Quería ser Pájaro (I Wanted to Be a Bird), 1960 by Leonora Carrington (1917–2011)
You probably know Leonora Carrington for her rich, wry surrealist paintings, sculptures, drawings, and sketches. She also wrote rich, wry surrealist tales, which the good people at Dorothy have collected in The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington.
I kind of flipped out when I first saw the publication announcement for this collection. Her work has been out of print for ages. Years ago, I found a samizdat copy of The Oval Lady (1975) on the internet (and shared some of the stories on this blog), and consumed it in an hour or two. Witty and weird, Carrington’s stuff defies easy allegory or staid symbolism. Her stories are fun but dark, paragraph unfurling into paragraph in a strange dream-logic that recalls her visual skill as a painter.
The Complete Stories is so complete that it contains a pawful of unpublished stories, including “Mr. Gregory’s Fly,” which you can read on LitHub. I’ve dipped into the stories a few times, reading slowly—Carrington’s sentences are loaded with imagery, rich, but somehow light and not dense. Full review to come, but for now, here’s Dorothy’s blurb (and a few paintings):
Surrealist writer and painter Leonora Carrington (1917-2011) was a master of the macabre, of gorgeous tableaus, biting satire, roguish comedy, and brilliant, effortless flights of the imagination. Nowhere are these qualities more ingeniously brought together than in the works of short fiction she wrote throughout her life.
Published to coincide with the centennial of her birth, The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington collects for the first time all of her stories, including several never before seen in print. With a startling range of styles, subjects, and even languages (several of the stories are translated from French or Spanish), The Complete Stories captures the genius and irrepressible spirit of an amazing artist’s life.
Concurrent with The Complete Stories, the NYRBooks will be publishing Carrington’s memoir Down Below and her children’s book The Milk of Dreams.
I’m in the middle of Paul Bowles’s stories right now, and loving the weird sinister menace of it all. I’ll probably take a crack at some of his novels this year too (The Sheltering Sky next? I’ll need to pick them up).
Senges’s The Major Refutation is also on deck.
Not pictured, because it’s not out yet, is Leonora Carrington’s The Complete Stories (forthcoming in the spring from Dorothy); I’m really looking forward to this one. The NYRB is also publishing Carrington’s memoir Down Below, which looks really cool. I’ve only read the collection The Oval Lady (and that through samizdat means), so I’m happy to see Carrington’s words in print.
Also not pictured because its forthcoming (from Two Lines Press) is Atlantic Hotel by João Gilberto Noll (translated by Adam Morris). I’m anxious to read more from Noll after digging his novella Quiet Creature on the Corner.
Also not pictured: I’d like to reread Carson McCuller’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. I read it when I was 19 or 20. I don’t own it.
Back to the stack in the picture: I loved Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo and The Freelance Pallbearers (which strikes me as a really under-remarked upon novel), and I plan on getting to Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down at some point this year.
I’ve had a few false starts with Arno Schmidt’s The Egghead Republic, but maybe I can knock it out in a weekend.
I’ve taken multiple cracks at the novels by Gray, Murdoch, and Hawkes in the stack…so we’ll see.
I read Leon Forrest’s There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden in a blur; I’d like to reread it and the other Forrest novel I picked up last month, Two Wings to Veil My Face.
I’ve read enough Pynchon now to make a better effort with Vineland…but again, we’ll see (I’m actually kind of jonesing to reread Against the Day).
(And oh I didn’t make a list like this in 2016, but I was 4 for 8 in the one I did in 2015).
The Temptation of St. Antony, Leonora Carrington
Nice piece by Alice Sprawls on Leonora Carrington (whose work is now on display in the Tate) in The London Review of Books today. Excerpt:
Domesticity in Carrington’s paintings and stories is the scene of Ovidian and spiritual transformations; cooking was a sort of alchemy, like painting, and she began increasingly to use egg tempera – influenced by paintings she had seen in Siena but also by its almost culinary processes (separating the egg yolk, adding wine or vinegar then water and pigment). She refused to explain her personal symbolism, but called reading The White Goddess ‘the greatest revelation of my life’. The figure of the muse, Robert Graves’s ‘Mother of all Living, the ancient power of fright and lust’, became less burdensome as manifested in The Giantess (c.1950), whose colossal central figure towers over the scene like a Madonna della Misericordia. She cradles an egg; geese fly out from beneath her pallium; her golden hair is a field of wheat. Around her feet a hunt is taking place – Uccello’s Hunt in the Forest but with a sylph instead of a stag – while the sea behind is teeming with boats, whales, crabs and bizarre creatures like monsters on a medieval map.
From 1950 the paintings become even more fantastical. Many are dominated by bald, spectral white figures: the Sidhe of Irish legends her grandmother told her. In Darvault(1950), Carrington’s two sons by Weisz, Pablo and Gabriel, stand in a de Chirico-esque courtyard, pale and cloaked with small plants growing from their heads. Is Carrington the feline figure in the apron with the elaborate white headdress and whiskers? InDown Below Carrington had described the worldview of her madness – ‘the father was the planet Cosmos, represented by the planet Saturn: the son was the Sun and I the Moon, an essential element of the Trinity, with a microscopic knowledge of the earth’ – and in Mexico she incorporated more and more elements of myth and occultism into her works; not just the Catholicism and Celtic stories of her childhood but astrological and Egyptian imagery, cabbala, Tibetan Buddhism, tarot.
“Uncle Sam Carrington”
When Uncle Sam Carrington saw the full moon he was never able to stop laughing. A sunset had the same effect on Aunt Edgeworth. These two events created much suffering for my mother who took pleasure in a certain social prestige.
At the age of eight I was considered the most serious person in the family. My mother confided in me. She said that it was shameful that nobody would invite her out, that Lady Cholmendley-Bottame did not say Good Afternoon to her in the street. I was deeply upset.
Uncle Sam Carrington and Aunt Edgeworth lived in the house. They occupied the first floor. Thus, nothing could be done to hide this lamentable state of affairs. During the daytime I asked myself how I could free the family of this shame. Finally, it was impossible for me to bear the tension and my mother’s tears, things that made me suffer greatly. I decided to search for the solution. One afternoon when the sun had become very red and Aunt Edgeworth rejoiced in an especially repugnant manner, I took a jar of sweets, a loaf of bread and took to the road. In order to frighten the bats, I sang “O come into the garden, Maude, and hear the blackbirds sing!” (O, van al jardín, Maude, y escucha el canto de los miñes!)
My father sang this song when he wasn’t going to church, and another that began so: “It cost me seven shillings and sixpence.” (Esto me costo siete chelines y seis peniques.) I sang both songs with the same emotion.
“Good—” I thought, the trip has begun. Night certainly will bring me a solution. If I count the trees up to the place where I am going, I will not lose my way. Upon returning I will remember the number of trees.” But I forgot that I only knew how to count up to ten, and even then I made mistakes. So, in a little while I counted up to 10 several times until I became completely lost. Trees surrounded me everywhere.
“I am in the forest,” I said to myself. I was right.
The full moon diffused its clarity among the trees which permitted me to see some meters in front of me and the reason for a disquieting noise. Two cabbages that were fighting terribly made the disturbance. They tore off each other’s leaves with such ferocity that soon there were only a few sad leaves everywhere, and nothing of the cabbages.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said to myself. “It’s nothing more than a nightmare.” But suddenly I remembered that that night I had not gone to bed and, therefore, I could not treat it as a nightmare.
“It’s horrible,” I thought.
After that, I picked up the cadavers and continued my walk. In a little while, I came across a friend: the horse that, years later, would play an important part in my life.
“Hello!” he said to me. “Are you looking for something?” I explained to him the object of my excursion at such an advanced hour in the evening.
“Evidently,” he said, “from the social point of view it’s most complicated. Around here live two ladies who are occupied with similar questions. Your pursued goal consists in the eradication of your family shame. They are two very wise ladies. If you want, I will take you to them.”
The Señoritas Cunningham-Jones had a house surrounded discretely by uncultivated weeds and moss of another era. They were found in the garden about to play a game of checkers. The horse stuck out his head between the legs of some 1890 knickers and directed the word to the señoritas Cunningham-Jones.
“Let your little friend enter,” said the señorita who was seated at the right in a very distinct accent. “We are always ready to help in the matter of respectability.”
The other señorita bent her head benevolently. She was wearing a huge hat adorned with all kinds of horticultural specimens.
“Your family, señorita,” she said to me, offering me a Louis XV style chair, “does it continue the line of our beloved and lamented Duke of Wellington or that of Sir Walter Scott, that noble aristocrat of fine literature?”
I was a bit confused. There were no aristocrats in my family.
Taking notice of my fright, she said to me with the most enchanting smile: “Dear girl, you must realize that here we only arrange matters of the oldest and most noble families of England.”
A sudden inspiration illuminated my face. “In the dining room, at home…” I said.
The horse gave me a strong kick in the backseat.
“Don’t ever speak of anything so vulgar as food,” he said to me in a low voice.
Luckily, the señoritas were a little deaf. Correcting myself, I continued, perplexed. ln the living room there is a table upon which, it is said, a duchess left her glasses in 1700.”
“In that case,” the señorita answered, “Perhaps we can come to an agreement, but naturally, señorita, we will see ourselves obliged to ask for a somewhat steep reward.”
We easily understood each other. The señoritas got up saying: “Wait here some minutes; we will give you what you need. Meanwhile you can look at the illustrations in this book. It’s instructive and interesting. No library is complete without this volume. My sister and I always have lived by that admirable example.”
The book was titled: The Secrets of the Flowers of Distinction and the Coarseness of Food. When the two women had left, the horse asked: “Do you know how to walk without making a sound?”
“Certainly,” I answered.
“Then let’s see the señoritas devoted to their work,” he said. “But if your life matters to you, don’t make a sound.”
The señoritas were in their orchard which extended behind the house, surrounded by a wide wall. I mounted the horse and a surprising scene offered itself to my eyes: the señoritas Cunningham-Jones, each armed with an immense whip, were striking the vegetables, and shouting: “It’s necessary to suffer in order to go to heaven. Those who do not wear corsets will never arrive.”
The vegetables, on their part, fought among themselves, and the older ones threw the smaller ones at the señoritas with angry screams.
“Each time it happens so,” murmured the horse. “They are the vegetables that suffer on behalf of humanity. Soon you will see how they pick one for you, one that will die for the cause.”
The vegetables did not have an enthusiastic air over dying an honorable death. But the señoritas were stronger. Soon two carrots and a little cabbage fell between their hands.
“Quickly!” exclaimed the horse. “Back.”
Scarcely had we again sat down in front of THE COARSENESS OF FOOD, when the señoritas entered with the exact appearance as before. They gave me a little package that contained the vegetables, and in exchange for this I paid them with the jar of sweets and the little fritters.