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Original Essays

A Glorious Confusion

by Nicola Barker
  1. Behindlings


    Nicola Barker

  2. The Three Button Trick and Other Stories
    $13.95 New Trade Paper add to wishlist

  3. Wide Open
    $14.50 New Trade Paper add to wishlist

    Wide Open

    Nicola Barker

  4. London Fields (Vintage International)
    $4.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

  5. Wise Children
    $5.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

    Wise Children

    Angela Carter

  6. Selected Poems 1957-1994
    $5.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

  7. The Collected Poems
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    The Collected Poems

    Sylvia Plath

I suppose this might sound strange — coming as it does from someone whose own family life has always been fairly unconventional and fractured — but whenever people ask me who my biggest influences are in writing, I always respond (and in a rather traditional manner) that Martin Amis is the Daddy and that Angela Carter is the Mummy. This is because they're both English (and it's good to respect where you come from), both amazing stylists, and both — in some senses — experimental. They were writers who were very much up and coming when I was still at university. Both were considered slightly untrustworthy — I was doing a Women in Writing course and we were expressly told not to read Carter because she loved to play around with Freudian ideas and imagery, and Freud, at that stage, was considered profoundly anti-feminist. But of course I read Angela Carter and I loved her. And then I read Freud, and understood why she loved him, and loved her even more.

When I graduated I did so on the back of a dissertation I'd written about Amis on the subject of 'Doubleness and Duality' (yes, it was very pretentious, and yes, I got a very poor grade for it). I was passionate about his work (I still am), not only because it was so finely-honed and funny, but also because it was so unbelievably cruel (In my third year I wrote him a letter asking for an interview. I said, 'Your time is precious and that's why I want some of it.' I was rather pushy back then. Amis agreed to the meeting for a series of reasons, all of which were connected with naming. At the time he was writing London Fields and his heroine was called Nicola Six. He said he was willing to meet me because I was a Nicola and Nicolas were currently a source of fascination to him. The second reason was that when he wrote his novel Dead Babies, the very short, rather evil character called Keith was based on a real person whose actual name was Nick Baker. At the time I found this explanation rather strange. Now — years later — it makes an exquisite kind of sense).

But it wasn't always Angela and Martin. When I was at school the Dad was Ted Hughes and the Mum (but who else?) Sylvia Plath. This was at a time when Hughes was virtually a literary pariah in Britain because — almost two decades on — people still wanted to blame him for Plath's suicide. Even as a teenager I found this difficult to comprehend. How could the person who'd written the beautiful, savage, nihilistic Life and Songs of the Crow ever be accused of being unfeeling? And how dare people judge him? And why the hell shouldn't Plath have taken her own life if that was her true desire? And why was everybody so keen to disempower her by making her into a victim? After all, hadn't her entire creative output been a kind of beautiful hymn to her own mortality?

For years Hughes never spoke publicly about his relationship with Plath and the public found it hard to forgive his inscrutability. In a way Hughes was truly anti-modern in this respect, and that's partly why I admired him so much. Just before he died he set things straight on the whole Plath Issue (but entirely on his own terms), with his Birthday Letters. And suddenly everybody loved him again. That old romance was re-kindled.

It's not that I was disappointed in him (that would've been ridiculous, and wrong) but I responded to this new book with a mixture of relief and fury (true Hughsean emotions). I've never read Birthday Letters. I've always felt that to do so would be rather like walking in on your parents during some kind of private sexual congress. And anyway, Crow meant so much to me already — spoke so loudly and coherently — that I felt as if it would be prurient to ask for more.

If there was one book which could truly be said to influence my work — all of it — above any other it really would have to be Hughes's Crow [editor's note: Crow is currently out of print in the US]. It's a book of poems about an anarchic crow-like figure (and I'm absolutely obsessed by Corvidae) who smashes head-first into the world, tries to love it, decides to hate it, starts to eat it, then vomits it all up and digs around with a dirty yet fastidious little claw in the goo. It's an utterly uncompromising book. It's truly adolescent in the best possible sense. It bangs its fists against just about everything.

The language is harsh, strong and repetitive, the tone is bullying, the imagery is tender and yet remorselessly barbaric.

The crow is horrible but bewitching. He's extremely confused but brutally honest. He's as ruthless as a killer and as naive as a child. He is the most hateful and the most hated. In Behindlings (in all my books) I take unconventional ideas and unconventional people and try to make them acceptable and lovable. For me, writing is all about manipulating the reader's emotions and prejudices, about searching for understanding, about redemption; whether it's really possible, and what it actually means. I honestly believe that good writing needs to confound. Understanding can definitely be a sorely over-rated virtue. Books sometimes need to challenge, to perplex and to puzzle, because — like life itself — all the greatest and most worthwhile journeys start (and often even end) in a glorious confusion.

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