The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman
by Angela Carter
I don’t often do book reviews (though this little affirmation is open to debate, since all or most of my academic essays can be said to border on book reviewing), but since the term is over, and I (finally) got the chance to finish reading a most wonderful novel, I’ll indulge in the sweetly perverse pleasures of telling the world about Angela Carter’s “The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman”. Firstly, though, I should probably mention that the book is surprisingly hard to come by. Amazon UK lists two different editions of the novel as “not in stock”, though available second hand from different sellers (from admittedly surprisingly low prices). I wasn’t able to find it in book stores for a long time, but I eventually stumbled upon it in Waterstone’s (the one where I found it had only two copies on sale, one of which I purchased; even the cashier pointed out she’d never seen/heard of the novel before, though she liked Angela Carter). This was a bit of a disconcerting situation, since I’d noticed a sustained tendency, as of late, to promote Angela Carter’s writings. So why was/is this particular novel largely overlooked? (Won’t even attempt to answer this question, though; it was simply surprising, that’s all).
The novel in itself is absolutely stunning, the best I’ve read by Angela Carter so far. The plot is woven (and I’ll beg you to excuse my Gothic simile) like an intricate arabesque with interconnecting designs and spread in concentrical circles. It is, in fact, a bit like this, if I may relate to a concrete visual reference. But also, in a sense, like this (yes, I just had to link it to something that’s displayed in a fascinatingly decadent Transylvanian museum). The plot summary, as it appears on the back-cover of my edition (Penguin Books, USA, 1994) goes as follows:
A reluctant knight errant. A beguiling princess. A magician of truly godlike powers. And a picaresque adventure tale that only Anglea Carter could tell.
The transformation of Desiderio’s city into a mysterious kingdom is instantaneous: Hallucination flows with magical speed in every brain; avenues and plazas are suddenly as fertile as fairy-book forests. And the evil comes, too, as imaginary massacres fill the streets with blood, the dead return to question the living, and profound anxiety drives hundreds to suicide.
Behind it all stands Doctor Hoffman, whose gigantic generators crack the immutable surfaces of time and space and plunge civilization into a world without the chains — or structures — of reason. Only Desiderio, immune to mirages and fantasy, can defeat him. But Desiderio’s battle will take him to the very brink of undeniable, irresistible desire.
And now I am going to plunge into even more similes, intertextual links and so on – because Angela Carter’s prose is such that it cannot be read without bridging to a number of other literary works, as well as a dizzying variety of symbols and legendary/mythological allusions. Each and every sentence in her prose in general, but “The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman” in particular, bears a multitude of connotations and allusions. They’re literally thick with meaning, though, quite amazingly, their “viscous” quality isn’t overbearing. Quite to the contrary, the story flows smoothly, naturally, and it could just as well be read as a simple fabulous narration, at face value. Though, of course, that would take out all the fun from reading it. 🙂
What’s most appealing about this particular novel, though, is, I think, the range of striking characters, all of them rooted in previous literary “masks”, and yet all of them acquiring in-depth personalities above and beyond their basic heraldic moulds:
♠ Desiderio, the protagonist, who retains the air blasé of the great classic heroes, yet unlike all of them precisely in that he retains his intrinsic boredom and disillusionment even in the heart of blazing passion; he is always the hero, always the odd-one-out, but he is never brave, or loyal, or chivalric in any way – he simply goes with the flow in an attempt to salvage what little he can grasp of his identity; he doesn’t seek change, nor improvement, all he wants is to stick to the rules he already knows
♠ Albertina, the “heroine” of sorts, daughter of Doctor Hoffman, is, in all aspects, the exact opposite of Desiderio; whilst he, though the hero, is the passive element, seldom doing, mostly being done to, and when eventually committing a deed, engaging in it mostly through inertia rather than will, she is the active element, the reason behind his initiation process, possibly his only desire; she seems to be both the “Angel in the House” and the “girl who kills her mother”, both submissive and submitting, constantly applied to a duality that Desiderio finds difficult (if not impossible) to understand; both puppet and puppeteer, she is her father’s tool and her lover’s destiny
♠ Doctor Hoffman is, as Angela Carter herself puts it, a sort of sublimation of the “insane scientist”, a mix of Dr Rotwang from Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” and Dr Caligari from Robert Wiene’s “The Cabinet of Dr Caligari”, but also Herr Drosselmeyer from “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” by E.T.A. Hoffmann; also somewhat based on, I’d argue, both E.T.A. Hoffmann, and Heinrich Hoffmann, he’s a blatantly Faustian figure who’s trying to free the people’s dreams and their deepest, most hidden desires
♠ the Minister is Doctor Hoffman’s arch-nemesis, a man in love with discipline and rigorousness, with no dreams and no desires; notably, though, both he and the Doctor are reduced to marginal characters in the text; they are both in a certain way responsible for Desiderio’s “adventure”, though neither essentially influences him
♠ the peep-show proprietor is somewhat reminiscent of the hieratic figure of the Hermit, acting as a temporary guide to Desiderio, though only one more disposable piece in the game of ideological chess
♠ Mary Anne: her character draws immensely on “Mariana in the South” (both the poem and the painting, which were, obviously, inspired by the play), but also on the figure of Ophelia and “the Angel in the House”; she’s probably one of the more symbolic characters, and therefore appears, to a certain extent, flat, but even she hints at more stories to be found under the surface
♠ the Count and his vallet bear a hint of Pozzo and Lucky from Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”, though the former is more like Marquis de Sade than anyone else, an epitome of sado-masochism, and the latter is keeping a secret more puzzling than Lucky’s thinking hat
♠ the centaurs are both the equivalents and the antitheses of Swift’s Houyhnhnms; sprung more from “Gulliver’s Travels” than Greek mythology, the centaurs in the novel are a race of religiously fanatic creatures both superior and inferior to men; to my mind, they also bear a resemblance to the Victorian patriarchal society (seen as “through a glass darkly” – very darkly)
And all that is only the tenth of a fraction of what can be said about the characters in Angela Carter’s Novel (nor are they all the important characters – I’ve only subjectively selected a few).
I’d go on ranting even more about the way the story goes and the novel’s structure, but (a) I’m afraid I’ve put enough spoilers in there already, and (b) I don’t want to turn what was supposed to be a book review into a quasi-academic essay. So here goes my 5 out of 5 points to “The Infernal Machines of Doctor Hoffman”, and also: GO WATCH “THE COMPANY OF WOLVES”!!! In case you didn’t know already, it’s the film made after some of her short stories, and it’s absolutely BRILLIANT! 😀