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Authors: Angela Carter

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The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman

BOOK: The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman
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The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman

Angela Carter was born in Eastbourne in 1940 and later evacuated to live with her grandmother in Yorkshire. She studied English at Bristol University and published the first of her nine novels,
Shadow Dance
, in 1966. After escaping an early marriage, she used the proceeds of a Somerset Maugham Award to enable her to live in Japan for two years, a transforming experience. Her final novel,
Wise Children
, was published in 1991, a year before her death from lung cancer at the age of fifty-one. In an obituary from the
, Margaret Atwood wrote that ‘She was the opposite of parochial … She relished life and language hugely, and revelled in the universe.’

Perhaps best known for her last two novels,
Nights at the Circus
Wise Children
, Carter was much admired for her work’s exuberant mix of fantasy, philosophy, science fiction and satire.
The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman
, published in 1972, is, according to Ali Smith, ‘her real, still underrated, classic’.

The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault
Heroes and Villains
are also published in Penguin Modern Classics

Ali Smith was born in Inverness in 1962 and lives in Cambridge. She is the author of
Free Love
Hotel World
Other Stories and Other Stories
The Whole Story and Other Stories
The Accidental
Girl Meets Boy
The First Person and Other Stories


The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman

With an introduction by




Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London
, England

Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA

Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
M4P 2Y3
(a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)

Penguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd)

Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia
(a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd)

Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi – 110 017, India

Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, Auckland 0632, New Zealand
(a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd)

Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London
, England

First published in Great Britain by Rupert Hart-Davis 1972

First published in the United States of America under the title
The War of Dreams
by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. 1973

Published in Penguin Books 1982

Reissued with a new introduction in Penguin Books 2010

Published in Penguin Classics 2011

Copyright © Angela Carter, 1972

Introduction copyright © Ali Smith, 2010

All rights reserved

The moral right of the author and introducer has been asserted

Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser

ISBN: 978-0-14-139965-2


Introduction by






1. The City Under Siege

2. The Mansion of Midnight

3. The River People

4. The Acrobats of Desire

5. The Erotic Traveller

6. The Coast of Africa

7. Lost in Nebulous Time

8. The Castle


‘Love is the synthesis of dream and actuality; love is the only matrix of the unprecedented; love is the tree which buds lovers like roses.’ From the intoxicating dream-roses covering the warring city in its opening chapter – so powerfully imagined that they seem to perspire perfume, ‘make the very masonry drunk’, even sing piercing pentatonics heard by the inside of the nose – all the way to the novel’s end and the bloodstained handkerchief that blooms from its hero Desiderio’s pocket,
The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman
was itself, in literary terms, what might be called a matrix of the unprecedented.

It opens Proustianly: ‘I remember everything. Yes. I remember everything perfectly.’ But then, just a couple of pages on: ‘I cannot remember exactly how it began.’ Who can we trust in this or any story, when memory is so human and dream and actuality so inextricable? Our narrator is Desiderio, an old man now, an ageing politician and venerable historic figure, recalling his youth and the bygone era of Doctor Hoffman, a scientist who, by means of mass hallucination, can alter what reality looks like whenever he chooses.

The Doctor resembles a god, ‘probably omnipotent’, and has brought about a state of emergency in this unnamed South American metropolis by playing sumptuously poetic and insidious games with time and space: ‘I often glanced at my watch only to find its hands had been replaced by a healthy growth of ivy or honeysuckle.’ Such disruptive and seductive power messes with trade and challenges state control – anathema to the government of the city. A war of extremes, between rationality and the imagination, is soon raging, a war of power-envy too, between the Doctor and the Minister, who, with their capitalized roles, rule this novel like leftovers from Victorian socio-realism. But this is another literary landscape altogether. The Minister enlists Desiderio, half-Indian, half-outsider, a low-ranking civil servant crucially unmoved, even ‘bored’, by the Doctor’s baroque and beautiful illusions, a good candidate for tracking the Doctor down. ‘It was the day before my twenty-fourth birthday. In the afternoon, the Cathedral expired in a blaze of melodious fireworks.’ Soon everything
ex cathedra
in this novel is ablaze, and Desiderio, passionately in love with Hoffman’s beautiful and elusive daughter, Albertina, is on a veering picaresque journey that shifts and shimmers like Albertina herself in a postponement of narrative and sexual climax, through landscape after landscape, from seedy British seaside to primitive tribal, to Sadeian, to Swiftian, to Kafkaesque.

In a ‘bouquet of ferocious images of desire’,
The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman
declares itself a post-war novel. It was Carter’s sixth novel, published in 1972. Though she is renowned now for her rewritten fairy tales and the winning characterizations of the winged trapeze-artist and music-hall cockney-girl starlets in her two final novels,
Nights at the Circus
(1984) and
Wise Children
The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman
is surely her real, still underrated, classic. This imagistically cornucopic and virtuoso performance is a visionary book for a virtual age.

It takes apart the ‘machines’ of love, of narrative, of social structure, in a fusion (and simultaneous analysis) of fantasy,
richness, pastiche, sci-fi, thriller, postmodernism, picaresque, quest literature, adventure story, pornography and political and sociological theorizing. It was an unforeseeable leap forward in terms of form, voice and technique, even for Carter (whose novels tended to redefine her originality each time she published a new one). She had specialized in the medieval period at Bristol University: ‘As a medievalist, I was trained to read books as having many layers.’ But this is a work not so much layered with as organically formed by a shimmering body of allusion to the literary and visual arts. Try to pinpoint its influences (Kafka, Swift, Poe, Mallarmé, Freud, the Bible, cinema, de Sade, Shakespeare, Surrealism, Pope, Proust – and that’s just a surface skim) and it’s as if its author has swallowed literary and visual culture whole, from Chaucer to Calvino, de Mille to Fassbinder, Defoe to Foucault.

Perhaps it was too far ahead of its time for critical comfort: ‘Autobiographically, what happened next, when I realised that there were no limitations to what one could do in fiction, was… I stopped being able to make a living.’ It was, she said, ‘the beginning of my obscurity. I went from being a very promising young writer to being ignored.’ Her first five novels had earned her several literary awards and had gone out of their way to reveal the artifice of the literary realism which characterized the 1960s literary novel, outfacing kitchen-sinkism with gaudiness and anarchy. In among the unwashed clothes and pubs and parties, the shops and city streets and parks, Carter unveiled megalomania, sexual mastery, a surreality of social and sexual puppeteering. She saw this as no less realist. ‘I’ve got nothing against realism,’ she said. ‘But there is realism and realism. I mean, the questions that I ask myself, I think they are very much to do with reality.’ She wrote
in Japan, where she’d gone in 1969 on the money she’d won from a Somerset Maugham award, drafting the novel ‘in three months, in a Japanese fishing village on an island where she seems to have been the only European’, as the critic Susan Rubin Suleiman notes in a seminal essay on
and Surrealism. ‘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.’ By all accounts, when she came back both her fiction and her life had been transformed. ‘In Japan, I learned what it is to be a woman and became radicalized.’ She wrote some of her most experimental short stories, later published in her first short story collection,
(1974), and published this novel, in which the roots of later works like
The Passion of New Eve
(1977) and
Nights at the Circus
can clearly be seen, but which arguably remains, on its own terms, her most formally courageous work.

BOOK: The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman
8.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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