“Reading The Hearing Trumpet liberates us from the miserable reality of our days.” — Luis Buñuel
“One of the most original, joyful, satisfying and quietly visionary novels of the twentieth century.” — Ali Smith
“This book is so inspiring . . . I love its freedom, its humour and how it invents its own laws.” —Björk
“Even when the plot turns grim, the prose is jaunty, a sign of its author’s reveling in her own perverse imagination.” — Matthew Sharpe
While living in Mexico, removed from Andre Breton’s circle and from the turmoil of her years with Max Ernst, Leonora Carrington produced her parodic novel The Hearing Trumpet. While also addressing the archetypal representations of women within surrealism, Carrington’s targets are slightly different from and strike a more personal chord than Colquhoun’s. The novel is not a sustained parody of a specific surrealist text, but contains passages in which recognizable surrealist ideals and figures are parodied. Written in the 1950s but not published in English until 1976, The Hearing Trumpet recounts the adventures of Marian Leatherby, a 92-year-old English woman sent by her family to a Christian institution for old ladies. As the story unfolds, Marian and her fellow female residents rebel against the preaching and authority of the institution. This rebellion coincides with some major environmental disruptions that end up in a literal and symbolic de-centering of the cosmos.
The novel is quite distinctly surrealist and has been described by critics as following surrealist codes and conventions. Indeed, the novel has multiple narrators: besides Marian, no fewer than eight voices can be listed in The Hearing Trumpet. Some of them are heard via embedded narratives, letters or scrolls. This multi-vocality and the collage form it is articulated in undermine the cohesion of the narration. In addition, numerous passages in the novel depart from logic and reason. To give but a few examples, Carmella, Marian’s best friend, always devises plans devoid of any rational sense to get her out of the retirement home, such as rescuing Marian with a helicopter won in a crossword puzzle competition. The pseudo-religious teachings and recommendations of the doctor at the head of the institution are similarly absurd and irrational: the doctor, for instance, advises that Marian, on her way to higher holy planes, stop eating cauliflower.
‘Carrington pokes fun at and parodies at least two surrealist ideals of femininity that she herself incarnated during her association with the movement: the first one is that of the femme-enfant or woman child. The figure of the woman child first appeared in a surrealist context in 1927 in the ninth issue of the journal La Révolution Surréaliste, edited by André Breton. On the front cover, an illustration depicts the woman child whom Chadwick has defined as “that enchanting creature who through her youth, naiveté, and purity possesses the more direct and pure connection with her own unconscious that allows her to serve as a guide for man”. This young woman is in a way predisposed for surrealism and serves as an intermediary between the male artist and creativity. This is of course reminiscent of the personal story of Carrington, who was drawn to surrealism by Ernst when she was only nineteen years old. Carrington was not the first woman child that Ernst had discovered and fallen in love with, and she herself feared that she might not be the last.11 In the preface that he wrote for one of Carrington’s collections of short stories in 1938, Ernst declared that Carrington was his source of life, inspiration and admiration.
‘In The Hearing Trumpet, Carrington playfully transforms the figure of the woman child by distorting her characteristic features. Carrington’s approach is reminiscent of Michele Hannoosh’s take on parody. Indeed, in Parody and Decadence, Hannoosh ascribes to parody a comic dimension, whether it be playful, such as is the case here, or ridiculing, as will be shown later with the treatment reserved for André Breton in the novel. Marian, the heroine of the novel, can be linked to the archetypal figure of the woman child since she has an intimate relationship with the world of childhood. She lives in a world of fantasy where she interacts with half-wolf, half-human creatures, and her adventures are punctuated by Lewis Carroll-like riddles, the answers to which are the key to the whole story. However, Marian is 92 years old and, it is precisely her old age, not her youth and innocence, that makes her a natural surrealist. Indeed, as an elderly lady, she is often tired and oscillates between slumbering and waking states: “Sleeping and waking are not quite as distinctive as they used to be, I often mix them up”. She literally and almost accidentally lives according to surrealist principles. While André Breton theorizes and intellectualizes this female ideal, Carrington mockingly deconstructs it by reducing her creative gifts to pathological features of senility.14 She presents a degraded version of his woman child.
‘Carrington goes further in her redefinition of the image of the woman child with the motif of the bearded woman. Marian, who describes herself in the first pages of the novel as having a gallant “short grey beard which conventional people would find repulsive”, is also the bearded abbess whose painting hangs in the retirement home, and Saint Barbara, the bearded hermaphrodite Goddess of the underworld. They are one and the same person; Marian possesses a complex and multi-faceted personality. She embodies gender fluidity as well as different forms of gendered power. This motif therefore configures her as a “polymorphous composite in flux”, not a mediator or guide for any man, but a subject that discovers things for herself and continuously constructs herself. Marian, a bearded evasive crone, whom her grandson further describes as “hardly […] a human being, […] a drooling sack of decomposing flesh”, turns into a more desirable form of femininity.
‘Innocence and sexual appeal are discarded by Carrington as sources of creative transformation; madness and the archetype of the madwoman undergo a similar treatment in The Hearing Trumpet. The surrealists investigated madness, and more particularly female hysteria. In 1928, in the eleventh issue of La Révolution Surréaliste, Breton and Aragon redefined hysteria as a poetic precept: “hysteria is not a pathological phenomenon and can in every way be considered as a supreme means of expression”. This was the year André Breton published Nadja, a novel that recounts his relationship with Nadja, a disturbed woman with clairvoyant powers. The free-spirited but unpredictable woman portrayed by Breton instantly became the archetype of the madwoman for surrealism. In actual fact, their relationship was short-lived, as Breton could not cope with the realities of her life and her obsession with him. She was eventually institutionalized.’ — Tifaine Bachet
Leonora Carrington @ Wikipedia
The Hearing Trumpet: Surrealism, Feminism, and Old Ladies in Revolt
The Surreal Life
Surreal old people: Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet
The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington
The Hearing Trumpet: Leonora Carrington’s Feminist Magical Realism
‘It was three years ago that my grandfather walked onto the blade of the sword …’
‘This year is the centenary year of Leonora Carrington’s birth.’
Leonora Carrington’s Surrealist Revolution
An Annotated Hearing Trumpet
The Least-Expected Trumpet of Apocalypse
Leonora Carrington Rewrote the Surrealist Narrative for Women
‘The Hearing Trumpet is as wonderfully odd and obscure as it sounds.’
“Delicious Decay: The Laugh of the Grandmother
‘The humour is at its strongest when it mixes the exotic with the homely.’
Buy ‘The Hearing Trumpet’
Leonora Carrington – Britain’s Lost Surrealist
Leonora Carrington, imaginación a galope fino
Trailer: ‘Leonora Carrington’, French documentary
Pablo Weisz Carrington’s Illustrations
from The Believer
THE BELIEVER: What are you thinking about right now?
LEONORA CARRINGTON: I don’t discuss that.
BLVR: If you are not working on anything, what occupies you?
LC: Surviving. I’m not well. I think about death a lot.
BLVR: What do you think about?
LC: Well, you become closer to death, so that really tends to dominate everything else.
BLVR: Have you reached an acceptance?
LC: No, I have not. How can one accept the totally unknown? [Agitated] We know nothing whatever about it, even if it happens to everyone, to everybody! Animals, vegetables, minerals—everything dies. How can you reconcile with something you know nothing about? Is there anything else? What do you want to know?
BLVR: I have this longing for myths, for ritual, which you yourself have explored. There is no model for the passing-down of what has been collected in the interior life, that isn’t simply the collection of biographical facts. It’s difficult, as there are no words for what I’m looking for.
LC: There are things that are not sayable. That’s why we have art.
LC: I’ll do it. [She lights her own cigarette.] God, I don’t know who he is. [A man walks by and appears to be landscaping in her courtyard.]
BLVR: I am working on an art project in Mexico City that’s inspired by your work. Part of our project was to try and come and meet you. You’re now the same age [ninety-two] that the heroine Marian Leatherby was in your novel The Hearing Trumpet. I am currently writing a novel with a heroine who is also ninety-two. It felt like the right time to come and meet you.
LC: I never know if I’m ninety-two or ninety-three. I was born in 1917.
BLVR: The year of the Russian Revolution.
LC: Ah, yes, the Russians. I’ve never been to Russia.
BLVR: I think you would love it.
LC: I doubt it.
LC: I don’t believe in communism.
BLVR: They’ve thrown away communism and wholeheartedly embraced capitalism. But Moscow—the architecture is so unexpected. It’s so large and ornate, it makes you feel small. As though you were in a fairy tale. The scale is huge.
BLVR: You have a lot of books. Do you read a lot?
LC: Not now. I have a bad eye.
BLVR: You must miss reading.
LC: Yes, I think I do.
BLVR: Why did you stop writing?
LC: I didn’t really stop. I just don’t deal with publishers anymore.
BLVR: Do you have unpublished writing?
LC: Probably, yes.
LC: What do you want to know?
BLVR: Are you working on anything right now, or thinking about anything right now?
LC: No. I’m not well. [Pauses] Too many years.
BLVR: You said you’re not working on anything, but if you were feeling better, might you start on something? Do you have any plans?
LC: No. I don’t talk about my plans. Especially as I don’t know what they are.
BLVR: Do you feel like you know less as you grow older, or more?
LC: I feel I know absolutely nothing. We know nothing about death. I think humanity knows very little. We have no idea. There are lots of theories.
BLVR: You’ve studied Zen Buddhism in the past. Does it help? Have they figured something out?
LC: I’m not enlightened, so I wouldn’t know. Do you have a light?
BLVR: Here you are. [Hands Carrington a lighter] Do you remember when you were in your mid-thirties? Did you feel that you knew more then?
LC: I don’t think I ever had the pretension of knowing. Nobody ever knows what death is.
BLVR: We think about it less when we’re younger.
LC: Do you need an ashtray?
BLVR: I can reach, thank you.
BLVR: I’m starting to think about death. A little bit more.
LC: Well, all of the thinking you’ll do, I doubt if you’re going to find out much.
BLVR: Your work continues to influence, and it is unique in how it approaches the accumulation of diverse myth and makes it transmutable to the present tense. The layering of your iconography. No matter who you are, there are lots of ways into your work.
LC: Well, a lot of the things they are doing now are a kind of simplification.
BLVR: Whose work do you admire?
LC: The surrealists. Duchamp, Max Ernst, Picasso. But I don’t see any point in discussing visual art for me. Other people can make their ideas.
BLVR: There is an interest in your work in part because we are currently in somewhat of a mythless culture. That’s part of my attraction to your work.
LC: Contemporary art has gotten so abstract that it’s practically nothing.
BLVR: I’ve been searching for myth, for ritual.
LC: I think ritual has to come on its own. I don’t think you can search for it. Where would you be searching?
BLVR: Within, I suppose.
LC: You’re not interested in Buddhism? I think they are very good.
BLVR: What was it that attracted you to Buddhism, given that you’re not a joiner, that you’re not interested in religion or politics?
LC: A saying, which is not mine: “Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.”
BLVR: How did that affect your work?
LC: I went on waiting for it to appear.
BLVR: Now it is easier for female artists to show their work, have it exhibited, have it accepted. It doesn’t seem as much of a struggle as it was for you.
LC: There was a time when female artists were totally invisible. There have always been female artists, but since females were considered to be an inferior animal, we don’t know too much about them.
BLVR: Were male artists supportive? If they had a great eye, they must have had recognition for female artists.
LC: Few of them, not all of them. One of them once said, “There are no women artists.” So I told him, “All you have to do is open the door, walk down the passage, and you’ll find the street!”
BLVR: Who was that?
LC: I won’t say. I haven’t seen him since.
BLVR: How did the Second World War affect your work?
LC: I was afraid to be trapped by the Nazis. It was a frightening time. We didn’t know that the Nazis weren’t going to take over the world. I lived in the south of France and then was in Spain for a while, but I was in a clinic.
BLVR: I’ve read about that [in Carrington’s Down Below, which academic Marina Warner has called one of the most lucid accounts of going insane]. You never went back to Spain?
BLVR: How do you think you survived that time in the clinic?
LC: I don’t know. I was young. In good health.
BLVR: We know from Down Below that you drew maps. What were the maps about?
LC: There were levels in the clinic. At the top, there were the people they considered to be hopelessly mad, and I was one. Then they moved me to a private cell. I was alone there, with a keeper.
BLVR: They gave you drugs.
LC: There were these terrible injections, from which, out of terror, you stopped being mad—more or less the theory.
BLVR: Your keeper was a man or a woman?
LC: She was a woman, a German with a love for the Nazis.
BLVR: Did she talk to you about that?
LC: No, because I didn’t let her.
BLVR: You said that you are not interested in politics.
LC: Well, I think when there are a great number of humans doing something, I begin to doubt it.
BLVR: You’re a nonconformist.
LC: Exactly. I’ve never been closely connected with politics. Though I more or less liked the anarchists. But I’ve never participated.
BLVR: Or in organized religion.
LC: Well, I’m a Roman Catholic. My mother was Irish, from the South, so, yes, I was put in a convent. After a few months I was expelled. They wrote my father and said, “This child does not collaborate with either work or play.”
BLVR: What were your memories of that time?
LC: I was miserable.
BLVR: Is that when you started to draw?
LC: No, I’ve always drawn.
BLVR: How old were you when you were expelled?
LC: About ten.
BLVR: And did you have any friends?
LC: None! I was very unpopular.
LC: Because I’m not good at anything. I couldn’t play hockey. I was not good at religion.
BLVR: I think children are conformists. When they see a child that doesn’t fit in…
LC: Yes, you’re unpopular.
BLVR: Was there a moment that you felt you did belong? And whom with?
LC: The surrealists.
BLVR: Did you seek them out?
LC: I first heard of the surrealists from my mother, who gave me a book by Herbert Read. I thought, Ah! This I understand.
BLVR: That must have felt so incredible after many years of feeling isolated. And then you met the surrealists and became one?
LC: I already was one.
BLVR: Was there any point at which you felt you weren’t rebelling?
LC: When I met the surrealists.
BLVR: And now?
LC: Now I’m over ninety, and so I think a lot about my old age and what I cannot do and so on and so forth.
BLVR: Are there any gifts that come with loss, with old age?
LC: Not that I know of. [Laughs] What I’m doing right now is surviving. [Lights a cigarette] I’m addicted.
BLVR: You’ve smoked since you were at the convent?
LC: Yes, but hidden. There was a big garden and we hid under the bushes.
BLVR: How did you get cigarettes in a convent?
LC: That’s a good question. We seemed to get them all right. I probably brought them, and hid them.
BLVR: When you’re in a convent, you sleep there—there are no parents?
LC: You see them once every three months for a short time. It was terrible.
BLVR: And your brothers?
LC: They went to a Jesuit school.
BLVR: And your sons, did they go to school? They lived here with you, right?
LC: Yes. My husband [Emerico “Chiki” Weisz] was a photojournalist in Mexico. He had a theory that if he left Mexico they would put him in a concentration camp. He was Jewish and a Hungarian. He more or less despised his work, which is not very good. He just thought it was just a job.
BLVR: Was that difficult? You are so realized with your work, and he—
LC: What marriage is not difficult? You tell me.
BLVR: There is always some kind of conflict. But yours lasted a very long time [over fifty years].
BLVR: Your husband died quite recently. What was his condition near the end? Was he talkative?
LC: He just sat. He didn’t talk.
BLVR: In your younger years, did you talk? Were you a talkative couple?
LC: I don’t remember! I don’t think so. He never talked much. And I don’t speak Hungarian. We talked mostly in French.
Leonora Carrington The Hearing Trumpet
‘One of the first things ninety-two-year-old Marian Leatherby overhears when she is given an ornate hearing trumpet is her family plotting to commit her to an institution. Soon she finds herself trapped inside a sinister retirement home where the elderly must inhabit buildings shaped like birthday cakes and igloos, endure twisted religious preaching, and eat in a canteen overlooked by the mysterious portrait of a leering abbess. But when another resident secretly hands Marian a book recounting the life of the abbess, a joyous and brilliantly surreal adventure begins to unfold. Written in the early 1960s, The Hearing Trumpet remains one of the most original and inspirational of all fantastic novels.’ — NYRB
When Carmella gave me the present of a hearing trumpet she may have foreseen some of the consequences. Carmella is not what I would call malicious, she just happens to have a curious sense of humour. The trumpet was certainly a fine specimen of its kind, without being really modern. It was, however, exceptionally pretty, being encrusted with silver and mother o’pearl motives and grandly curved like a buffalo’s horn. The aesthetic presence of this object was not its only quality, the hearing trumpet magnified sound to such a degree that ordinary conversation became quite audible even to my ears.
Here I must say that all my senses are by no means impaired by age. My sight is still excellent although I use spectacles for reading, when I read, which I practically never do. True, rheumatics have bent my skeleton somewhat. This does not prevent me taking a walk in clement weather and sweeping my room once a week, on Thursday, a form of exercise which is both useful and edifying. Here I may add that I consider that I am still a useful member of society and I believe still capable of being pleasant and amusing when the occasion seems fit. The fact that I have no teeth and never could wear dentures does not in any way discomfort me, I don’t have to bite anybody and there are all sorts of soft edible foods easy to procure and digestible to the stomach. Mashed vegetables, chocolate and bread dipped in warm water make the base of my simple diet. I never eat meat as I think it is wrong to deprive animals of their life when they are so difficult to chew anyway.
I am now ninety-two and for some fifteen years I have lived with my son and his family. Our house is situated in a residential district and would be described in England as a semi-detached villa with a small garden. I don’t know what they call it here but probably some Spanish equivalent of ‘spacious residence with park.’ This is untrue, the house is not spacious, it is cramped, there is nothing resembling even faintly a park. There is, however, a fine back yard which I share with my two cats, a hen, the maid and her two children, some flies and a cactus plant called maguey.
My room looks onto this nice back yard which is very convenient as there are no stairs to negotiate — I merely have to open the door in order to enjoy the stars at night or the early morning sun, the only manifestation of sunlight which I can abide. The maid, Rosina, is an Indian woman with a morose character and seems generally opposed to the rest of humanity. I do not believe that she puts me in a human category so our relationship is not disagreeable. The maguey plant, the flies and myself are things which occupy the back yard, we are elements of the landscape and are accepted as such. The cats are another matter. Their individuality puts Rosina into fits of delight or fury according to her temper. She talks to the cats, she never talks to her children at all, although I think she likes them in her own way.
I never could understand this country and now I am beginning to be afraid that I never will get back to the north, never get away from here. I must not give up hope, miracles can happen and very often do happen. People think fifty years is a long time to visit any country because it is often more than half a lifetime. To me fifty years is no more than a space of time stuck somewhere I don’t really want to be at all. For the last forty-five years I have been trying to get away. Somehow I never could, there must be a binding spell which keeps me in this country. Sometime I shall find out why I stayed so long here, while I am happily contemplating reindeer and snow, cherry trees, meadows, the song of the thrush.
England is not always the focus of these dreams. I do not, in fact, particularly want to install myself in England although I will have to visit my mother in London, she is getting old now, although enjoying excellent health. A hundred and ten is not such a great age, from a biblical point of view at least Margrave, my mother’s valet, who sends me post cards of Buckingham Palace, tells me she is still very spry in her wheel chair, although how anyone can be spry in a wheel chair I really don’t know He says she is quite blind but has no beard which must be a reference to a photograph of myself which I sent as a Christmas gift last year.
Indeed I do have a short grey beard which conventional people would find repulsive. Personally I find it rather gallant.
England would be a matter of a few weeks, then I would join my lifelong dream of going to Lapland to be drawn in a vehicle by dogs, woolly dogs.
All this is a digression and I do not wish anyone to think my mind wanders far, it wanders but never further than I want.
So, I live with my Galahad, mostly in the back yard.
p.s. Hey. ** Misanthrope, Hey, G. Well, ageing is weird. It brings along all kinds of unexpected stuff. It’s like the body has all these ugly secrets that it time releases or something. Did you get to the doc on time at whatever time that ended up being? Yay! About the haunted thing. If you need any tips or anything, I’ve become quite the expect at haunt locating, etc. Dude, I so extremely join you in your hope that it isn’t a stent requiring thing, yikes! What’s the word? ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. Oh, I have to disagree. I think home/pro haunted houses are more timely and scarier and yet more escapist than ever at the moment. I’m pleased and surprised that they’re proliferating this year IRL under the circumstances. I went to a full on, safety measures-adhering haunt here in Paris, and the edits made to follow the measures were imaginative. and it was great. Things are getting worse here very fast, and it’s not the right wing’s doing here. Yesterday the new cases in France almost doubled. The government is announcing stricter guidelines tonight. Same all over Europe. The predicted second wave has arrived. ** _Black_Acrylic, Hi. No, I think the full-contact haunts are reinventing themselves this year. Well, they have to. Yes, please share a link to the ‘Not Going Back to Normal’ event. That’s exciting! ** Sypha, If memory serves, there has been a haunt or two that tried your angle, to very poor attendance, no surprise, ha ha. I have read ‘The Tenant’. I liked it very much. He’s a very interesting artist in general. I did a post about him a while back. Roland Topor’s Brains. ** Steve Erickson, Hi. Doubt those haunts have the budget to. It’s amazing how much they can pull off on workers’ wages. The ones made by people who work in the special effects industry of course have a leg up. I’ll check out that essay thanks. Everyone, Steve has a tip. Here: ‘Speaking of horror films, James Somerton’s 90-minute video essay (which I haven’t watched in its entirety) is an interesting collection of queer readings of movies like CARRIE & ALIEN. ** Brian O’Connell, Hi, Brian. Chambers of Hell looks like a pretty intense one. Good intense, by my reckoning and values, I mean. If you go, give me a review. McKamey Manor used to be in San Diego near my hometown of LA, but I was never remotely tempted to do it, my vast love of the genre not withstanding. I do find the interest in subjecting oneself to that very interesting. I think there’s some of kind of documentary about that place. I will definitely watch the ‘Suspiria’ remake. Surely I can find it legally or illegally somewhere. Interesting that it lead you to Fassbinder. Now I’m even more curious. Fassbinder is so amazing, no? I’m happy the links/posts were helpful. Enjoy the exploring. And have a really swell one aka day. ** Okay. Today the blog focuses on the only novel by the wonderful Surrealist writer/artist Leonora Carrington. It’s a wild and fun thing, if you’re interested. See you tomorrow.