The Sad Horse, 1959 by Friedrich Schroder-Sonnenstern (1892-1982)
The Sad Horse, 1959 by Friedrich Schroder-Sonnenstern (1892-1982)
I can’t remember which particular Surrealist I was googling when I learned about Gisèle Prassinos. I do know that it was just a few weeks ago, and I’ve had an interest in Surrealist art and literature since I was a kid, so I was a bit stunned that I’d never heard of her before now—strange, given the origin of her first publication. In 1934, when she was 14, Prassinos was “discovered” by André Breton, and the Surrealists delighted in what they called her “automatic writing.” (Prassinos would later reject that label, and go as far as to declare that she had never been a surrealist). Her first book, La Sauterelle arthritique (The Arthritic Grasshopper) was published just a year later.
I somehow found a .pdf of one of her stories, “A Nice Family,” a bizarre little tale that runs on its own surreal mythology. The story struck me as simultaneously grandiose and miniature, dense but also skeletal. It was impossible. Surreal. I wanted more.
Luckily, just this spring Wakefield Press released The Arthritic Grasshopper: Collected Stories, 1934-1944, a new English translation of a 1976 compendium of Prassinos’s tales, Trouver sans checher. The translation is by Henry Vale and Bonnie Ruberg, whose introduction to the volume is a better review and overview than I can muster here. Ruberg offers a miniature biography, and shares details from her letters and visits with Prassinos. She situates Prassinos within the Surrealists’ gender biases: “For a young writer such as Prassinos, being involved with the surrealists would have meant gaining access to resources like publishers, but it also would have meant being fetishized and marginalized.” Ruberg characterizes Prassinos’s tales eloquently and accurately—no simple feat given the material’s utter strangeness:
Taken collectively, their effect is a piercing cackle, a complete disorientation, rather than an ethical lesson. The politics of these stories are absurdist. They upend the world by making children dangerous, by reanimating the dead, by letting the carefully tended domestic deform, foam, and melt. No social structure holds power in the world of these stories—not on the basis of gender, or nationality, or class. The force that reigns is chaos.
Let’s look at that reigning chaos.
In “The Sensitivity of Others,” one of the earliest tales in the volume, we get the sparest narrative action seemingly possible: A speaker walks forward. And yet dream-nightmare touches impinge on all sides and on all senses. The opening line shows a world that is never stable, and if monsters and other dangers lurk just on the margins of our narrator’s shifting path, so do wonders and the promise of strange knowledge. Here’s the tale in full:
I still have no idea what to make of the punchline there at the end, but those final images—a father, a faulty library, a power failure—hang heavy against the narrator’s trembling walk.
Many of Prassinos’s anti-fables conclude with such apparent non sequiturs, and yet the final lines can also cast a weird light back over the previous sentences. In “Photogenic Quality,” a dream-tale about the act of writing itself, the final line at first appears as sheer absurdity. A man receives a pencil from a child, whittles it into powder, blots the powder on paper, and throws the paper in the river (more things happen, too). The tale concludes with the man declaring, “Brass is made from copper and tin.” It’s possible to enjoy the absurdity here on its own; however, I think we can also read the last line as a kind of Abracadabra!, magic words that describe an almost alchemical synthesis—a synthesis much like the absurd modes of transformative writing that “Photogenic Quality” outlines.
You’ll see above one of Allan Kausch’s illustrations for The Arthritic Grasshopper. Kausch’s collages pointedly recall Max Ernst’s surreal 1934 graphic novel Une semaine de bonté (A Week of Kindness). Kausch’s work walks a weird line between horror and whimsy; images from old children’s books and magazines become chimerical figures, sometimes cute, sometimes horrific, and sometimes both. They’re lovely.
Surreal figures shift throughout the book—monks and kings, daughters and mothers, deep sea divers and knights and salesmen and talking horses—all slightly out of place, or, rather, all making new places. Even when Prassinos establishes a traditional space we might think we recognize—often a fairy trope—she warps its contours, shaping it into something else. “A Marriage Proposal,” with its unsuspecting title, opens with “Once upon a time” — but we are soon dwelling in impossibility: “the garter snake appeared in the doorway, arm in arm with the snail, who was slobbering with happiness.” Other stories, like “Tragic Fanaticism,” immediately condense fairy tales into pure images, leaving the reader to suss out connections. Here is that story’s opening line: “A black hole, a little old woman, animals.” At five pages, “Tragic Fanaticism” is one of the collection’s longer stories. It ends with a four line poem, sung by five red cats to the old woman: “Go home and burn / Darling / You’re the only one we’ll love / Trash Bin.”
I still have a number of stories to read in The Arthritic Grasshopper. I’ve enjoyed its tales most when taken as intermezzos between sterner (or compulsory) reading. There’s something refreshing in Prassinos’s illogic. In longer stretches, I find that I tire, get lazy—Prassinos’s imagery shifts quickly—there’s something even picaresque to the stories—and keeping up with its veering rhythms for tale after tale can be taxing. Better not to gobble it all up at once. In this sense, The Arthritic Grasshopper reminds me strongly of another recently-published volume of surreal, imagistic stories that I’ve been slowly consuming this year: The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington. In their finest moments, both of these writers can offer new ways of looking at art, at narrative, at the world itself.
I described Prassinos’s tales as “anti-fables” above—a description that I think is accurate enough, as literary descriptions go—but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something that we can learn from them (although, to be very clear, I do not think literature has to offer us anything to learn). What Prassinos’s anti-fables do best is open up strange impossible spaces—there’s a kind of radical, amorphous openness here, one that might be neatly expressed in the original title to this newly-translated volume—Trouver sans checher—To Find without Seeking.
In her preface (titled “To Find without Seeking”) Prassinos begins with the question, “To find what?” Here is a question that many of us have been taught we must direct to all the literature we read—to interrogate it so that it yields moral instruction. Prassinos answers: “The spot where innocence rejoices, trembling as it first meets fear. The spot where innocence unleashes its ferocity and its monsters.” She goes on to describe a “true and complete world” where the “earth and water have no borders and each us can live there if we choose, in just the same way, without changing our names.” Her preface concludes by repeating “To find what?”, and then answering the question in the most perfectly (im)possible way: “In the end, the mind that doesn’t know what it knows: the free astonishing voice that speaks, faceless, in the night.” Prassinos’s anti-fables offer ways of reading a mind that doesn’t know what it knows, of singing along with the free faceless astonishing voice. Highly recommended.
Father’s Waistcoat, 1937 by Grace Pailthorpe (1883-1971)
Swampangel, 1940 by Max Ernst (1891-1976)
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.
Self Portrait with Scorpion, 1938 by Leonor Fini (1908-1996)
The Guest Room, 1950-52 by Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012).
“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.
by Leonora Carrington
THE TIME has come that I must tell the events which began in 40 Pest St. The houses which were reddish-black looked as if they had survived mysteriously from the fire of London. The house in front of my window, covered with an occasional wisp of creeper, was as blank and empty looking as any plague-ridden residence subsequently licked by flames and saliv’d with smoke. This is not the way that I had imagined New York.
It was so hot that I got palpitations when I ventured out into the streets—so I sat and considered the house opposite and occasionally bathed my sweating face.
The light was never very strong in Pest Street. There was always a reminiscence of smoke which made visibility troubled and hazy—still it was possible to study the house opposite carefully, even precisely; besides my eyes have always been excellent.
I spent several days watching for some sort of movement opposite but there was none and I finally took to undressing quite freely before my open window and doing breathing exercises optimistically in the thick Pest Street air. This must have blackened my lungs as dark as the houses. One afternoon I washed my hair and sat out on the diminuitive stone crescent which served as a balcony to dry it. I hung my head between my knees ¡and watched a blue-bottle suck the dry corpse of a spider between my feet. I looked up through my lank hair and saw something black in the sky, ominously quiet for an airplane. Parting my hair I was in time to see a large raven alight on the balcony of the house opposite. It sat on the balustrade and seemed to peer into the empty window, then poked its head under its wing apparently searching for lice. A few minutes later I was not unduly surprised to see the double windows open and and admit a woman onto the balcony—she carried a large dish full of bones which she emptied onto the floor. With a short appreciative squawk, the raven hopped down and picked about amongst its unpleasant repast.
The woman, who had hemp-long black hair, wiped out the dish, using her hair for this purpose.
Then she looked straight at me and smiled in a friendly fashion. I smiled back and waved a towel. This seemed to encourage her for she tossed her head coquettishly and gave me a very elegant salute after the fashion of a queen.
“Do you happen to have any bad meat over there that you don’t need?” she called.
“Any what?” I called back, wondering if my ears had deceived me.
“Any stinking meat? Decomposed flesh … meat?”
“Not at the moment,” I replied, wondering if she was trying to be funny.
“Won’t you have any towards the end of the week? If so, I would be very grateful if you would bring it over.”
Then she stepped back into the empty window and disappeared. The raven flew away. Continue reading ““White Rabbits” — Leonora Carrington”
by Leonora Carrington
WHEN I was a debutante I often went to the zoological garden. I went so often that I was better acquainted with animals than with the young girls of my age. It was to escape from the world that I found myself each day at the zoo. The beast I knew best was a young hyena. She knew me too. She was extremely intelligent; I taught her French and in return she taught me her language. We spent many pleasant hours in this way.
For the first of May my mother had arranged a ball in my honor. For entire nights I suffered: I had always detested balls, above all those given in my own honor.
On the morning of May first, 1934, very early, I went to visit the hyena. “What a mess of shit,” I told her. “I must go to my ball this evening.”
“You’re lucky,” she said. “I would go happily. I do not know how to dance, but after all, I could engage in conversation.”
“There will be many things to eat,” said I. “I have seen wagons loaded entirely with food coming up to the house.”
“And you complain!” replied the hyena with disgust. “As for me, I eat only once a day, and what rubbish they stick me with!”
I had a bold idea; I almost laughed. “You have only to go in my place.”
“We do not look enough alike, otherwise I would gladly go,” said the hyena, a little sad. “Listen,” said I, “in the evening light one does not see very well. If you were disguised a little, no one would notice in the crowd. Besides, we are almost the same size. You are my only friend; I implore you.”
She reflected upon this sentiment. I knew that she wanted to accept. “It is done,” she said suddenly.
It was very early; not many keepers were about. Quickly I opened the cage and in a moment we were in the street. I took a taxi; at the house, everyone was in bed. In my room, I brought out the gown I was supposed to wear that evening. It was a little long, and the hyena walked with difficulty in my high-heeled shoes. I found some gloves to disguise her hands which were too hairy to resemble mine. When the sunlight entered, she strolled around the room several times—walking more or less correctly. We were so very occupied that my mother, who came to tell me good morning, almost opened the door before the hyena could hide herself under my bed. “There is a bad odor in the room,” said my mother, opening the window. “Before this evening you must take a perfumed bath with my new salts.”
“Agreed,” said I. She did not stay long; I believe the odor was too strong for her. “Do not be late for breakfast,” she said, as she left the room.
The greatest difficulty was to find a disguise for the hyena’s face. For hours and hours we sought an answer: she rejected all of my proposals. At last she said, “I think I know a solution. You have a maid?”
“Yes,” I said, perplexed.
“Well, that’s it. You will ring for the maid and when she enters we will throw ourselves upon her and remove her face. I will wear her face this evening in place of my own.”
“That’s not practical,” I said to her.
“She will probably die when she has no more face; someone will surely find the corpse and we will go to prison.”
“I am hungry enough to eat her,” replied the hyena.
“And the bones?”
“Those too,” she said.
“Then it’s settled?”
“Only if you agree to kill her before removing her face. It would be too uncomfortable otherwise.”
“Good; it’s all right with me.” I rang for Marie, the maid, with a certain nervousness. I would not have done it if I did not detest dances so much. When Marie entered I turned to the wall so as not to see. I admit that it was done quickly. A brief cry and it was over. While the hyena ate, I looked out the window. A few minutes later, she said: “I cannot eat anymore; the two feet are left, but if you have a little bag I will eat them later in the day.”
“You will find in the wardrobe a bag embroidered with fleurs de lys. Remove the handkerchiefs inside it and take it.” She did as I indicated.
At last she said: “Turn around now and look, because I am beautiful!” Before the mirror, the hyena admired herself in Marie’s face. She had eaten very carefully all around the face so that what was left was just what was needed. “Surely, it’s properly done,” said I.
Toward evening, when the hyena was all dressed, she declared: “I am in a very good mood. I have the impression that I will be a great success this evening.” When the music below had been heard for some time, I said to her: “Go now, and remember not to place yourself at my mother’s side: she will surely know that it is not I. Otherwise I know no one. Good luck.” I embraced her as we parted but she smelled very strong.
Night had fallen. Exhausted by the emotions of the day, I took a book and sat down by the open window. I remember that I was reading Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. It was perhaps an hour later that the first sign of misfortune announced itself. A bat entered through the window, emitting little cries. I am terribly afraid of bats, I hid behind a chair, my teeth chattering. Scarcely was I on my knees when the beating of the wings was drowned out by a great commotion at my door. My mother entered, pale with rage. “We were coming to seat ourselves at the table,” she said, “when the thing who was in your place rose and cried: ‘I smell a little strong, eh? Well, as for me, I do not eat cake.’ With these words she removed her face and ate it. A great leap and she disappeared out the window.”