From The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington
Like all the great surrealists – from Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel to David Lynch – Leonora Carrington’s work evinces a dreamlike quality. Attempting to apply conventional logic to the material is fruitless and reductive; as Susan Sontag warned about interpretation generally, the rigid imposition of fixed meaning on a Carrington work will only serve to delimit and tame it.
The word “tame” is appropriate since so much of Carrington’s visual and literary art is dominated by animals – horses, especially, but also wolves and, not incidentally, hyenas. A hyena makes an appearance in the story “Jemima and the Wolf,” as well as playing a signal role in the early tale “The Debutante,” composed sometime between 1937 and ’38. Whereas the wolf in “Jemima” is at least in part a metaphor for an older and vaguely dangerous man, the hyena in “The Debutante” is a literal, voracious carnivore. In the introduction to The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington, Kathryn Davis points to the fairy tale aspect of the story and writes, “The catch is that in a fairy tale, you’d know it’s not a real hyena, whereas in Leonora Carrington’s stories the hyenas are always real.”
And always hungry. Another pervasive element in Carrington’s work is eating. Writes Davis:
In Leonora’s stories things are always eating other things or being eaten, forewarned about getting “roasted in hot fat, stuffed with parsley and onions,” the cooking utensils “half full of what look[s] like green food” but is “a fluffy growth of fungi,” a hoard of carnivorous white rabbits all the while masticating chunks of meat before they are, themselves, made into stew.
A 1938 oil-on-canvas titled La comida de Lord Candlestick features a group of women with distended, phallic-shaped heads gathered around a lavish banquet table; in the foreground, one woman gazes off to the side, unperturbed by the fact that her fork is stabbing into the belly of a live baby.
The commingling of violence and comedy, of a realistic scene and grotesque details, is typical of Carrington’s method, as it apparently was of her life. A commonly repeated story involves a gathering of surrealist artists at the home Carrington shared with the much older painter Max Ernst; as one guest slept, Carrington supposedly cut off a lock of his hair and sprinkled it in an omelette for flavour.
In “The Debutante,” realism and the surreal slide into one another seamlessly. The story begins as almost straightforward naturalism: a young lady who detests having balls thrown in her honour is searching for an escape from the debutante affair her mother has planned for her. A frequent visitor to the zoo, the young lady has made friends with the hyena that is kept caged there. Together, they strike up a plan: the hyena will kill and eat the young lady’s maid and, wearing gloves and the maid’s face as a disguise, attend the ball in her place.
This story is remarkable for its compact energy – it unfolds over the course of little more than four pages – and its total commitment to its bizarre scenario. Carrington offers a collision between the rarified world of society balls and the nature red in tooth and claw of the animal kingdom. The narrator is cast as an outsider by her dislike of upper-crust trappings; the hyena is able to deceive the ball guests momentarily in its disguise and by walking on its hind legs, but is eventually found out due to its inescapable animal smell.
In the introduction to Down Below, Carrington’s 1944 memoir (some people call it a novel) about her institutionalization in a mental ward, Marina Warner elucidates what makes the author’s stories so fascinating, and so blazingly original:
These tales have Leonora’s unique tone of voice, at once naive and perverse, comic and lethal, with the deadpan innocence of the masters of the macabre. The simplicity of her syntax and the cool sequential structure of the narrative heighten the delinquent pleasure of her voice. … The effect owes something to the restriction of using French, a language she had only studied with a French governess at home and in English convent schools. But unfamiliarity does not cramp her style; rather it sharpens the flavour of ingenuous knowingness that so enthralled the surrealists.
Like Beckett, another native English-speaker who frequently wrote in French, Carrington found in her adopted language a style and approach that was utterly unique and captivating. In “The Debutante,” a deadpan syntax is married to Grand Guignol material to provide a biting comment on the absurdities of societal conformity – though that may be skirting a bit too close to the kind of interpretation Sontag warned readers away from.
An intertextual examination of “The Debutante” and “Jemima and the Wolf” (the latter written directly in English) seems to underscore these themes. In “Jemima,” an exchange between the eponymous 13-year-old and a 20-year-old boy she dubs Mimoo unfolds as follows:
Since being with Mimoo, she hadn’t seen a single living creature except for a hyena walking behind them sniffing the air.
“Are you afraid of that hyena,” she asked. “Why are you looking at it with such bulging eyes?”
“If I went to sleep it’d eat me. That’s why it is following us,” he said with a light laugh. “I don’t fancy being put into its dirty stomach.”
“Hyenas only eat rotten meat,” Jemima said.
The broad association of the female protagonists in these stories with animals – their fellowship and lack of fear – is contrasted by the reactions of the other characters, including the dinner guests at the debutante ball. Carrington’s sympathies were with the animal kingdom; the world of humans is frequently depicted in her work as restrictive and confining (and, perhaps more significantly, boring).
Carrington is not a household name by any means, but her adherents are devout and her influence is more widespread than might at first be apparent, even in later artists who do not necessarily claim a direct debt. We’ll turn our attention to one such literary descendant tomorrow.