Tuesday, 22 June 2010

The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington

I basically read whatever Ali Smith tells me to, so this is how I came to The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington.

I was already aware of Carrington's work as a surrealist painter and knew a bit about her life story. Born into English wealth in 1917, she was a rebellious scholar who mirror-wrote with both hands, got expelled by the nuns who taught her and spent her debut at court reading an Aldous Huxley novel in the corner.

After deciding to study art, she met the surrealist painter, Max Ernst at the age of 19 and eloped with him to Paris.  Carrington was accepted into the surrealist world with open arms and, although very young and inexperienced, her work as a writer and artist was greatly respected by her older peers.

A period in a Madrid mental asylum was cut short when her nanny came to rescue her in a submarine (awesome) and she lived and worked for a long time in Mexico before relocating to New York. She now lives in Mexico again and is 93.

Le Bon Roi Dagobert 1948

The Memory Tower 1995

The Giantess 1947

(All three images taken from Artnet)

The Hearing Trumpet's plot has been described as "a 92-year-old English feminist held captive in a medieval Spanish castle turned into a nursing home." (in Susan Aberth's wonderful Leonora Carrington:Surrealism, Alchemy and Art) and the protagonist is indeed 92, toothless, deaf and be-whiskered Marion Leatherby who spends her time combing her cats, spinning their fur into wool and trying to "make herself useful" without getting under the feet of her young and impatient relations with whom she lives.

The story begins when Marion's best friend Carmella gives her a hearing trumpet which Marion uses later that night to eavesdrop on the after dinner conversation of her family. She discovers that a plan to send her to a retirement home named the Well of Light Brotherhood is afoot.

Marion listens to the plans of her family.

If the heroine of this tale was young and sprightly, then she would escape this fate which terrifies her, but Marion is old and frail and so does indeed go to live at the institution where old ladies live in houses shaped like toadstools, chalets, train carriages and an Egyptian mummy. Dr Gambit is in charge and the ladies eat their dinner under the watchful eye of an Abbess depicted in paint.

This all sounds completely weird, of course and the accompanying illustrations by Carrington are unnerving but this book is not just a freaky-deaky tale of the occult, but a very funny, exhilarating and sensitive story of mystery, friendship and the helplessness that comes when you are old enough to be thought of as irrelevant.

My favourite scene is when Marion confusedly sifts through the memories of a man she once knew, "The man with white flannels" that arrive unbidden as she sits in the garden:

 Are you going somewhere Darling?
Yes, going to the woods.

Then why do you say you will remember them all your life? 

Because you are part of their memory and you are going to disappear, the anemones are going to blossom eternally, we are not.

Darling stop being philosophical it doesn't suit you, it makes your nose red.

Since I discovered that I am really beautiful I don't care about having a red nose it is such a beautiful shape.

You are hatefully vain.

No Darling, not really because I have a frightful foreboding that it will disappear before I know what to do with it. I am so horribly afraid I don't have time to enjoy being vain...

...You may not believe in magic but something very strange is happening at this very moment. Your head has dissolved into thin air and I can see the rhododendrons through your stomach. It's not that you are dead or anything dramatic like that, it is simply that you are fading away and I can't even remember your name. I remember your white flannels better than I can remember you. I remember all the things I felt about the white flannels but whoever made them walk about has totally disappeared."

The cover illustration is just perfect and is by my new favourite artist, a Belgian illustrator Emilie Seron. You can see more of her work here and I absolutely love this image of hers called L'Attente:


  1. I hadn't heard of this classic before, but one does not indeed say no to recommendations by Ali Smith. Adding it to my wishlist.

  2. Nymeth, I don't think that you'll regret it, this book has so much to offer.