The Debutante and Other Stories
Generally, a literary centenary is cause for some light appreciation – or reassessment – of a writer already deemed to be worth remembering. In the case of Leonora Carrington, the stakes are higher. Known primarily as a Surrealist visual artist – and even then, by few – Carrington’s writings have been sorely neglected, and concomitantly hard to find. With the publication of a slew of books by and about Carrington, 2017 offers an opportunity to deeply consider, revalue and enjoy this writer’s singular literary offering. This collection, The Debutante and Other Stories, with an introduction by novelist Sheila Heti and a decent, thorough afterword by mythographer Marina Warner, is a good place to start for a breakneck initiation into Carrington’s disturbing, alluring vision.
One hundred years ago, then, Leonora Carrington was born in England to a newly moneyed textile manufacturer and his Irish wife. Following a privileged childhood punctuated by rebellion – she was expelled from several fancy schools – Carrington studied art, eloped to France with Max Ernst, ran away from a Spanish psychiatric hospital, and finally emigrated to New York and Mexico, all the while creating fantastical and richly symbolic artworks resonant with occult, chimerical imagery. Her writings tease out these scenes of exile and dislocation; the familial and romantic power struggles, the uncanny madness of everyday life. But the drama of Carrington’s life pales in comparison to the fierce, frankly bizarre, terrain of her literary imagination.
This book opens with the story of a high-society debutante who asks a hyena to impersonate her at a social engagement; while the hyena obliges, wearing a dead maid’s face as a disguise, the deception is uncovered due to the animal’s stench. Just so, the collection introduces Carrington’s recurrent tropes: the stories that follow show a similar fascination with carnivalesque grotesquerie, with radical, interspecies post-humanism, and with the cruelty lurking beneath civilised society. Throughout these stories, bodies and the human minds they house have a curious, sometimes incidental relationship: detached heads bob along “suspended” over their owners, women metamorphosise, with frequency, into horses, or into winged bloodsuckers. Within Carrington’s universe, living beings are fecund creatures, who reproduce and multiply in new and inventive ways, rarely limited by artificial constraints like species or death; burned corpses rise as snake-gods, boar cubs and foals spring from human bodies.
The recurrence of Carrington’s preoccupations means the more esoteric elements sometimes come off as repetitive. But neither are these tales merely mystical. Early story “The House of Fear” ends with a madly contrapuntal crescendo, in which a pack of horses “simultaneously beat time” to three different songs, one with the right foreleg, one with the left, and one with the two back forelegs. As a youth, Carrington herself developed a similarly unusual ability to write backward with her left hand, while writing forward with her right. Her stories follow this odd synchronicity, weaving discordant threads that do many opposing things at once. So, mythological taboos coexist with very British comedies of manners; with their dry, brittle tones, these tales owe much to the Victorian nonsense rhyme tradition. And wild hunter-gatherer ecologies rub up against modern absurdities and bureaucratic pomp.
A radical visionary, Carrington concerns herself with life’s divine, deep rituals: what it is to worship, to love, to kill, to eat. But her sacred is also comic. The sheer juvenility of her imagination delights, and she is always, always, on the side of the child. “The Three Hunters”, a tale of clan and kinship, and of the hallowed hunt, turns on a scatological punchline: a family is cursed because their patriarch grandfather once farted in church, at his First Holy Communion. “He was only a lad,” his descendants exclaim sorrowfully. “He didn’t realize the solemnity of the occasion.”
Words: Gillian Moore