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A descent into Hell

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Down Below by Leonora Carrington

2017 is shaping up to be quite a year of anniversaries so far. The obvious one, and the one which has been gaining quite a bit of attention from my neck of the woods, is the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. However, 2017 is also the centenary of the birth of the artist and writer Leonora Carrington and there have been a number of significant releases to mark the event. I’ve recently read and reviewed for Shiny New Books a biography of Carrington by her cousin, Joanna Moorhead, and you can read about that here. However, NYRB are leading the field with a reissue of her seminal work “Down Below”, an autobiographical piece which explores a nervous breakdown she had in the 1940s, and it’s a stunning piece of work.

Carrington is usually labelled as a surrealist and bracketed with that group of artists, owing to her association with them and her affair with Max Ernst, one of the movement’s leading practitioners. But to restrict her by that label seems unfair; she wrote as well, and a number of her books have been published over the years by Virago, keeping her work in the public eye – and in fact they are the publishers of the Moorhead book.

Carrington and Ernst

Carrington was born into a privileged background; her father was a successful, self-made businessman, and Carrington herself was presented at the court of King George V as a debutante in the season of 1935, along with her mother. However, she railed against conventionality and after several failed educational attempts, she was allowed to study art in London. It was here that she met Ernst, and despite the 23 year gap in their ages there was an instant attraction and the pair ran off together, initially to Cornwall. The partnership was a fruitful one and the couple ended up in France at the start of WW2. It was here that things began to go wrong: Max, as a German national was sent to a concentration camp, leaving the young Leonora on her own. Unable to cope, she had a nervous breakdown which led to her incarceration in a most nightmarish asylum, and this experience forms the basis of the book “Down Below”. It’s a slim volume with a chequered publication history, and it’s perhaps a little surprising initially that a work of this length (63 pages) has been published separately, as it could well have been slotted into a collection of her works. But I can understand the logic of wanting the piece to stand on its own, and its augmented by a wonderful and erudite introduction by Marina Warner, who draws heavily on her own meetings with Carrington in the 1970s – which makes it even more interesting.

In some ways, I find “Down Below” a hard book to review – what can you say a book that is nakedly honest about someone’s disturbed mental state without risking sounding trite? Carrington relates her story in an almost detached tone, telling of her inability to cope with Max’s imprisonment, her long periods of not eating and the attempts of friends to help her. She sees symbols everywhere, and as the War situation deteriorates, she is driven off to Spain by two friends. The car freezes up and will go no further; Carrington identifies herself with the car and considers herself frozen too. Her family become involved and she is institutionalised, where she slips between fantasy and lucidity and receives some truly horrific treatment. The drugs used on her induce fits and her dream is to reach the habitation ‘down below’ where all is calm and well. Eventually, she escapes the doctors and her family by making a marriage of convenience and fleeing to America, but the treatment she has endured is simply brutal.

Carrington’s map of ‘down below’, featured in the book

“Down Below” is a disconcerting book; the detached tone makes what’s happening even more shocking, and the lines between what’s real and what’s imagined are hard to find. Carrington relates shortly and in a calm tone that she was gang raped by soldiers; allowed to lie in her own filth for ages; stripped naked and tied down. It’s stark stuff, lifted by passages of beauty, and Carrington’s identification of her body in relation to the world is fascinating. Some of the passages are dizzying and dazzling, and the book is laced with symbolism – a kind of written equivalent to her visual art.

In the end, Carrington fought her way through the madness, made her escape, and eventually based herself in Mexico where she continued to paint and write, made a happy marriage and had two children. She produced an impressive body of work, and her books seem to reflect her art with their surreal stories and strange happenings. Certainly I can see the connections between her worldview in “Down Below” and the surreal landscapes and powerful women in “The Hearing Trumpet”. As a document of what it can feel like to go through a period of madness, this book is peerless; and as an account of a surreal view of life it’s unmatched. The excellent introduction puts all in context, and if you want to explore Leonora Carrington’s life and work, this book gives some valuable insights into the unique artist that she was.

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Surrealism on Shiny

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Today I have another review live on Shiny New Books, and this time it’s non-fiction for a change. The book in question is a fascinating one about a fascinating artist; entitled “The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington”, it’s authored by a relative of the artist, Joanna Moorhead, and she offers an intriguing perspective on her cousin.

I’ve written about Carrington’s work before, when I reviewed “The Hearing Trumpet“; and I’ll be covering the new NYRB edition of “Down Below” soon. Meanwhile, you can read my review of “The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington” here – it’s an excellent book!

 

Happiness is a new (and fairly rare!) Virago…

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It’s always a joy to find a book for which you’ve been searching for a while, and I was lucky enough to stumble across this online recently:

seventh

I read Carrington’s “The Hearing Trumpet” a little while back and reviewed it here. Carrington was very much a one-off and I loved HT, but her works, particularly in Virago editions, are hard to find and rather pricey. In fact, my copy of HT is a Penguin and my only other Carrington is “The House of Feat” which I was lucky enough to come across in a local charity shop for next to nothing!

However, I’ve been in the habit of checking various online sellers occasionally to see if they have any of her works, and amazingly enough the biggest retailer had a copy of “The Seventh Horse” at a Very Reasonable Price! Needless to say, I snapped it up and waiting impatiently as it was coming all the from the USA. I was slightly concerned that it would be a bit bedraggled but no! It arrived today and is in lovely condition with only a slight cover crease on the back. Yes, it’s a later green Virago but still! Not bad for under £10 (including postage) methinks!!

Virago Volumes: The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington

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I’ve headed this Virago Volumes, although that’s a little bit of a cheat as my copy is Penguin. However, I would have read the Virago version if I’d been able to find one, so I think that counts! I was lucky enough to come across my copy in the local Oxfam charity shop – I love it when you find a book you’ve been after for a while!

Leonora Carrington is of course well-known as a surrealistic painter and author. The Hearing Trumpet seems to be her best known work and starts conventionally enough with 92-year-old Marian Leatherby being given a splendid hearing trumpet by her best friend Carmella. Despite her advanced age, Marian’s hearing seems to be the only thing she has issue with and she is still living at home with her wonderfully named son Galahad and his family. However, the hearing trumpet allows Marian to overhear them plotting to put her into a home. Alas, despite Carmella’s wonderfully bizarre plans, Marian is unable to resist and is taken off to the Institution in Santa Bridiga to be parked with a lot of other old ladies. However, the Institution is not at all your typical old person’s home. The buildings are all in bizarre shapes – a birthday cake, a boot, a mummy case, a tower. The place is run by Dr. and Mrs. Gambit and the other old ladies seem decidedly unusual. There are chores to be done, various bizarre and spurious religious teachings and a very strange portrait of a winking nun looking down on the inmates as they eat their meal.

After a relatively straightforward start, things start to get odder and odder. Some of the old ladies are decidedly sinister and there is a poisoning incident. The story of the strange nun is revealed, a dramatic apocalypse takes place and we are left surviving in some kind of post-nuclear type wilderness with wolves and starvation at the door. Luckily Carmella sweeps in to the rescue and our very resilient old ladies survive – but what does the future hold for the world?

This is a remarkably multi-layered book, and not at all what I was expecting! It encompasses a remarkable variety of topics, from the more straightforward (the way we treat our old people) to the deep and complex (the failure of science and male religion, a resurgence of the female goddess cult). The story is peopled with a marvellous array of characters, from Marian’s old friend, the poet Marlborough (whose mysterious sister turns out to have a very important role to play) to Taliessin the travelling postman, carrying news from place to place and obviously referring back to the earlier bard! It’s also a very funny book, and in many ways the writing of the old ladies at the start reminded me a lot of Muriel Spark. Each character is beautifully defined, and Carmella, with her cigars, letters to strangers and port smuggled in a hot water bottle, is my favourite.

But Carrington was remarkably perceptive in many ways, and you could read her descriptions of the poles changing and the new ice age as a kind of warning of forthcoming climate changes. Bearing in mind the book was published in 1974, she was somewhat ahead of her time! Mainly, though, this books is a joy to read – despite its weirdness, it’s great fun, thought-provoking and very well written – and as you would expect of this type of artist, very surreal!

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