Hyenas, Horses, and Rabbits, Oh My! Part II

A Read Along Journey Through the Leonora Carrington Century

Green Tea (1942) by Leonora Carrington

We are back and shaking things up a little in this read-along. As I began reading further and further into the collection, I found I wasn’t reacting to the individual story, so much, as reacting to patterns and themes that were building upon each tale. So, since we are two thirds through, I thought I’d start grouping stories, and in the case of these ten, mark Carrington’s literary growth from the nascent and playful surrealist tales of 1937 and 1938 to the maturing, visionary, damaged fairy tales that characterize her work from 1939 to 1941. During ’37 and ’38, these last six stories read in Part I were all written during the brief but fecund period when Carrington was living with Ernst in France and expanding her artistic horizons and creating her own auto-mythology. Off the page, she was evading her family, protecting her lover from their threats, as well as fleeing Ernst’s past in the South of France. She also was making a splash among the Surrealists as a fiercely, independent femme enfant, and developing and honing her craft both within painting and writing. All at the age of 20 and 21!

But by 1939 everything changed. With the outbreak of WWII, Carrington found her idyllic new life in France torn asunder. Nazi Germany categorized the Surrealists as Degenerate artists #1, and many Surrealists were persecuted, arrested, or exiled. Ernst was arrested several times, and the abandonment and helplessness would send Carrington over the edge.

She sold their house and fled to Spain and grew even more erratic. Her parents had her committed and she underwent horrific treatments with cardiazol, which was suppose to be the pill form of electric-shock therapy. She documented this dark time in the novella Down Below, which I will be reviewing here by Part IV.  When she was finally released, she was chaperoned by her childhood nurse, who was tasked with making sure Carrington was brought back to England. This was unacceptable to Carrington, and at the last minute, found an old friend, Mexican Ambassador, Renato Leduc, and married him for safe passage to New York City and eventually Mexico.

Portrait of Max Ernst (1939) by Leonora Carrington

In Lisbon and New York City, she is reunited with Max, and participates in something of a love rectangle between Renato, him, and Peggy. However, she’s not in love with Max anymore, and finds his legend might overshadow her own career, which she very much wants to develop. It was a period of strife and hard decisions, and so naturally the next ten stories from this period are darker, cursed, and blooming with a poignant emotional range.

Expanded Bestiary

While horses, bats, birds, and hyenas are still present, her bestiary has expanded to include boars, peacocks, rabbits and cats to both poetic and terrifying effects. Peacocks aren’t so much sentient in these stories as ornamental. In “The Sisters,” a dead peacock is draped over a King’s head as an ironic totem of the triumph and immortality of the vampiric Juniper.

They also mark a pregnant pause in “Cast Down By Sadness,” which is very subtle and clever because the peacock has had long associations with the eternal, and “Sadness” treats a bizarre family dynamic that makes the Bates look like the Clevers. Likewise, the draping of the dead peacock over King Jumart’s head could be an ironic totemic triumph of the immortality of the vampiric Juniper.

Perhaps the most memorable animal in this set is Igname the Boar in “As They Rode Along the Edge.” Virginia Fur is a feral woman who rides through the forest on a wheel followed by fifty black and orange cats. She has wild, untamed, and be-twigged hair and a repugnant smell that recalls descriptions of the “The Debutante” hyena. Even in this uncivilized state, she’s still very beautiful and catches the attention of the proverbial king of the forest, Igname the Boar as well as a Saint Alexander, who wants to save her soul and civilize her.

The boar is described as transcendently beautiful, perhaps more of a God than what the local convent worships which makes sense because the boar is regaled in Celtic myth as a fertility and strength symbol. Rejected, the Saint is jealous of Fur’s choice in the Boar’s love over God’s, and scoops some hunters onto Igname’s whereabouts. Once murdered, his flesh is offered up to the Saint’s convent as tithe from a woman trying to save her marriage through divine intervention. As the rich and pious sit down to feast on Igname, Virginia and all of the other animals bust in and presumably kill everyone in sight to avenge the boar.

Was Ernst the boar, and Fur Carrington busting in on the Gestapo to avenge her broken love? The disillusionment and positioning of nature over divinity and notions of divine right at least nod to Carrington’s developing perspective of people who try to heal and meddle in other’s lives. It transcends simple father-daughter relationship. This is government, and as personified by Saint Alexander, God that Carrington is now taking on.

Banquets and Bones

There is a large emphasis in almost every story of decadent feasts and dishes. And some of it is actually food. In Joanna Moorehead’s biography, it is mentioned that Carrington became interested in historical cooking, and many of the dishes she lists off definitely seem like decadent repasts of old. In “Monsieur Cyril de Guindre”:  “…a plump fat chicken with stuffing made of brains and the livers of thrushes, truffles, crushed sweet almonds, rose conserve with a few drops of some divine liquor. This chicken…had…been suffocated in vapors of boiling patchouli:  its flesh was as creamy and tender as a fresh mushroom.” (p. 84). Emm, delicious?

I have a hard time determining from these culinary descriptions whether Carrington was vegetarian or not. The death of animals are not portrayed lightly, and while the feasts are described in lavish and meticulous detail, they don’t come off as appetizing. Of course, the diet of the author isn’t important, but it just would be interesting because were she vegetarian, her oeuvre could be considered a great effort toward animal rights advocation. Their importance and anthropomorphism almost deifies them. They are certainly equals to, if not more important, than the humans who populate Carrington’s cosmos.

And it certainly makes reading “The Sisters” and “White Rabbits,” which deals with vampirism and cannibalism more interesting. “White Rabbits” is about otherworldly neighbors who raise rabbits on rancid meet and turn them into stew every weekend. The lady of the house even expresses some affection for the creatures, but it seems fake and forced, as does the sudden interest in having the protagonist stay for a perpetual dinner.

The Sisters” takes on a much added dimension in regards to caregiving. A healthy woman’s love life is basically ruined by the undying thirst of her chimerical, confined sister who demands “red” in lieu of her daily ration of honey. I can’t help but see this vampire, Juniper, as inspired by Carrington’s real life Psi vampire during the period of this writing — a family-assigned nurse that followed her everywhere she went in Spain once discharged.

Pigeon Fly: Love Games

Perhaps because the events of WWII and Carrington’s escape from Europe separated her from the Surrealists for a while, games and group dynamics play less of a role in this period. “Pigeon, Fly” is the one exception, and the eponymous word-association game is background noise to the protagonist as she paints. The real game in this story is, as is in many of the others, love. And more often than not, after the protagonist has found it, she looses it or finds it stolen, like in “Waiting” and “As They Rode Along.”

Love is also forbidden by disapproving wives (“The Seventh Horse”), and can takes over one’s identity (“Pigeon, Fly”). Of course, all of these variations on the theme harken back to autobiography. There is Ernst’s wife, Carrington’s love for him, and then her finding Ernst coupled with Peggy Guggenheim the whole time while she was interned in a Spanish asylum.

Relevant to this category:  Silver Press features one story missing from the Dorothy, a publishing project edition. “The Skeleton’s Holiday” is an excerpt from “a collaborative novel with Hans Arp, Marcel Duchamp, Paul Eluard, Max Ernst, Georges Hugnet, and Gisèle Prassinos, et. al. called The Man Who Lost His Skeleton.” It is a hilarious reprieve from the darker and more melancholy shades the other stories cast. It also features a Dadaist emphasis on shit which leads me to perhaps the biggest surprise I found during this reading…

Did…did she just make a fart joke?

Still, don’t be sentimental. It all began the day of my grandfather’s first communion. He was only a lad, he didn’t realize the solemnity of the occasion. The evening before this Holy Day, the eve before he was to receive his Lord, he ate a plate of beans. And next morning at church…” Mcbologan hesitated. “It happened that a certain noise escaped him…”  (76)

This is from “The Three Hunters,” which features a band of brothers presenting a bizarre spectrum of disability and eccentricities brought on from a family curse. It is a wonderful piece of grotesquery, and the fact that the wrath of God was brought upon the family by a flatulent insult makes it maybe one of the best fart jokes, or at least gassy fairy tales, ever tooted — erm, told.

Literary Painting

But back to seriousness and craft! My personal favorite aspect of Carrington’s work is becoming presented in these stories. A new sensuousness is imbued throughout making the atmosphere more dimensional and visual.

If there is one thing I love about Carrington, it is how she uses color and texture to create verbal paintings. In “As They Rode Along,” Igname’s fur is made a contradiction in textures with the fruits, leaves, and plants with which he ornates himself. In “Pigeon, Fly” horses are “the color of ripe plums:  the color called roan in England.” And scenes like this one from “Monsieur Cyril de Guindre” read like an illuminated manuscript: “He didn’t notice Thibault, who had come silently into the room carrying a bouquet of moss roses. Thibaut, who was a great deal younger than Cyril de Guindre, had golden skin like the corpse of a child preserved in an old and excellent liqueur. He wore an elegant dressing gown the color of  trout flesh, and his face, behind the roses, was livid with anger.” (78) Later on, de Guindre’s daughter’s lips are “black and gleaming like the back of the beetle.” (83)

Those are just a few of examples of her prismatic poetry at work. She also perfumes her stories, and if one ever wondered what the world of Leonora Carrington might smell like, it’s patchouli. This is the predominant scent her protagonists use to scent paper, linens, and themselves.

While Carrington underwent a great deal of tragedy and torment from 1939 to 1941, the resulting maturity and disillusionment transmuted into these ten stories shows her mastering her craft and empowering her voice. By 1942, she moved to Mexico, where she would spend most  of her long life. I can’t wait to see how the stories morph alongside the young Surrealist muse who went over the edge and came back as a respected painter. and writer. Will they be informed like the earlier stories by her life, one that will inevitably be transform by the other roles she takes on — wife, mother, and soror mystic? I guess we’ll find out next week!