Visually inventive, freewheeling imagination, but I could not really connect with her wavelength

This is my review of The Hearing Trumpet (Penguin Modern Classics) by Leonora Carrington.

Leonora Carrington defied her wealthy, conventional parents to become an artist, running away to Paris to join a group of Surrealist painters. Her short-lived, intense affair with German Max Ernst was destroyed when he was imprisoned on the outbreak of World War 2, escaping to the security of the States. Her nervous breakdown and appalling treatment in a Madrid asylum, from which she was rescued by the nanny who arrived in a submarine sheds light on the bizarre fantasies of her “modern classic”, “The Hearing Trumpet”. She went on to live for decades in Mexico, married to a Hungarian photographer, and far more famous in her adopted country than the Britain of her birth.

This short novel begins as a quirky satire on old age, showing the frequent lack of sympathy between generations, even the revulsion that youth may feel for old age, and the extent to which the elderly no longer care about conventions and often are far more “with it” than they appear. The ninety-two-year-old narrator Marian Leatherby discovers with the aid of a friend’s gift of a hearing trumpet that her selfish and mean-spirited family plan to put her in a home for senile old ladies. Despite its deceptive appearance, designed, “to trick the old people’s families that we led a childish and peaceful life” and the bogus religious background, Marian is mesmerised by the portrait of the “nun with a leer” which hangs over the dinner table, and entertained by the eccentric little band of residents.

Marian recalls a former admirer from her youth in England: “I remember your white flannels better than I remember you”. As for food: “I never eat meat as I think it wrong to deprive animals of life when they are so difficult to chew anyway”. “People under seventy and over seven are very unreliable if they are not cats”. All this kept me entertained until the verbal surrealism went haywire, as Marian’s world spins into a kind of post-atomic nuclear winter. The author seems to be attacking organised religion and authoritarian fascist governments, whilst harbouring a fascination for romantic legends of the Holy Grail: “the Great Mother cannot return to this planet until the Cup is restored to her filled with the Pneuma, and under the guard of her consort the Horned God”. All this is reminiscent of her paintings with their common theme of angular figures in flowing dresses, with the heads of animals, standing stiffly in artificial landscapes or slightly out of kilter rooms.

Although I admire her originality, I cannot engage with the author’s surrealism. Her sketches for the book strike me as crude and childish, although her paintings are better:in a subjective choice, I like the paintings “Green tea” or “La Dame Ovale”, “The Crow Catcher", and her large sculptures.

I am more interested by Leonora Carrington as an unusual character than in her work. I was intrigued, for instance, by an interview on YouTube between her and a young relative who had tracked her down in Mexico, still lucid and chain-smoking in extreme old age. “You are trying to intellectualise my work too much” was her recurring response, suggesting we try to analyse her more than she intended.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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