The Surreal Life
August 14, 2013 | by Tobias Carroll
A young woman from an affluent family finds herself dreading her formal entrance into high society. An affable hyena offers to take her place; the young woman acquiesces, but the hyena demands a face to wear in place of her own. A maid enters, and the hyena murders her. The debutante doesn’t object; she merely asks that the killing be done quickly. Later, the debutante learns of what transpired at dinner: the hyena’s masquerade persisted until she took umbrage to the cake being served. She stood, tore off her false face, and escaped through a window.
All of this takes place in Leonora Carrington’s short story “The Debutante.” The motifs it contains recur throughout her fiction: an occasionally amoral protagonist; animals that speak and attract no alarm while doing so; and a satirical jab at certain institutions—here, the wealthy. Carrington is best known for her surrealist paintings and sculptures, but her idiosyncratic literary legacy is equally deserving of attention.
Carrington’s best-known work of prose, the novel The Hearing Trumpet, begins on a note of gentle absurdity and gradually becomes truly bizarre. Marian Leatherby, the novel’s protagonist, is an elderly woman living with her son and daughter-in-law. Using the titular device, she learns that they plan to place her in a home; after she arrives there, her narration gives way to a low-grade conspiracy narrative. Marian discovers evidence of mysterious gatherings, disappearances, and hints of the supernatural. Ultimately, all this leads to a total reordering of the terrestrial order: a world "transformed by the snow and ice.” Marian anticipates the day when “the planet is peopled with cats, werewolves, bees, and goats. We all fervently hope that this will be an improvement on humanity …”
The Hearing Trumpet is a genuinely strange work of fiction; it’s also charming, due in no small part to Marian’s unflappability and matter-of-fact narration. The characters undergo mysterious transformations, encounter figures out of mythology, and converse with aspects of the natural world, but the tone remains unflappable. Nonchalance in the face of the weird is a hallmark of Carrington’s fiction.
Carrington was born in England in 1917, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, but lived most of her life in Mexico City, and wrote in English, French, and Spanish. A central figure of the avant-garde, her life was turbulent: she would suffer several breakdowns and more than one traumatic love affair. Yet, these experiences merely served as inspiration. At times, she acted as her own translator; on other occasions, her work was translated by others. Delving into her books in this day and age can be a confusing prospect, as some overlap exists between editions. Much of her short prose—almost all of it fiction—was collected in two editions published in the U.S. in 1988 by Dutton’s Obelisk imprint: The House of Fear: Notes From Down Below and The Seventh Horse and Other Tales. The House of Fear incorporates a short collection called The Oval Lady: Six Surreal Stories, first released in the U.S. in 1976 by Capra Press with an introduction by Gloria Orenstein; The Seventh Horse includes a shorter version of the novel The Stone Door. And this doesn’t take into account the collections of her work published in other languages, which don’t always correspond to the American editions.
Anonymous narrators are a recurring theme Carrington’s fiction. Many of her stories are narrated by an amorphous I: identified as neither male nor female, young nor old. In some stories, such as “Uncle Sam Carrington” and “The Neutral Man,” the narrator seems to share certain biographical details with Carrington herself. But even when the narrator seems familiar, the details are often surreal. In “Uncle Sam Carrington,” for instance, the narrator writes of encountering “a friend: the horse that, years later, would play an important part in my life.”
When she chose to, Carrington could also make magnificent forays into the Gothic. The narrator of “White Rabbits,” curious about the habits of her neighbors, buries some meat; her neighbor then summons her, feeding the rotted meat to a hundred white rabbits. The neighbor’s skin is described as “dead white and [glittering] as though speckled with thousand of miniature stars.” Her husband, seemingly dead but warm, may well be Lazarus; the narrator’s neighbor also proves to be an almost evangelical advocate of leprosy.
Religious figures fare poorly in Carrington’s fiction, particularly in the stories collected in The Seventh Horse. An ineffectual monk attempts to convert a woman living in the woods named Virginia Fur; the animals of the forest rise up, invading his church and leaving him to an uncertain fate. Her short play The Invention of Mole ends with an Archbishop about to be killed and eaten, and “Cast Down by Sadness” features a priest whose “cassock [is] spotted with food and all sorts of filth.” Meanwhile, the title character of “Little Francis” urinates on a church, said urine described by Carrington as “holy water.”
Down Below, though nonfiction, is just as vivid as her more surreal prose. Its subject is more sobering, however: the nervous breakdown she suffered following the detention of her longtime lover Max Ernst during the Second World War. Here, Carrington presents an unfiltered view of her own conflicting emotions, from paranoia to guilt to confusion. It's a striking glimpse into her life and into a troubled mind, the occasional forays into surreal imagery only deepening the experience.
Not all her work is a pleasure to read. Carrington’s other novel, The Stone Door, follows a similar structure to that of The Hearing Trumpet—here as well, the rational world gives way to a sort of archetypal hero’s journey. The novel (and its condensed predecessor) is structurally interesting: its narrator loses herself in dreams, a desert is crossed, and the narrator encounters a fallen angel. All the while, references are made to a search for the King of the Jews. Soon after, the narrator herself vanishes from the text, and the narrative it taken over by a young Hungarian boy at a sort of academy or institution who begins encountering a young woman in dreams. It’s vividly written, but the disjointed narrative renders this one of Carrington’s less accessible works. And some of the imagery she evokes here may be, if anything, too potent. Zacharias, the central figure, is a Jewish child sent into isolation, his identity replaced with a number. It isn’t clear if she's alluding to the dehumanizing effects of fascism, or, as in The Hearing Trumpet, simply holding up modernity as the scourge of individuality. But this is one of the few places where one of Carrington’s narratives is unable to bear the weight of the accumulated history, myth, and philosophy in its allusions.
In recent years, a select group of authors have championed Carrington’s work. Ben Marcus’s introduction to a 2008 reissue of David Ohle’s phantasmagorical Motorman cited Carrington (along with the likes of Flann O’Brien, Philip K. Dick, and Raymond Roussel) as one of Ohle’s literary forbears. In a Village Voice piece on obscure writers, Matthew Sharpe had glowing things to say about The Hearing Trumpet. More recently, Björk mentioned her fondness for that novel in an interview. And Ali Smith’s genre-defying Artful contains a short passage examining Carrington’s art and writing. The narrator is recalling the sight of a Lee Miller photograph; her attention is drawn to one of the figures in it. “That’s Leonora Carrington, you said, one of the most underrated of the British Surrealist artists and writers. Why we haven’t had a huge retrospective of her work at the Tate I don’t know.”
The Mexican writer Elenia Poniatowska—whose Lilus Kikus was illustrated by Carrington—wrote a novel, Leonora, based on Carrington’s life. It was released in 2011; no English translation has been announced. For anglophone readers, information on Carrington the writer is sparse; those looking for more would do well to seek out Marina Warner’s introduction to The House of Fear, along with Helen Byatt’s preface to The Hearing Trumpet.
With the single exception of The Hearing Trumpet, Carrington’s books are out of print in the United States, and the prices charged for used editions are at times astronomical. It’s too bad, as these are works that deserve reconsideration; their vivid imagery, irreverence, and surreal transformations are as provocative as they were at the time of their writing.
Tobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol. 1 Brooklyn. His writing has recently been published by The Collagist, Los Angeles Review of Books, Tin House, and the anthology Hair Lit, Vol. 1. Find him on Twitter at @TobiasCarroll.