Surrealism in print, part 1 (repost)

In moving these old posts from my former blog to this one, I note a few recurring themes: surrealism and John Ashbury’s writing among them. This 2-part post combines them. Enjoy!

Leonora Carrington, The Giantess, private collection

Leonora Carrington, The Giantess, private collection

I’ve been reading some surrealist writing recently – notice that I did not capitalize surrealist, as I’m not saying these works are officially recognized as such. This first book is definitely Surrealist. Leonora Carrington (1917-2011) was a Surrealist painter and writer. She was born and began her career in England, but after meeting Max Ernst in 1937 she moved to France with him, although he was already married. He divorced his wife and lived with Carrington until the outbreak of the Second World War, in which Ernst was twice arrested by the French before he could escape to the United States; Ernst was helped to escape by wealthy art patroness Peggy Guggenheim, whom Ernst married. Carrington found refuge in Spain, and suffered a nervous breakdown there. In time she recovered and settled in Mexico, where she spent many years painting and writing. She and Ernst were emotionally unable to reunite.

A close friend in Mexico was the Spanish painter Remedios Varo, whose work bears close affinities with Carrington’s (see below). Varo died in 1963 but Carrington, at last happily married and with children, remained as the last Surrealist painter of the classic age of Surrealism. Perhaps second to Carrington in that regard was Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012), painter and writer, who was not only influenced by Surrealism, but also had an affair with Max Ernst, and was married to Ernst from 1946 until Ernst’s death in 1976.

Unexpected view by Remedios Varo

Unexpected view by Remedios Varo

But all this is background. I intended to review Leonora Carrington’s novel, The Hearing Trumpet, (1976) one of nine books she wrote in her lifetime. The plot seems simple enough: 92-year-old Marian Leatherby is given a hearing trumpet by her friend Carmella, and with it she is finally able to hear what her family has been saying – namely, that they plan to put her in an old folk’s home. But this is Surrealism, so the old folk’s home is full of whimsical buildings in the shape of a shoe or a cake, and is run by a husband-and-wife team with unusual beliefs.

Belief is an important element in the book, as a long portion of the middle of the book consists of detailing the life of Dona Rosalinda Alvarez Cruz della Cueva, a long-dead nun who rose to become a powerful Abbess, despite having beliefs very much at odds with Christianity. The contempt and mockery of traditional Christianity (as seen in Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel’s films) comes to the fore, as the Abbess uses her convent as a temple to older, darker worship. By chance (but nothing truly happens by chance in Surrealism) a portrait of Dona Rosalinda happens to be hanging in the dining hall of the old folk’s home, despite the home being on another continent. It’s difficult to describe the convolutions of the plot – Carmella plots to free Marian, and either does or does not depending on how you look at it. I can’t say much without spoiling the story. Perhaps I’ve said too much already.

As a novel The Hearing Trumpet starts out slowly, with enough realism to lull you into thinking it might end up being a bit dull. Then things begin to sprout, and the story revs up. Though I would say the book is only partly successful in tying everything together, and it all seems a bit random by the end, it is a worthwhile read if you stick to it. Carrington captures her disparate cast of characters with adequate skill, but no more than that. There’s a reason why Surrealist fiction has limited appeal. We look for stories that move us and make sense; Surrealism deals with the ephemeral feelings of dreams and makes a non-sense all its own. Still, I’m glad I read The Hearing Trumpet, and will look to read more Leonora Carrington when I can find it.

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