The lore surrounding surrealist painter, sculptor, and writer Leonora Carrington’s life nearly eclipses her wondrous body of work. Born in England in the midst of the Second World War, she was expelled from Catholic boarding school twice, ran away to the French countryside with French surrealist painter Max Ernst (who was married to his second wife at the time), and was allegedly rescued from a Spanish insane asylum in a wartime submarine by her Irish nanny. To know Leonora Carrington is to know a story as playful, dark, and surreal as her own creations, which seems fitting for someone who, as a girl, practiced levitation instead of attending to her religious studies. Kathryn Davis’s wonderful introduction to this complete collection (published in conjunction with the centennial of Carrington’s birth) is a satisfying piece on its own, delightedly preparing the reader for a writer bestowed with a satisfying mix of the most wicked yet tender of visions.
Carrington’s pieces are often compared to the magical perversities of fairy tales; she writes of talking animals and witch-like hags, and has an eerie obsession with the upper class. But there’s no neat lesson or conventional wisdom to be eked from their cores, just an overall sense of foreboding directed toward adult realms with their insatiable desire for money, status, and power. Her consistent deployment of the marvelous and abrupt conclusions leaves the reader hanging on to no real conclusion at all. As I made my way through these stories, I felt myself clinging to the edge of a cliff, some precipice, as though under a glittering moon—pretty, but, how did I get here? It never mattered. In lieu of a lesson was the simple hope of survival. Every story lives for the moment of escape.
These are the themes—isolation, fantastic elsewheres, and escape—that seem important to Carrington. As a girl she felt herself forced into the restraints of high society, the daughter of new money by way of her father who became a principle shareholder of Imperial Chemicals. She lived her life as a series of rebellions, and her stories reflect a sly critique of the world she was expected to inhabit with grace and submission. Fathers, parties, the confining dogma associated with the church are derided, oftentimes lampooned, at all costs. In the opening story, “The Debutante,” a young girl evades a ball by convincing a hyena, her one friend, to go in her place. The plan becomes a reality when the intelligent hyena decides the only way to successfully masquerade as a human is to rip off the face of the girl’s maid.
‘“It’s not practical,”’ points out the narrator. ‘“She’ll probably die if she hasn’t got a face…and we’ll be put in prison.’”
‘“I’m hungry enough to eat her,” the hyena replied.
‘“And the bones?’”
‘“As well,” she said. ‘“So, it’s on?”’
A queen of understatement, Leonora Carrington writes to expose the absurdities of high society as it comingles with a fanciful cosmos; her strength as a writer occurs when her dark imagination shakes society down to a core that is—once stripped—naked, mean, an embarrassment to itself.
In “The Royal Summons,” a young woman is charged with the task of murdering the country’s insane queen. The government will play draughts under a canopy of cyprus trees to determine who will do it, and when our unknown protagonist, a terrible draughts player, is the only one who doesn’t cheat, a cyprus tree declares her the winner—the one who will kill the queen. We know the matriarch to be a woman who bathes with live sponges as her servant half-heartedly attempts to subdue them with tongs, or waters the flowers woven into the royal carpet, but who is this sham of a Prime Minister who would declare to so brutally destroy such a frivolous woman (pushing her into a tiger’s cage to be devoured)? Yet it always (as in every Carrington story) makes a terrible sense, each web-like tale weaving a logic ingrained unto itself. The reader senses that most authority figures can, and should, have their status deflated, brought low, especially guardians connected in to the preservation of patriarchal establishments and traditional domesticity.
Because of the absurdity that arises from emasculating power structures, this effect is often humorous. In “Uncle Sam Carrington” we observe two woodland sisters whipping infuriated vegetables into a frenzy. The narrator’s guide (a speaking horse) confides in her how certain spells can exterminate her family shame: “The vegetables have to suffer for the sake of society. You’ll see…that [the vegetable] will die for the cause.” Salvation in not found in the human realm, it’s in the vegetation. Yet, as absurd, even distracting as this revelation may be, the larger point is this: A young girl will journey into the woods to save the reputation of her mother by exchanging a pot of jam and a fishing hook for these mysterious services. In this case, it’s to ensure her uncle will stop laughing at the moon. And that is the end, though by the time we reach the story’s conclusion we’ve already forgotten this was the entire purpose of her trip. What a strange adventure, a magnificent detour—so magnificent, in fact, one wonders if the sanctity of the mother’s fragile reputation (a thing we pity rather than sympathize with) was simply a means to avoid dealing with it in the first place. Will Uncle Sam Carrington be cured? Who of us even cares? By laughing at the extreme lengths one must go through to eliminate a faux pas we didn’t even realize was possible, we have delegitimized the mother’s social shame to a size no bigger than a pinhead. The absurd conditions grounding the story has a layering effect: What is this society that shuns a woman with a brother who laughs at the moon? Who laughs uncontrollably at the moon? Who is the woman who chooses society over a brother that is laughing at the moon? We haven’t even reached the fantastical elements of the story yet—the talking horse, the emotional vegetables, the sisters in the woods whose specialty it is to eliminate family shame. In a Carrington story, the most stable, reality-based elements become the most extreme.
Though it would be remiss to neglect mentioning comparisons to Carrington’s work and Alice in Wonderland or Gulliver’s Travels (Carroll and Swift were two writers Carrington admired), she has a style that is all her own. It has something to do with a fascination for the macabre and her eagerness to subject the dignities of culture to the violence of her intense loneliness. A rocking horse gently gallops in place to bring back adventure stories to a sixteen-year-old girl deemed “too old” for such playtimes; the fact that the horse is burned as punishment so obviously tells not the shortcomings of the teenager, but those of her domineering father. As you wade your way through the collection—with its playfulness and grotesqueries, its affinity for nature, and the humanity bestowed to animals over humans themselves—it becomes a dirge for decaying childhood, Carrington’s, and our own. But she fights back with a heroic stubbornness, an unwillingness to submit to the father who burns playtime, the false saint who lives to fill coffers and will kill anything that stands in his way. The power of escape is not escapism for the reader or for Carrington, but an allowance for an ongoing narrative that suppresses these suppressors of goodness through beauty, subverting systems designed to squash the spirit of the child. This is the story of ourselves, the origin we share with the writer.
As absurd and dark as this collection is, it is also beautiful. It is perhaps these tonal juxtapositions that makes Carrington as impressive a writer as Faulkner or Woolf or anyone whose strength resides in their eloquent psychological acuity. Straight-forward, fantastical twists are ridiculous, hilarious, yet tempered by linguistic ingenuity. Who gives us the inner depravity of a character by saying he has “the golden skin like the corpse of a child preserved in an old and excellent liqueur,” a servant as “a bloated young man who looked like a plump hen cooked in aromatic stock”? I read phrases like these and feel the rush of excitement that comes along when you know you have discovered something. I admire her resistance in everything: her father, her church, her place in gentility, and I find myself reminded how desperately we need writers who encourage us to play in our lives, to slip away from all expectations. How silly we are to think we know the story already so well.
In “A Mexican Fairy Tale,” two children experience the deterioration of reality: One is chopped up into little pieces and another sews him back together. For Carrington, children are more suitable receivers for ultimate lessons. “‘Do not be afraid, Juan,’” says a mole spirit guide to Juan’s atomized body, writhing in pain, “‘this is only the first death, and you will be alive again soon.’” Our heroes, Juan and María, are about to become Quetzalcoatl, God of Wind and Wisdom. As children they will transcend adulthood and the maxims most live by. Only a certain kind of person is capable of submitting themselves to this unknown, the realm of gods, spells, and dresses made of fluttering bats’ wings; Carrington invites us for the ride, and we succumb to her renegade worlds with a kind of trust we didn’t know we had. “‘Pardon me for taking your needle,’” says María to a maguey she uses to sew Juan back together. “‘…pardon me for threading the needle with your body, pardon me for love, pardon me for I am what I am, and I do not know what this means.’”