is later identified as being invented: ‘His name was not Taro. I only called him Taro so that I could use the conceit of the peachboy, because it seemed appropriate’ (SJ 10). In ‘Flesh and the Mirror’, the man is described as ‘an object created in the mode of fantasy’ (FM 74), and in the ‘Smile of Winter’ the daylight is described as ‘hallucinatory’ and the ocean as a ‘mirage’ (SW 42). The cliffs are sculpted by the waves into a ‘sculpture of Arp’ (SW 47), and the narrator’s house is transformed by the wind into ‘an Aeolian xylophone’ (SW 47). The narrator focalises on the artful transformation of appearances, an experience which is characterised by the narrator as being typical of Japan: ‘In this country you do not need to think, but only to look, and soon you think you understand everything’ (SW 44).

Autobiography and Performativity

  • 19 In reference to Louis Althusser, Lecercle underlines the ‘always-already’ dimension of subjectivity(...)

18Japan thus coincides with a growing emphasis on surface and image in Carter’s writing. As the effect of confession is downplayed in these three pieces with a self-conscious, meta-autobiographical structure and commentary on illusion, a reflection on the autobiographical ‘I’ as masquerade is gradually revealed. Lejeune has indeed suggested the performative aspect of autobiography: ‘la première personne est un rôle’ (Lejeune 20–22). The meta-autobiographical structures in these pieces imply that the autobiographical mask no longer veils a unified ‘I’, but rather emerges as a part of an infinite series of repeated performances. In ‘The Smile of Winter’ the narrator’s sadness, in its palimpsestic reference to the story of Mariana, accentuates a preoccupation with the ‘always already’19 of intertextuality in relation to feminine subjectivity: ‘Outside my shabby front door, I have a canal, like Mariana in a moated grange; beyond the skulking pines at the back, there is only the ocean. The winter moon pierces my heart. I weep’ (SW 44). This disconcerting coexistence of parody and pathos self-consciously highlights the idea of re-enacting scenarios. The missing ‘one you love’ in ‘Flesh and the Mirror’ (FM 67), and the cinematographic cliché of searching for the lover in an anonymous crowd on a rainy night (FM 68), also resonate with parody as the narrator contemplates her own performance as a self-created ‘heroine’ (FM 68).

  • 20 The marionette comes to life but can only repeat the scenario of the play which was written for her(...)

19Carter suggests the meaning of such parody and performance in relation to the marionette of ‘The Loves of Lady Purple’:20 ‘Can the marionette in that story behave in a way that she’s not programmed to behave? Is it possible?’ (Katsavos 16). The text becomes the stage upon which the idea of life as story is paraded as infinite repetition, a lesson in what Sidonie Smith identifies as endless reiteration in relation to the autobiographical ‘I’: ‘The history of an autobiographical subject is the history of recitations of the self. But if the self does not exist prior to its recitations then autobiographical storytelling is a recitation of a recitation. Ultimately, as Jerome Bruner has argued, the life as lived experientially is itself performative. The living of a life becomes the effect of the life as narrated’ (Smith 111). Life as fictional recitation thus opens the door to the crisis of the autobiographical I and proposes an added twist to the reading contract game, for if it is impossible to write outside of fiction, then autobiography can only be perceived as an ongoing performance. As Carter herself indeed states: ‘Autobiography is closer to fiction than biography’ (Carter 1979, 358).

20Carter’s pieces thus exaggerate the autobiographical ‘I’»s inability to act outside of fictional recitation by metatextually foregrounding the performativity of the autobiographical confession. The reader witnesses a significant split in the narrative ‘I’, in ‘Flesh and the Mirror’, in the dual consciousness of believing in one’s role and watching oneself play it. An isotopy of play-acting, cinema, and fabulation emerges in the first line (‘It was midnight—I chose my times and set my scenes with the precision of the born artiste’ [FM 67]) and culminates in the last line: ‘The most difficult performance in the world is acting naturally, isn’t it? Everything else is artful’ (FM 77). The key words of ‘character’ and ‘performance’ are repeated throughout the text (FM 72) and experience in the streets is even characterised as an ‘arbitrary carnival’ (FM 72).

21This self-conscious performativity is stressed in the hall of mirrors that constitutes the narrator’s experience of Japan: ‘But, even though I lived there, it always seemed far away from me. It was as if there were glass between me and the world. But I could see myself perfectly well on the other side of the glass’ (FM 71). As Béatrice Bijon remarks, the foreign world in this piece allows the narrator to engage in a dialogue with the other within: ‘Il est intéressant de noter que pour la jeune femme, être à l’étranger est une manière de gérer cet Autre en elle qui reste irrémédiablement étranger et immaîtrisable pour le sujet’ (Bijon 284). This is particularly evident in the metaphor of the puppet: ‘There I was, walking up and down, eating meals, having conversations, in love, indifferent, and so on. But all the time I was pulling the strings of my own puppet’ (FM 71). The deictic ‘there’ combined with ‘I’ flaunts the split in the experiencing ‘I’, and highlights the performative crisis of the character also evident in the play with shifting pronouns: ‘On the night I came back to it, however hard I looked for the one I loved, she could not find him anywhere and the city delivered her into the hands of a perfect stranger who fell into step beside her and asked why she was crying. She went with him to an unambiguous hotel with a mirror on the ceiling and lascivious black lace draped round a palpably illicit bed’ (FM 70). The disintegration of the ‘I’ into the ‘she’ of repeated scenarios is amplified in the reflecting mirror, metonymically suggestive of an identity crisis: ‘I could still see the single shape of our embrace in the mirror above me, a marvelously unexpected conjunction cast at random by the enigmatic kaleidoscope of the city’ (FM 70). The reflection of the narrator as unified self is lost in the multiple identities of the ‘kaleidoscope’ to the extent that the narrator characterises herself and her temporary lover as ‘ghosts of ourselves’ (FM 71). The narrating I, the experiencing ‘I’ and the performing ‘I’ are thus confused as the text explicitly stages a reflection on authentic behaviour as a form of complex performance: ‘I was perplexed. I no longer understood the logic of my own performance. My script had been scrambled behind my back’ (FM 75). Such explicit, self-conscious utterance interpellates the reader, drawing him/her into a position of interpretation; he/she is led to decipher a message that could be ascribed to the real author as critic. The final effect is one of multiple layers of authorial identity, and it intensifies the problem of ascription as the reader hesitates between images of the experiencing author and the narrating author who critically deconstructs her own performances.

  • 21 ‘[L]e pronom, par exemple, qui est sans doute le plus vertigineux des shifters, appartient structur (...)

22An en abyme effect is reinforced by the use of language metaphor, thus calling upon the reader to interpret: ‘Without any intention of mine, I had been defined by the action reflected in the mirror. I beset me. I was the subject of the sentence written on the mirror. I was not watching it. There was nothing whatsoever beyond the surface of the glass. Nothing kept me from the fact, the act; I had been precipitated into knowledge of the real conditions of living’ (FM 71). The resonance of the word ‘real’ is again apparent as the author/writer appears to play with signification. The subject of the utterance is here separated from the subject of enunciation as the writer in the narrator is placed face to face with the black holes of language in its inability to penetrate to the real. An isotopy of emptiness, as identified in Bijon’s study, is underlined in both intertextual (through the reference to Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland) and metatextual ways in ‘Flesh and the Mirror’: ‘I was in reality at riskI had fallen through one of the holes life leaves in it’ (FM 73). The mirror of language reflects the subject back to herself in an ever alienating exchange with the other in herself, in language. As Roland Barthes once noted, the pronoun is the most vertiginous of shifters,21 especially in Carter’s literary landscape where the ‘I’ self-consciously ‘stages’ a struggle with language, world, and self, a role Lecercle identifies as being proper to literature, ‘It is the role of literature to stage such processes’ (Lecercle 183).

23The three pieces thus explore the tension between the telling of one’s story and the performative abyss of personal narrative, a narrative which is intimately connected to questions of identity as a woman, ‘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; it was like the first mirror I’d ever seen’ (FM 72). Such commentary, in combination with scenarios that position the woman character in a series of performances, confirms Carter’s developing perception at the time of femininity as a form of social fiction: ‘I can date to that time and to some of those debates and to that sense of heightened awareness of the society around me in the summer of 1968, my own questioning of the nature of my reality as a woman. How that social fiction of my «femininity» was created, by means outside my control, and palmed off on me as the real thing’ (Carter 1983, 70). Carter’s writing is notorious not only for its political and feminist engagement, but also for the elusiveness of her definition of feminism. In these three pieces, she is presenting a key moment in her writing where these issues are shown to be exceedingly complex and difficult to submit to the didactic authorial figure. ‘In Japan, I learnt what it is to be a woman and became radicalised’ (Carter 1982, 28) she says in her non-fiction collection, Nothing Sacred. However, this radicalism is counterbalanced in these pieces by the sliding fictions of femininity as conceived of as performance, and thus inadvertently heightens the sense of loss that predominates on the level of pathos. As Sidonie Smith states: ‘It is as if the autobiographical subject finds him/herself on multiple stages simultaneously, called to heterogeneous recitations of identity. These multiple calls never align perfectly. Rather they create spaces or gaps, ruptures, unstable boundaries, incursions, excursions, limits and their transgressions’ (Smith 110). The ultimate question of reasonable feminist agency is raised within such a system of performative reiteration. The reader, in the transfer of his/her ‘suspension of disbelief’ to a hybrid category of literature in which ‘I’ resonates with multiple significations, is left to ponder over the question of the potential for an autobiographical self to take political action, a self who would be, as Shirley Neuman states, ‘not only constructed by differences but capable of choosing, inscribing, and making a difference’ (Neuman 225).

24Carter’s fiction, with its varying degrees of didactic force, asks this question indirectly, and an answer can perhaps be found in her self-conscious ‘imposture’, that is a staging of the respective positioning of the author and the reader in relation to subjectivity in language: ‘The imposture that is inseparable from reading inverts the active-passive polarity. What takes place through imposture is reading as counter-interpellation. The interpellated reader, although subjected as much as subjectified, is not powerless. She sends back the force of interpellation as Perseus’s shield, held as a mirror, sent back the Gorgon’s gaze and petrified her. The author, therefore, is captured in his turn by the counter-interpellation of imposture. If the reader, qua implied, is a creation of the author, the author himself is nothing but a fantasy of the reader’ (Lecercle 89–117).

  • 22 ‘There is however a general supposition underlying feminist confession that the process of self-exa (...)

25The pragmatic functioning of the three pieces hinges upon the ‘fantasy’ of the feminist ‘I’ as a sovereign entity. If, like Lecercle, we perceive reading as a process of counter-interpellation, it becomes apparent that the jostling for position between the reader and the author in these three texts, through their ambiguous generic situation and metatextual quality, can become a generative force in creating shifts in power structures, a version of what Judith Butler identifies as a different form of political agency: ‘The terms by which we are hailed are rarely the ones we choose (and even when we try to impose protocols on how we are to be named, they usually fail); but these terms we never really choose are the occasion for something we might still call agency, the repetition of an originary subordination for another purpose, one whose future is partially open’ (Butler 38). It is this ‘partially open’ future that appears as a predominant feature as the reader is invited to experience the limitations of the subject so openly foregrounded in the culminating piece of ‘Flesh and the Mirror’‘The magic mirror presented me with a hitherto unconsidered notion of myself as I. Without any intention of mine, I had been defined by the action reflected in the mirror. I beset me’ (FM 71)as ‘enabling constraints’: ‘Constraints there are in the situation of interpellation and counter-interpellation, but they are, to use Butler’s term, enabling constraints’ (Lecercle 185). Through the kaleidoscopic shifting of imposture, a potential for change is opened up in Carter’s citation of the autobiographical ‘I’. The ideological charge of the feminine confessional text22 ironically becomes a source for insurrection, an ambivalent relation that Judith Butler identifies as being at the heart of performativity: ‘Thus, performativity has its own social temporality in which it remains enabled precisely by the contexts from which it breaks. This ambivalent structure at the heart of performativity implies that, within political discourse, the very terms of resistance and insurgency are spawned in part by the powers they oppose’ (Butler 40).

  • 23 ‘I’m all for putting new wine in old bottles, especially if the pressure of the new wine makes the (...)

26The insurrectionary affect that characterizes Carter’s play with autobiographical performativity is thus politically reactive in that it fosters a potential for a reversal in the ‘arrow of interpellation’ (Lecercle 185). Through Carter’s self-conscious theatricalisation of the pathos of the female victim, the reader is placed in a position of re-evaluation, and confronted with his/her desire to recover the sovereign author, a force which in the movement of language, generic overlapping, and narrative metalepsis draws the reader into the fluidity of language and identity. The ‘affect’ of autobiographical intention, in the process of intergeneric reading, leads to a hesitation, a floating effect that defies attempts at fixing the subject, at ascribing an identity to the anonymous ‘I’ of the narrator who continues to elude the reader. The revision takes place not only in the staged reflections proposed by the texts, but also in the relation of counter-interpellation that takes place at the level of reading imposture. The reader is led to hesitate at the frontiers of the fictions of female identity and Lejeune’s idea of autobiographical ‘truth’. Carter has often claimed the desire to ‘put old wine in new bottles’,23 and the result of this stated intention is not limited to a revised, self-conscious version of feminine autobiography. It also emerges through a subtle, multi-layered performance of the tension between the centrifugal force of ideology in language and the perlocutionary affect of sovereignty associated with the autobiographical ‘I’.

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Appignanesi, Lisa, Angela Carter in conversation, London: ICA Video, 1987.

Barthes, Roland, ‘Écrire, verbe intransitif?’ Le bruissement de la langue, Paris: Seuil, 1984.

Bijon, Béatrice, ‘Du moi au je: l’autre comme hôte fantomatique dans ‘Flesh and the Mirror’ d’Angela Carter’, L’Étranger dans la maison: figures romanesques de l’hôte, ed. Bernadette Bertrandias, Clermont Ferrand: Presses Universitaires Blaise Pascal, 2003, 277–289.

Butler, Judith, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative, New York: Routledge, 1997.

Carter, Angela, Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces. New York: Penguin, 1974. Fireworks: Nine Stories in Various Disguises (1974), New York: Harper and Row, 1981.

Carter, Angela, ‘The Mother Lode’, 1976, Shaking a Leg, ed. Jenny Uglow, Chatto & Windus: London, 1997.

Carter, Angela, The Sadeian Woman, New York: Harper & Row, 1978.

Carter, Angela, ‘Much, Much Stranger than Fiction’, New Society (1979), Shaking a Leg, ed. Jenny Uglow, London: Chatto & Windus, 1997.

Carter, Angela, Nothing Sacred, London: Virago, 1982.

Carter, Angela, ‘Notes From the Front Line’, On Gender and Writing, ed. Michelene Wandor, London: Pandora Press, 1983.

Carter, Angela, Shaking a Leg, ed. Jenny Uglow, London: Chatto & Windus, 1997.

Felski, Rita, ‘On Confession’, Women, Autobiography, Theory: A Reader, ed. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998, 83–95.

Gamble, Sarah, Angela Carter: A Literary Life, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005.

kat s avos, Anna, ‘An Interview with Angela Carter’, Review of Contemporary Fiction, 14.3 (1994): 11–17.

Kenyon, Olga, ‘Angela Carter’, The Writer’s Imagination: interviews with major international women novelists, Bradford, England: University of Bradford Print Unit, 1993, 23–33.

Lecercle, Jean-Jacques, Interpretation as Pragmatics, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.

Lejeune, Philippe, Le Pacte autobiographique, Paris: Seuil, 1975.

Lejeune, Philippe, Signes de vie: Le Pacte autobiographique 2, Paris: Seuil, 2005.

Neuman, Shirley, ‘Autobiography: From Different Poetics to a Poetics of Differences’, Essays on Life Writing: From Genre to Critical Practice, ed. Marlene Kadar, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992, 211–230.

Phillips, Caryl, ‘Finding oneself at home’, The Guardian, January 21, 2006,

Sage, Lorna, ‘The Savage Sideshow’, New Review, 4/39–40 (July 1977), 51-57.

Sage, Lorna, ‘Angela Carter’, Writers Talk, ICA, London, 14 May 1987.

Sage, Lorna, ‘Obituary of Angela Carter’, The Guardian, February 17, 1992a.,,102,086,00.html#article_continue.

Sage, Lorna, ‘Death of the Author’, Granta: Biography, 41 (Autumn 1992b) 233–54 ‘Angela Carter interviewed by Lorna Sage’, New Writing, ed. Malcolm Bradbury and Judy Cooke, Reading: Minerva, 1992c.

Sage, Lorna, ‘Introduction’, Flesh and the Mirro r, ed. Lorna Sage, London: Virago, 1994a.

Sage, Lorna, Angela Carter, Plymouth, UK: Northcote House Publishers Ltd., 1994b.

Smith, Sidonie, ‘Performativity, Autobiographical Practice, Resistance’,

Smith, Sidonie, Women, Autobiography, Theory: A Reader, ed. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Madison, Wisconsin: U. of Wisconsin Press, 1998, 108–115.

Van Wa rt, Alice, ‘Elizabeth Smart: Contexte culturel’, Écrivains et Écrivaines du Canada, Bibliothèque et Archives, Canada, 2006,,005–5200-f.html.

VanderMeer, Jeff, ‘Angela Carter’, 2001,,857.

Vilain, Philippe, Défense de Narcisse, Paris: Grasset, 2005.

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1 Lorna Sage quoting Angela Carter (Sage 1994a, 2).

2 Lisa Appignanesi: ‘I find it very interesting that most of the women writers who have come out of this last wave of feminism actually write in a very autobiographical, confessional mode. [. . .] Whereas reading you, of course is rather more opaque’ (Appignanesi 1987).

3 The following title abbreviations will subsequently be used when citing the three stories: ‘A Souvenir of Japan’ (SJ), ‘The Smile of Winter’ (SW), ‘Flesh and the Mirror’ (FM).

4 ‘So we did not quite fit in, thank goodness; alienated is the only way to be, after all’ (Carter 1976, 12).

5Textuellement, je pars de la position du lecteur: il ne s’agit ni de partir de l’intériorité d’un auteur qui justement fait problème, ni de dresser les canons d’un genre littéraire. En partant de la situation de lecteur (qui est la mienne, la seule que je connaisse bien), j’ai chance de saisir plus clairement le fonctionnement des textes (leurs différences de fonctionnement)’ (Lejeune 1975, 14). ‘En disant “une identité est ou n’est pas”, j’adoptais, très sagement, le point de vue du lecteur. [. . .] C’est d’ailleurs le parti pris affiché au début du Pacte: tout analyser à partir de la réception’ (Lejeune 2005, 25).

6 Lorna Sage indeed comments on how the pieces are very close to nonfiction: ‘Her 1974 collection, Fireworks, contains three stories that, most uncharacteristically, are hardly fictionalized at all. She must have felt that their built-in strangeness provided sufficient distance, and it does’ (Sage 1992b, 244).

7 ‘Le pacte autobiographique est l’engagement que prend un auteur de raconter directement sa vie (ou une partie, ou un aspect de sa vie) dans un esprit de vérité. Il s’oppose au pacte de fiction. Quelqu’un qui vous propose un roman (même s’il est inspiré de sa vie) ne vous demande pas de croire pour de bon à ce qu’il raconte: mais simplement de jouer à y croire’ (Lejeune 2005, 31).

8 ‘Si l’identité est un imaginaire, l’autobiographie qui colle à cet imaginaire est du côté de la vérité. Aucun rapport avec le jeu délibéré de la fiction’ (Lejeune 2005, 39).

9 ‘La promesse de dire la vérité, la distinction entre la vérité et le mensonge sont la base de tous les rapports sociaux’ (Lejeune 2005, 38).

10 ‘À la différence d’autres contrats de lecture, le pacte autobiographique est contagieux. Il comporte toujours un fantôme de réciprocité, virus qui va mettre en alerte toutes vos défenses’ (Lejeune 2005, 16).

11 Angela Carter quoted by Lorna Sage (Sage 1994b, 32).

12 Canadian author known for the lyrical quality of her novel, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945). The tone of the work is one of passion and loss, and it deals primarily with the relationship between a married man and his lover, possibly an autobiographical reflection of the author’s relationship with the English poet, George Barker. (Van Wart 2006)

13 However, this afterword did not appear in all collections of Fireworks. Apparently Angela Carter chose to have it withdrawn from some future editions (Sage 1987). It thus does not constitute a reliable paratextual framework for the collection.

14 ‘[L]a place et la fonction du texte autobiographique dans l’ensemble de l’œuvre d’un auteur’ (Lejeune 1975, 8).

15 ‘In other words, by travelling to Japan she would, in a sense, be free to reinvent herself without having to wrestle with the multiple anxieties of belonging’ (Phillips 2006).

16 ‘Indeed, since I kept on trying to learn Japanese, and kept on failing to do so, I started trying to understand things by simply looking at them very, very, carefully, an involuntary apprenticeship in the interpretation of signs’ (Carter 1982, 28).

17 ‘Lisa Appignanesi: You said that it was also an apprenticeship in the interpretation of signs. Is that because you couldn’t speak the language?
It was because I couldn’t speak the language but it is a very visual culture. [. . .] Appignanesi: You’ve been interpreting signs here ever since.
Carter: Well, that’s my job. That’s what I think artists are for’ (Appignanesi 1987).

18 Lorna Sage’s commentary on Carter’s fluctuation of ‘masks’ echoes the theme of elusive role-playing that predominates in these three pieces, ‘But while most women come out the other side and learn to act naturally, she somehow managed not to, and Japan is the shorthand, I think, for how she discovered and retained a way of looking at herself, and other people, as unnatural. She was, even in ordinary and relaxed situations, a touch unlikely on principle. Her hair went through all the colours of the rainbow before becoming white at the moment when decorum would have suggested a discreet, still-youthful streaked mouse’ (Sage 1992b, 245).

19 In reference to Louis Althusser, Lecercle underlines the ‘always-already’ dimension of subjectivity in language: ‘With, of course, a specific temporality, the temporality of the always-already, for even as the subject is always-already named (before her birth, even perhaps before her conceptionher naming is a ritual of insertion within a family tradition where she is captured at a vacant place), the individual is always-already interpellated into a subject. The Scene of Hailing has the quality of a myth of origins, with the consequence that the process is apparently circular: only the always-already elect are eligible for subjectification’ (Lecercle 157).

20 The marionette comes to life but can only repeat the scenario of the play which was written for her (Carter 1974).

21 ‘[L]e pronom, par exemple, qui est sans doute le plus vertigineux des shifters, appartient structuralement (j’insiste) à la parole’ (Barthes 31).

22 ‘There is however a general supposition underlying feminist confession that the process of self-examination is necessary, even obligatory, for women, a politically significant act’ (Felski 92).

23 ‘I’m all for putting new wine in old bottles, especially if the pressure of the new wine makes the old bottles explode’ (Carter 1983, 69).

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Electronic reference

Michelle Ryan-Sautour, Autobiographical Estrangement in Angela Carter’s ‘A Souvenir of Japan’, ‘The Smile of Winter’ and ‘Flesh and the Mirror’Études britanniques contemporaines [Online], 32 | 2007, Online since 11 September 2020, connection on 25 July 2021. URL:; DOI:

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Michelle Ryan-Sautour

Université d’Angers

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Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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