5 Essential Questions on Being: after reading the stories of Leonora Carrington

Sarah Richards Graba

Growing up on a steady diet of Poe, Hawthorne, du Maurier, Shirley Jackson, and others, I was a fan at a young age of horror, the grotesque, and the gothic. When I picked up The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington (Dorothy, a publishing project, 2017), all I knew was that she was a Surrealist writer and painter, and I was looking forward to seeing what tales she would spin as “a master of the macabre” (as the back of the book promised).

What ended up happening as I read was that a series of questions emerged from the stories, questions that haunted me as I continue to think about them today, long after reading them. The stories themselves are mostly rather short, taking only a few minutes to consume; though they are strange, they are easy to read. This is nice as I could read one for a little snack while waiting in the doctor’s office or for my car’s emission test to finish. The images from the stories were intriguing, but they didn’t seem to dwell in my consciousness. But the questions that came from these stories, I chewed on these long after. What follows here is a sample of my findings:

What is a true woman?
Story: “The Debutante”

This story, which opens the collection, details a deal made between a girl who is about to come of age and her hyena friend. Not wanting to attend her debutante ball, the hyena goes in her place, after dressing in the girl’s clothes and creating a mask out of the face of the girl’s maid (the hyena eats the rest of the maid, except for her feet, which she saves for later). The hyena goes to the ball in the girl’s place. The girl spends the evening reading in her room, happy as can be, when the hyena finally announces at dinner that she doesn’t eat cake, eats her face-mask, and jumps out the window.

There are some truly funny moments in this story, especially some cracks made about how badly the hyena smells, but afterward what I found most amusing was that both of the main characters eventually rejected the societal ritual of “becoming a woman.” The girl declares that she hates balls and that she just wants to read, so much so that she is willing to lure her maid to her room in order to be eaten. The hyena dreams of the ball, but once there, realizes that she doesn’t like all that she has to do in order to keep up the charade. Both reject the idea, implicitly, of becoming a woman in the eyes of society, entailing that she can be courted and married, usually for political or financial reasons.

The social commentary is clear. However, I wondered who the true woman was in this story. It seems that they both, in a way, “become women” on the night of the ball. I want to say the hyena is the truer woman though, because she so severely disrupted the social order by not eating cake, by eating her own face instead, by jumping through the window in one bound to escape, and—what seems most offensive to the girl’s mother—by smelling strongly! This animal in a girl’s dress, she eventually embraces her wild, feral nature, completely disillusioned with the failed promises of the glamour of aristocracy. She does so in the most disruptive way possible, instead of manipulating and slinking away as the girl does. For the hyena, there is no doubt what kind of woman she is.

Who is the most real?
Story: “The Oval Lady”

The title of this story refers to a character who the narrator observes first from outside the house, and, going into the house, the narrator meets the Oval Lady, named Lucretia, and they have a few adventures with her various magical creatures. Most prominent for me among these was her wooden rocking horse, Tartar, who never speaks but whose eyes glint as he rocks by himself. “He’ll travel a very long way like that,” Lucretia tells the narrator. She then breaks a window and allows the snow to come into the room, where she dances in it and turns into a dazzling white horse. Her father punishes her severely because he forbade her to “play at horses,” and he burns Tartar. The narrator, listening from the floor below, hears “the most frightful neighing sounded from above, as if an animal were suffering extreme torture.”

Lucretia is very much the petulant child in this story, but as a reader I also got the sense that she was profoundly unhappy in her home. Her make-believe (which crosses into the real) is her only true reprieve from this life of unhappiness. However, she’s clearly privileged, so I felt some frustration with her character; the narrator seems to like her well enough, but I did not find her that charming. However, I was immediately smitten with Tartar, and devastated at his demise due to Lucretia’s recklessness and immaturity. Lucretia’s crying, which she does at a few times in the story, drew little sympathy from me; but I was struck by how gutted I was by the last line of the story, quoted above, describing Tartar’s last suffering.

Though it is Lucretia who turns into a real horse while she “plays at horses,” and Tartar remains very much a rocking horse, it is Tartar who is rendered the most real, the most true, the most genuine, and the most pure. That is why his pain is actually felt by the reader.

Are we ever really heard?
Story: “A Man in Love”

This very short story is framed by a narrator who gets caught stealing a melon. The melon-seller proposes that instead of calling the police, he will get to tell the narrator his story and show them something. In the back of his shop, there is a garden of sorts built around a woman who is dead, but still warm. He begins to tell the narrator the story of this woman, about how he fell in love with her, and their very strange wedding night.

The story, however, gets cut off, because the man starts crying hard enough that the narrator is able to make their escape with the stolen melon.

In some ways I wondered if Leonora just got bored with this story and that explains the abrupt ending, which is, of course, likely. However, I also was interested in the frame of this story, and why it even matters that there be a narrator to tell the story to. Like Frankenstein, which is framed in an epistolary structure through a captain’s letters to his sister, the frame can reveal themes of the story. In this particular tale, the man doesn’t listen to his new bride, who is weeping from exhaustion, and he doesn’t listen to the old crone, who asks him to leave her alone and let her sleep. In turn, the narrator doesn’t listen to him or his story in any real way, and leaves at the first opportunity. I wonder if this is a commentary on just not listening to men at all (ha!), but even when we might have a good story to be told, can it ever be really heard? Or are people just waiting for their first opportunity to be done with it? In that way, perhaps Leonora gives her readers an out with this story, acknowledging that perhaps they don’t want to hear her words.

When does an artist become the art?
Story: “Pigeon, Fly!”

In many ways, I wondered if this story was an alternate version, a prequel, or perhaps in the same universe as “A Man in Love”, since the object of a man’s affection in both stories is a beautiful woman with long black hair, both of whom are dead, and both of whom are named Agathe. The stories are attributed to the same time period, so it’s unclear which story was written first.

The narrator here is a painter who is called to an aristocrat, who, the painter find out, wants her to paint a portrait of his dead wife. She paints the woman in the forest, at first noting that the light from sunset seems to be lasting for an unusually long time, and finally realizing that the light is in fact coming from the dead woman’s body. The painter, stepping back to look at her work, realizes that the face she has painted is her own face, which very closely resembles the face of her subject. “Art is a magic which makes the hours melt away and even days dissolve into seconds, isn’t that so, dear lady?” the aristocrat asks the painter after she has been painting for a week. He shows her to a room, a studio, which was the deceased Agathe’s, and where she died. The painter finds Agathe’s diary, which is addressed to “Eleanor” (and it is unclear whether Eleanor is the painter or if she is a separate person just reading the diary anyway). The diary describes Agathe’s strange marriage to her husband, and eventually she describes how she can’t see her own face in the mirror. When the painter stops reading, she looks at the portrait, which is now empty, and she says, “I didn’t dare look for my face in the mirror. I knew what I would see.”

The painter seems to have merged with Agathe in some way. It’s unclear if there’s some sort of haunting or curse that is responsible for this, or whether the painter was Agathe all along, stuck in some kind of nightmarish limbo. How thin is the line between an artist and her subject? In painting Agathe, did the painter actually become her? Or, did the painting possess the painter?

As an artist myself, I find these questions disquieting but magnetic. Since art can devour so much of an artist’s life, sometimes with a hunger all its own, I am drawn to these boundaries of how an artist can work, how much she can commit to her own art, how much she is ultimately willing to sacrifice. Am I willing to sacrifice my time? My body? My very being? There can be a romanticizing of this. Leonora, on the other hand, reveals the dark danger of becoming one’s art.

Does the dark desire us too?
Story: “White Rabbits”

In this brief tale of carnivorous rabbits, rotting meat, and a strange residence in New York, the narrator is overcome with curiosity after spotting her neighbor on her balcony, feeding a raven some bones. The neighbor, a woman, asks flirtatiously if the narrator has any rotten meat, and if so, to bring it by. The narrator buys a lump of meat, allows it to rot for several days, and goes to the house, where they find that the meat is to feed hundreds of white rabbits. The woman’s name is Ethel, and she introduces the narrator to her husband Lazarus, who wears a bandage over his eyes. Ethel implores the narrator to stay and “become like us,” with silver sparkling skin and living amongst decaying meat that the rabbits feast on—to become sick with leprosy, which Ethel calls “the holy disease of the Bible.” Running out of the house, the narrator turns back to watch Ethel waving goodbye, and as she does so, her fingers fall off.

Of course, any work of art that includes the name Lazarus immediately harkens to the Bible, to the story of a man named Lazarus who was risen from the dead by Jesus, four days after his death. Ethel is a Biblical Hebrew name, though there is no significant person named Ethel in the Bible. Both rabbits and ravens are considered “unclean” under Biblical Hebrew law (and Lazarus and Ethel do eat rabbit stew every Saturday, she explains). And then there’s Ethel’s mention of leprosy and its role in the Bible itself. I found out that Leonora herself was expelled from two convent schools in her youth for bad behavior. This is unsurprising considering how much she disliked her early life in English aristocracy, being incredibly rebellious and disobedient as a child, and that Surrealism gave her the freedom she yearned for.

As evidenced in both her paintings and her writing, Leonora desired the darkness, the wildness, the unruly inner world that Surrealism offered her. In this story, she twists what the Bible—and, larger, society in general—names as dark, as unclean, as unnatural, and makes the narrator not only accepting of them (at first), but intensely curious about them. The narrator does not feel shame or unease with buying the meat for the express purpose of rotting it and taking it to the woman’s house—the desire for the dark is too compelling, too real, to question their actions. In fact, the narrator becomes more and more intrigued as more of the woman’s life is revealed; there is some disgust, but there is no fear. That is, until Ethel’s invitation to “become” one of them. Here the narrator flees quickly, alarmed and frightened. As soon as the dark desires the narrator back, there is immediate retreat. In many ways, I connect this story in same “warning” tone as “Pigeon, Fly!”

In reading these stories, I connected with Leonora’s desire for the dark. And I wonder if there were places even she was unwilling to go, where she had to retreat in order to stay sane, and in order to continuing committing to her art. There are many more stories and many more questions, but I will pause here to allow, hopefully, your own investigation into these works.

I later found out that Leonora often paints white horses and hyenas as animal surrogates for herself in her paintings, as is seen in her work Self-Portrait, the cover image of this book. This image also contains a rocking horse floating behind Leonora’s head, her hair wild and floating out around her.

Leonora did suffer a psychotic breakdown after her relationship with painter Max Ernst ended (her first love). She had repeated delusions and anxiety attacks, and was hospitalized in Madrid. She did recover and live a long life, always creating and putting out a significant number of paintings and writings. She died in 2011 at the age of 94.

I imagine her now perhaps in a version of the afterlife: She is a white horse, a hyena-woman, accompanied by her beloved rocking horse, painting for weeks without ceasing. And she is wild, feral, free—without the darkness overtaking her, but just touching it, just enough.