Friday, May 25, 2012

What the F!#& Should I Read Friday: The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington

What The F#!& Should I Read Friday: Books to Make Your Weekend Weird & Wonderful
The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington

Welcome back to What The F!#& Should I Read Friday! I totally missed last week because I was on a six-hour round trip to take my grandmother to the airport, and no I don't write my posts in advance you guys geez that would indicate an organized mind. I have not got an organized mind you guys. Don't get me wrong, there's lots of stuff floating around in here, and to the casual observer it might even look like it was all ordered according to some arcane and mystic system (right? oh god, I hope so), but really, don't ask me to plan ahead. I go all to pieces.

This week's book, anyway. It's really fantabulous in so many ways. This book is not hip, I don't think, so you won't have to shoot me for saying that you've probably never heard of it. The honest truth is that very, very few of the books I really love were written by women. You can go ahead and shoot me now; I'm a blasphemer; it's fine, you can take my feminist card away, I wasn't using it anyway; I can't lie about this. Of the books that really talk to me deep down in my bones, almost every one was written by a dude. But not this one. This one is special for many reasons, that being only one of them. It is also special because it was written by an extremely amazing painter. Please, let me tell you about her. Here are your five questions...
1. Who the f!#& wrote this book?
2. What the f!#& is it about?
3. Where the f!#& should I read this book?
4. When the f!#& is it set? 
5. Why the f!#& should I read it?

As usual, I'm glad you asked!
1. Who the f!#& wrote this book?
Leonora Carrington with Max Ernst. Via Cryptomundo.
Leonora Carrington is the author of The Hearing Trumpet. She was so cool, you guys. What's crazy is that totally by accident, today is the one-year anniversary of her death. No I did not do that on purpose. She is just totally magical and if you read the book you'll realize that it's perfectly understandable that some sort of weird coincidence like that would happen to me while writing about her. Really, I just went and looked at Wikipedia and bam, May 25th, 2011. Rest in peace, madam. We're up here celebrating you.

And really, kids, she is something to celebrate. So basically she was born into this wealthy British family and was a fierce rebellious gal who got interested in Surrealism early. Supposedly she saw Max Ernst's paintings at an exhibition when she was 19 and totally had the hots for him (I'm paraphrasing, okay) just from looking at his paintings, and then she met him the next year at a party in London and that, as they say, was that. As in Max Ernst went back to Paris with her and promptly left his wife. When the Nazis invaded France, Ernst was arrested by the Gestapo and had to flee (helped by another awesome woman, Peggy Guggenheim - dude, I went to her house-turned-museum in Venice, and it was amazing) and our lovely heroine Leonora was (understandably enough) really, really upset about this. Like, so upset that she fled to Spain, had a breakdown, and got institutionalized by her parents, which resulted in her getting shock therapy and having to take a lot of nasty drugs. When she got out of that mess and eventually reconnected with Max, apparently they'd both gone through so much awful stuff that that, again, was that, except this time in the yucky this-isn't-going-to-work kind of way. Max married - surprise! - Peggy Guggenheim instead.

Here is the painting I promised you yesterday! It is called
Boceto Mundo Magico de los Mayas (1965) and I got it
from this really fabulous online gallery of her art.
But through all of this, she's busy becoming a painter and a writer. She heads off to Mexico with the Mexican ambassador Renato Leduc, a friend of Picasso's, and does the whole marriage-of-convenience thing to get the passage. In Mexico she meets lots of famous painters, and maybe most importantly (if you ask me, anyway) the painter Remedios Varo. I talk about Varo a lot because she is amaze-balls. Did I mention that Leonora Carrington is a Surrealist painter? And that there were very, very few female Surrealist painters? Surrealism as a movement was all about freedom from domination and yay feminism and stuff, but in actuality there was a whole bunch of sexism floating around, mostly in the form of hyper-idealizing women instead of treating them like real people, and also Andre Breton was kind of a dickwad generally. (No I am not quoting my sources on this. IT IS KNOWN. Actually, my dad told me about most of it. Like I said, I'm paraphrasing.)

This is a cadavre exquis (that means "exquisite
corpse," kids) that Leonora & her son Pablo did
together. I talk about Pablo below. This is very
important because I can't find any of his drawings
for the book on the interwebs, and now you can
see his groovy style. Via Identical Eye.
Look, I don't think the biography of the author is all that important in a lot of cases, and it doesn't actually matter much when you read the book, except maybe the part about bearing in mind that she was a Surrealist painter, which helps. (Also, one of the characters is totally based on Remedios Varo, and that's awesome. You can see what great friends they were.) It's just that she was this amazing woman who happened to be both a fantastic and magical painter and a really talented and magical writer. I'd characterize her paintings as one part Bosch, one part Chagall, and one part girl dreaming about horses. (Like really, what the hell is not to love about that?) And the book? Well...

2. What the f!#& is it about?
The Hearing Trumpet is a book about 92-year-old Marian Leatherby, whose family puts her in a Home for nutty old ladies that turns out to be much more than it seems. It's written from the point of view of a doddering, cheerful, ancient old hag (that's Marian) and her outlook on life is so completely charming as to make me wish that more people would write from the perspective of the very ancient. It's not her bloody reminiscences; she goes and has an epic occult adventure. It's funny and sweet and totally bizarre. It is not, however, a normally-plotted novel. Lady is into surrealism, okay; don't expect logic. It's not incoherent or "experimental" or any of those obnoxious things; it's just that the structure of the book requires a suspension of normal novelish expectations. It's sort of in thirds: in the first third you meet the characters, who are the best. I don't mean the best in the book; I mean they are the best characters, period. She's an intrepid old bat having adventures and she is hilarious and completely herself, by which I mean she is utterly alive and completely believable and not just some sort of surrogate for Leonora Carrington. She's a mad deaf thing and perfectly well aware that everyone around her thinks she's a crumbling wreck, but she's a lovely indignant person inside while still being totally old.

Look at this and tell me it lives up to
The Giantess. Really? REALLY? I mean
Emilie Seron might be cool and all, but
why would you use her when you have
a review on Bad Reputation that is, well,
actually pretty cool & worth reading.
In the second third there's a story-within-the-story, and this is where it becomes very important that you get the edition with the cover above and not the Penguin Modern Classics edition. This is important for two reasons: one, the front cover of the Exact Change edition, above, is one of Leonora's own paintings (The Giantess, 1947); two; it is full of really fantastical illustrations by her son, Pablo Weisz Carrington, which are one part Ralph Steadman and one part Chagall. (Yes, I know I used Chagall already. That's how it looks to me. Maybe he inherited it.) They look like his mother feels, somehow. And they make the odd middle part of the story totally come alive - for me, anyway.  The Penguin edition has no pictures at all you guys. It feels much more like a surreal fairytale when it has pictures.

In the third part...well, I won't ruin it, but let's just say it's truly fantastical and bizarre and you won't see it coming, and there's none of that "it was all a dream" nonsense, either. (For some reason people compare this book to Alice. Listen, guys, for once and for all: just because it's f!#&ing weird and magical DOES NOT MEAN IT'S LIKE ALICE IN F!#&ING WONDERLAND OKAY. That is not, in fact, the only weird and magical book ever written. Whoa, I know, radical thought, right?) And if you don't have the illustrated version you won't know how sad you are, because you won't know what you're missing, but trust me, you are sad. Look, what I'm saying is that this book is a piece of brilliantly magical writing for grownups, and it also has brilliantly magical pictures for grownups. Sarah Jackson over on Bad Reputation sums it ups nicely:

Trying to describe the plot doesn’t really do it justice, just go and read it. If you mixed a bit of Angela Carter, Spike Milligan, Agatha Christie and Roald Dahl together you might get something close. It’s enchanting and funny, and makes for a refreshing encounter with Surrealism sans machismo.

Look, she says things like "“Wouldn't it be wonderful if I won a helicopter in a crossword puzzle competition? There is not much hope though I am afraid, as they never give such practical prizes." Trust me, you want to know Marian Leatherby. She is a formidable lady.

3. Where the f!#& should I read this book?
Everywhere. Publicly. Preferably aloud when you get to the best bits. Although I have to say it's especially enjoyable in a green place in the sun, in my experience.

4. When the f!#& is it set?
Remedios Varo, Lady Godiva
(1959) Via Raincoaster.
Well, that's debatable, really. Especially given the ending.

5. Why the f!#& should I read it?
(Note: I picked the Lady Godiva painting here because I love it and also because it sums up a lot of how I feel about the book: it makes sense if you let it feel like it makes sense and don't ask too many silly questions.)

Ah. Well. Here's where you say I hate surrealism, it's stupid and weird and why are the clocks always f!#&ing melting that is so dumb and I don't want to read about it at all.

And this is where I say don't be an idiot, there aren't any clocks in the book, way to stereotype, geez. And the reason you should read the book is because it is about a very, very old woman who still has her sense of wonder and delight left. Look, really, people will say it's about a hundred things, because it's weird and magical and has peculiar pictures and was written by a painter who was institutionalized and so on. And probably most of the things they say are right, but they're missing the point. The point of the book is being an old crone and still open to the experience of marvels and mystery. (Not to mention she still bloody well has a sense of humor.) That, my friends, is what I call a f!#&ing inspiration.


  1. You know, I've never been a huge supporter of all the Alice stuff, even if I do have a nod to Carroll in my book. He was incredibly imaginative, but he couldn't tell a story. With both Alice and Looking Glass, they just end. It's like he got tired and just stopped. And, I'm sure, that's sort of what happened. But with a greater slant toward the "I don't know what I'm doing here anymore, so I'm going to be finished now."

    I like melting clocks...

    1. I love the stories, myself, although i just got an anthology of his and really, NOTHING came up to Alice standards. Some of it was really awful. I'm not sure the "it was all a dream" ending was common when it was written, or at the very least QUITE so hackneyed...anyone care to tell me about the historical usage thereof??

  2. I have a complete collection of his works, but I haven't had time to get past the Alice stuff, yet.
    I do love the stories. I especially love Looking Glass. I just hate how he just stops.
    I'm not sure if he was the first to do the dream thing or not, but it wouldn't surprise me.

  3. I'll add to my list, but my list is freakin' long. Right now I'm almost finished with the book I'm going to send you. I want to read her other book and interview her for my blog. I like her.

    1. I'm so excited! I love getting books in the mail!

  4. Hey Lady! Guess what I did? I I nominated you for your second Kretiv Blogger award! Check out the details here:

    I so don't expect you to nominate 7 more folks, but your blog is swell and it gave me a chance to let other folks know what you have going on here is great!

    1. Thanks so much, Naomi. I certainly don't mind being considered doubly creative (or even Kreativ, now that I know that it's just the Norwegian word for it and not some Kwik-E-Mart style misspelling...)

      I'm looking for some folks to email to you in response to your Q about other interesting people for guest posts - I'll get back to you soon!


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