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Leonora Carrington

Leonora Carrington (1917-2011) was a key figure in the Surrealist movement and an artist of remarkable individuality. Throughout her long career, Carrington published novels, stories, and plays, in addition to making paintings, sculptures, and tapestries.

Blurbs

"This definitive collection of Carrington's short fiction is a treasure and a gift to the world. A stunning achievement."

– Jeff VanderMeer

"Leonora Carrington has unswervingly followed the intensity of her own particular vision and way of being...Her work bristles with a fierce, unconventional brand of feminism; anger gives it its final edge of irony and power."

– Angela Carter

"Her delirious fantasy reveals to us a little of the secret magic of her paintings."

– Luis Buñuel

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The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington

“Reality” Has No Place Here: The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington

02/10/19

Not infrequently, the “reading public” will “discover” a writer or artist from the past who is so brilliant, and singular, and original, that a furor or interest and outrage results. It will surprise no one that most of these creatives are women whose stars never rose quite as high as their male contemporaries.

Leonora Carrington is one such creative luminary who is—hopefully—currently experiencing such a revival.

In brief: Leonora Carrington was an English-born, Mexican surrealist painter, artist, and writer; she was also a deliciously difficult woman.

All of the best women are difficult.

At more length: We know some things about Leonora’s life, but it is shrouded in some deliberate mystery, since Leonora herself gleefully and stubbornly refused appeals to speak about her life with any kind of clarity. She had a habit of embellishing the stories she did tell with fantastical elements, or of offering multiple contradictory accounts of the events of her own life; the effect is that reading about her life has the same unreal, uncanny quality as reading one of her stories. In fact, the clear ways her stories draw on her own life only serve to further blur the lines of reality and art in her life and her work.

A surrealist to her very marrow.

We know that she was born in England in 1917, that she was a rebel against the confining role of a ‘nice young women’ from a young age, that she was expelled from two Catholic boarding schools as a young girl (“I had an allergy to collaboration,” she once said on the subject), and that while being educated by governesses and tutors at home, she reportedly focused her energies on haunting her family’s “lavatory gothic” mansion trying to learn to levitate.

So she was a weird kid from the off.

In time, Leonora was sent to an art school in Florence, and then a finishing school for well-to-do young ladies in Paris—from which she was also expelled—before returning to England to be presented at court and to have her own coming out ball. Her opinion on this whole affair is perhaps most clearly, and cleverly, revealed in her first story in this collection—“The Debutante”—in which a young ‘deb’ sends her only friend—who just happens to be a hyena—to her ball in her place, disguised by a gown and the face of the maid they’ve killed. The story is narrated in such a matter-of-fact style, that the young protagonist complimenting her hyena friend on the neat way she nibbled around the skin of the maid’s face to make her mask, must simply be accepted while also being experienced as absurd and delightful.

So, Leonora clearly did not make much of the society life.

While studying art in London shortly thereafter, she met the lauded surrealist Max Ernst when she was nineteen—he was forty-six—and the two ran off to France together. There they lived two years in, by all accounts, passionate and artistically fruitful happiness. Of course, if we know our history, we know that Germany invaded France in 1940 bringing it all crashing down. Max Ernst was arrested and sent to a prison camp; Leonora had a break down and was sent off to an asylum in Spain. There she was subject to what any modern reader would recognize as truly terrible ‘treatment.’

Eventually she escaped—With the help of her old nanny and a submarine, or was it a warship? And the nanny may have been a cousin. And really, does the ‘truth’ of the events matter? Is ‘reality’ a concept which holds any water? Leonora didn’t particularly think so—and perhaps the only good thing to come from that time at the asylum was that it would inform her novel Down Below. As she began to take up the threads of her creative work again, she married, moved to New York City, moved to Mexico City, divorced, married again, had two sons, and settled into her life-long home in Mexico, which she loved deeply.

Leonora described Mexico City as “A familiar swimming pool with sharks in it,” which from her can only be a compliment. She called her own home there the “house of the Spinx” and expressed her passion for the fantastic and rejection of the “normal” and the “real” with zeal. Her cooking is one good example, being more alchemy or witchcraft than culinary task; she was known to mix squid ink with tapioca pearls and call it caviar with a straight face, or to cut hair from the head of a guest she particularly disliked and cook it into omelets she served.

Is it any wonder that reading her fiction is such a singular, uncanny experience? She manages to hold all the liquid, shifting (false) duality of Freud’s “heimliche” and “unheimliche” in her hands at once, in a way that can only be marveled at. The known becomes strange, and the unknown becomes familiar, and it all happens at once without you noticing.

Take “A Man in Love” as an example, which opens quite suddenly with a fruit seller catching the narrator stealing a mellon, and stating: “Miss, I’ve been waiting for a chance like this for forty years. For forty years I’ve hidden behind this pile of oranges in the hope that somebody might pinch some fruit. And the reason is this: I want to talk, I want to tell my story…” If you haven’t figured out yet that you need to simply surrender to Leonora Carrington’s genius, and let her take you where she will, then you are a slow learner, and likely keenly uncomfortable. You will become even more so when the story moves in to the vendor’s shop, “through a door at the back and reached a room where there was a bed in which lay a woman, motionless and probably dead. It seemed to me that she must have been there a long time, for the bed was overgrown with grass.” But her mortality is, in fact, unclear. She is, for example, still warm enough to hatch chicks from eggs by her heat, and the greengrocer—who has a special talent, which is dehydrating meat by looking at it—waters her every day with loving tenderness. And all of this is simply the prelude to the man’s story.

Another standout story is “White Rabbits,” in which the narrator relays living in New York over a hot summer in which she gets in the habit of hanging about, quite naked, in front of her open windows watching the house opposite the street for any signs of life. After many days of this, she finally spies a woman come out on to her balcony with a dish of bones for a raven that had landed on the railing: “The woman, who had very long black hair, used her hair to wipe out the dish. Then she looked straight at me and smiled in a friendly fashion. I smiled back and waved a towel.” Nothing about this is surprising. Nor is it surprising when the woman calls across to ask the narrator if she has any spoiled, decomposed meat; our narrator only replies, “Not at the moment.” So she buys some meat from the butcher, leaves it out to rot, and pays her neighbors a visit. The rotting meat is, but of course, food for the hundreds of ravenous white rabbits living in the neighbors’ rooms. The neighbors themselves’—Ethel and Lazarus—wear ancient clothes, have white sparkling skin, and regard their rabbits as both loved pets and food. But none of this is treated as terribly strange in the word which tumbles from Leonora’s Carrington’s brain, and the story simply goes on from there.

Each piece in this collection—The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington—is a glittering jewel, and, although the volume is relatively slim, it is best to take it slowly and savor each one. When you have finished with them, consider seeking out her other books—The Hearing Trumpet and Down Below—as well as digging in to her wonderful artwork; her paintings in particular are extraordinary, and worthy of every bit as much lionization as any of the more well-known surrealists. If only we could bottle whatever mad witchcraft she possessed, the creative arts would be richer—and weirder—for it.

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