Nights at the Circus is centred on a Cockney artiste, Fevvers, who, having claimed to have grown wings, has become a famous trapeze artist, a friend of Toulouse-Lautrec and the toast of Europe. At one level, the novel is a ribald, picaresque narrative of her life as a performer in England and Russia at the end of the nineteenth century. Fevvers tells her story to an initially sceptical American reporter, Jack Walser, a wanderer whom Carter, recalling her interest in the work of Herman Melville, describes as a latter-day Ishmael, the narrator of Melville’s Moby Dick. In the first chapter of Melville’s novel, the reader discovers that Ishmael ‘is tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote’ and that whenever he finds himself ‘growing grim about the mouth’ he accounts it ‘high time to get to sea as soon as possible’. In Nights at the Circus, we learn that Walser, too, ‘subjected his life to a series of cataclysmic shocks because he loved to hear his bones rattle. That was how he knew he was alive’ (p. 10).
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