A rebellious life among the beasts of dreams
Publication of surrealist Leonora Carrington’s vivid writings will bring her fantastical horror and social anxieties into 21st-century focus. Joanna Walsh reports
For many years the writing of the surrealist artist Leonora Carrington was out of print and even tatty paperbacks of her work fetched up to £80 (Dh368) on Amazon or eBay. This year, her memoir Down Below will be republished; along with a children’s book; a biography by her cousin – The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington; and a collection of her wonderfully rich short stories. These span Carrington’s adult life, spent mostly in France and Mexico, from her twenties until her death in 2011 at the age of 94.
Born in England into a wealthy industrial family, her early stories depict protest in the nursery (Carrington was expelled from two schools and her choice to study art was not greeted with enthusiasm by her parents). “You’re too old to play with Tartar,” commands the patriarch to The Oval Lady who still wants to ride her rocking horse, a scene that is followed by remote sounds “as if an animal were suffering extreme torture”. Are these the cries of the wooden animal or the daughter who is both the “lady” and a child?
It seems likely that the girl is in some sense Carrington, who adopted the horse as her avatar, and whose best-known self-portrait features a rocking horse. But, if this is so, then who is The Oval Lady’s narrator, who guesses at the horse/lady’s destruction with the mixed involvement and indifference of an observer in a dream?
The ambiguity of this doubly-narrated tale is typical of the stories which channel the narrative structures of dreams, despite Carrington’s refusal to define herself as a surrealist (“I wasn’t a surrealist, I was just with Max,” she said of [Max] Ernst, the celebrated artist with whom she lived in France during the years approaching the Second World War).
Self-appointed Surrealist guru, André Breton, whom Carrington nicknamed “the headmaster”, defined the movement’s aim in his Second Surrealist Manifesto: “I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality.” This is something Carrington achieves as brilliantly in words as in her paintings.
Carrington’s dreamlike anxieties are social: when a hyena removes and eats the face it has ripped from a maid to pass itself as human, The Debutante’s mother is upset, but only for reasons of decorum. There is much horror and glee around table manners: many stories feature starvation, or bizarre and disturbing feasts. “Never mention anything as vulgar as food,” whispers a horse in Uncle Sam Carrington, while in Monsieur Cyril de Guindre, decadent dinners ooze oppressive male power.
“There’s a bad smell in your room,” says the mother in The Debutante. It’s the hyena, of course. But perhaps it’s The Debutante too, however unacceptable it is for a woman to declare herself a creature. Virginia Fur, the heroine of As They Rode Along the Edge, is the apotheosis of Carrington’s gloriously beastly wild women: she eats her own half-boar litter, after battling “Saint Alexander” who, resplendent in “concrete underwear full of scorpions and adders”, hints at the strictures of Carrington’s Catholic childhood.
“You’re my only friend,” says the debutante to the smelly hyena, rejecting the inhumanities of humans.
At times Carrington seems to be spinning stories to amuse herself. The earliest were written at a double remove when she lived in France with Ernst: shunned by the locals, as she notes in her memoir, Down Below, she wrote in French.
But these stories represent the work of all the periods of Carrington’s life. In Mexico she became a mother, was involved in the incipient Women’s Liberation Movement and had a variety of close friendships, including with the artist Remedios Varo.
The subtleties of double-edged and intricate female friendships and familial relationships develop multiple perspectives, as in the vampiric The Sisters and the sinister and ambiguous mother and son of Cast Down by Sadness.
Never turning away from darkness or violence, Carrington’s playful humour nevertheless steers her work clear of the visceral horror found in the Surrealist writing of, say, Unica Zürn. The worst the mistress of The House of Fear can do is demand that her guests engage in a nightmarish parlour game. Where there are rules, it is always possible to overturn them. This story, cheating narrative itself, ends with a gleeful “but…”
Joanna Walsh is the author of Vertigo and runs the women’s literature forum @read_women. Walter Lucius Michael Joseph, April 1
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The Debutante and Other Stories Leonora Carrington Silver Press, Dh46