Leonora Carrington 1917-?


Author of, among other things, two plays, The Flannel Night-Shirt and Penelope, as well as of an account of her experiences during a period of separation from the artist Max Ernst when she was pronounced incurably insane, Leonora Carrington entered the surrealist movement in 1937. An artist whose painting recurrently evokes magic encounters, she brings to the practice of storytelling a sense of occasion that endows her tales with quite a special atmosphere. Her stories are not characterized by a mood of wonder of excitements. Rather, these celebrations of the marvelous are marked by a singular matter of factness; as they are, also, by an element so mysterious to the French, that in defeat, they refer to it helplessly as l'humour anglais.

The feeling communicated in the stories Ms. Carrington tells owes much to her distinctive point of view. This is not at all the viewpoint of militant feminism. It is, however, so characteristically that of a woman as to make Leonora Carrington's tales noteworthy examples of how narrative may be approached and handled under surrealist influence. In the most positive, creative, and revealing sense, her imagination is feminine. It enriches her stories with numerous details that contribute to undermining the barrier separating normality from the universe where her characters are in their natural element.

At the same time, the appeal of her early tales - especially those collected under the title La Dame ovale (The Oval Lady, 1939), from which comes the story below: The Debutante - results in part from the fact that when Ms. Carrington wrote in French, during the late thirties, she still had not given up thinking in English. These texts are not difficult to put back into her mother tongue, of course. Yet it is important for a full appreciation of her writing to realize that, in English, they lose some of the flavor they have in French. Reading them in the original, one has the impression that they have been pieced together, with little regard for tense sequence, from colloquialisms and cliches, interspersed with linguistic oddities that betray transliteration. So, if Leonora Carrington's aspirations were merely literary, the results she has obtained would appear less than satisfactory. But, in the context of surrealism, her stories gain, not lose, from the method by which they have been quite literally put together, in a way that makes the collages of Max Ernst seem especially appropriate illustrative material in La Dame ovale.

It is not just a matter of style, as, for example, Joseph Conrad's English owes something to his prior knowledge of French. On the contrary, what counts in Ms. Carrington's case is a twofold effect. First, the availability of familiar hackneyed turns of phrase, which leads her to advance her narrative most readily by means of dialogue, has evidently played a role in shaping her tale somewhat. The things her characters say and do, even the situations in which they find themselves - all this is influenced to some degree, if not exactly dictated, by the limitations imposed upon her stories by her incomplete acquaintance with the French language. Obviously, this is the very opposite of automatic writing. Nevertheless, the necessary practice of a technique that channels imaginative activity under the more or less confining influence of preoccupations of a predominately linguistic order serves, in an important way, to help liberate Leonora Carrington from concerns of a rational nature and to foster reliance upon chance in the development of narrative sequence. Second, the conditions under which these stories come into being impress upon them a tone of simplicity, of naivete, even, that - in the total absence of signs of surprise on the narrator's part - goes a long way toward authenticating the marvelous, as Ms. Carrington affords us a glimpse of its operation.

"The task of the right eye," Leonora Carrington tells us, "is to peer into the telescope, while the left eye peers into the microscope."

for an interview with Leonora Carrington, please click here.

selected works in translation

selected stories in The Custom House of Desire translated by J.H. Matthews (University of California Press, 1975)

Down Below (Black Swan Press, 1983)

The Hearing Trumpet (Exact Change, 1996; Virago Press, 1991)

The House of Fear translated by Katherine Talbot (Virago Press, 1989)


the debutante

When I was a debutante I often used to go to the Zoological Gardens. I'd go there so often I knew the animals better than the young ladies of my own age. It was in fact to get away from people that I found myself everyday at the Zoo. The animal I knew the best was a young hyena. She knew me, too; she was very intelligent; I taught her French and in return she taught me her language. We spent many a pleasant hour this way.

On the first day of May, my mother was arranging a ball in my honor; for nights on end I suffered; I've always hated balls, especially those given in my honor.

On the morning of the First of May 1934, very early, I paid the hyena a visit. "It's a dammed nuisance," I told her, "I have to go to my ball this evening."

"You're lucky," she said, "I'd be glad to go. I don't know how to dance, but I know how to make conversation, anyway."

"There'll be lots of things to eat," I said. "I've seen trucks full of food coming up to the house."

"And you complain," relied the hyena, in disgust. "I eat once a day, and you should see the stuff they give me!"

I had a daring idea, I almost laughed: "Why don't you go in my place?"

"We don't look enough alike, otherwise I'd go all right," said the hyena, a bit sad.

"Listen," said I, "under the evening lights it isn't too easy to see; if you're dressed up a bit, among the crowd they won't notice. Then again, we're about the same height. You are my only friend, I beg of you." She thought things over, I knew she wanted to accept.

"Consider it done," she said suddenly.

It was very early in the day, there were not many keepers about. Quickly I opened the cage and in a few moments we were in the street. I took a taxi, and at home everyone was in bed. In my room I took out the dress I was to wear that evening. It was a little long and the hyena had trouble walking on the high heels of my shoes. I found some gloves to disguise her hands, too hair to resemble mine. When the sun reached my room she walked several times up and down, more or less upright. We were so busy that my mother, who was coming to say good morning to me, almost opened the door before the hyena had hidden under my bed. "There's a nasty smell in your room," said my mother, opening a window. "Before tonight you'll take a bath scented with my new salts." - "All right," I said. She didn't stay long. I think the smell was too strong for her.

"Don't be late for breakfast," said my mother, leaving my room.

The biggest problem was finding a disguise for her face. Hours and hours we tried; she turned down all of my suggestions. At last she said: "I think I know a solution. Do you have a maid?"

"Yes," I said, perplexed.

"Well, there you are. You'll ring for the maid and when she comes in we'll pounce on her and we'll tear her face off. I'll wear her face this evening in place of my own."

"That's not sensible," I said. "She'll probably be dead when she has no face left; someone will surely find the body and we'll go to prison."

"I'm hungry enough to eat her," replied the hyena.

"And what about the bones?"

"Them, too," she said. "Well, do you agree?"

"Only if you promise to kill her before tearing her face off; it'll hurt too much otherwise."

"Right, it's all the same to me."

I was ringing for Mary the maid, somewhat nervous. I wouldn't have done so if I didn't hate balls so. When Mary came in I turned to the wall so as not to see. I admit it was over quick. A short cry and that was the end. While the hyena was eating, I looked out of the window. A few minutes later she said: "I can't eat any more; both of the feet are still left, but if you have a bag I'll eat them later in the day."

"You'll find in the closet a bag embroidered with the fleur de lys. Empty out the handkerchiefs in there and take that one." She was doing as I had told her. The she said: "Turn around now and look how beautiful I am!"

In front of the mirror the hyena was admiring herself in Mary's face. She had eaten carefully all around the face so that just what she needed was left. "Yes indeed, you've made a good job of it," I said. Towards evening, when the hyena was all dressed, she announced: "I feel in fine form. I've the impression I'll be a big success tonight."

When we had heard the music downstairs for some time, I said to her: "Go on, now, and remember not to stand next to my mother: she'd know it wasn't me, for sure. Apart from her, I know nobody. Good luck." I kissed her as she left but she did have a strong smell. Night had come. Tired out by the emotions of the day, I took a book and, near the open window, I gave myself over to rest. I remember I was reading Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift. It was perhaps an hour after that the first sign of something untoward came. A bat entered by the window, uttering little cries. I'm terribly afraid of bats. I hid behind a chair, my teeth chattering. I was hardly on my knees when the sound of beating wings was drowned out by a loud noise at my door. My mother came in, pale with fury. "We had just sat down to eat," she said, "when that thing in your place gets up and cries, 'I smell a bit strong, eh? Well I don't eat cake.' Then she tore off her face and ate it. With one bound she disappeared through the window."

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