Long a fan of Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington, I was initially hesitant when the New York Review of Books reissued her 1974 novel, The Hearing Trumpet. I didn’t know what to expect when this extraordinary painter picked up a pen.
To my delight and surprise, Carrington shows the same artistry and whimsy in her writing that she does in her painting. She also reveals herself to be an astute feminist and aficionado of the Goddess, well-versed in arcane lore, with which she accents her fantastical world. The Hearing Trumpet is full of British humor and eccentricity, set in a finely spun, other-worldly landscape.
Her heroine Marian Leatherby is a 92-year-old, who lacks teeth, is hard of hearing, and sports a beard–a whimsical, endearing character who loves cats. She has been given a hearing trumpet by her great friend Carmella, and thereby learns that her son and his wife plan to send her away to an old folks’ home run by a Dr. Gambit and the Well of Light Brotherhood.
This establishment features residences in the shape of toadstools, Swiss chalets, lighthouses, and a boot, but the place has a more sinister underbelly. The Gambits are financially exploiting their charges, while subjecting them to a hypocritical regimen for their betterment, called the Work. As Dr. Gambit tells Marian:
“Reports in your particular case show the following list of interior impurities: Greed, Insincerity, Laziness, and Vanity. At the top of the list Greed, signifying a dominating passion. You cannot overcome so many psychic deformities in a short space of time. You are not alone as a victim of your degenerate habits, everyone has faults, here we seek to observe these faults and finally to dissolve them under the light of Objective Observation, Consciousness.”
Against this dismal agenda, a portrait of an 18th century abbess, Dona Rosalinda della Cueva, Abbess of the Convent of Saint Barbara of Tartarus, offers a doorway into an occult world. Marian is given a book about the abbess and a story unfolds within a story, in which Carrington showcases her scholarship in arcane feminist theology. The abbess was on a mission to recover the Holy Grail, and restore it to its rightful owner, Venus, for the recovery of world harmony and vitality. As depicted here, the Grail has nothing to do with Jesus and Christianity. Rather, Jesus is said to have acquired his healing spells from Mary Magdalene, a priestess of Venus.
Dona Rosalinda comes close to the Grail, but the task of recovery is passed on to the present company of 90 plus-year old ladies, as they get out from under the yoke of the Gambits. Their success is preceded by massive earthquakes and earth changes, as the earth shifts on its axis, and the North Pole moves to the equator. The geological and social upheaval is catastrophic and complete, but the old ladies abide.
Carrington grew up in a wealthy British family with a conservative industrialist father. She was schooled in folklore and mythology by her Irish nanny. While at an art school in London, she met the Surrealist painter Max Ernst, some 26 years her senior, and fell in love with him. Fearful of being institutionalized a second time by her father, they moved to Paris where they were involved with the Surrealist art scene– Andre Breton, Dali, as well as Picasso. Ernst’s wife made trouble for them, so they moved to the remote Ardeche region in the South of France, creating an art house in the countryside.
France was an occupied country in 1939 and the Nazis soon arrested Ernst. Carrington initially tried to secure his release but eventually opted to leave herself, driving alone to Spain. Scholar Merve Emre suggests she may have seen this as an opportunity to free herself from a second father figure. Her car broke down en route, and she suffered a breakdown as well, ending up in a mental hospital in Madrid, which she recounts in her memoir, Down Below. She eventually escaped to Lisbon, where she obtained passage to New York and on to Mexico City, arriving there when she was 25. She married and had a family, living in the Roma neighborhood, where she remained the rest of her life, another 70 years.
She enjoyed close friendships with fellow Surrealists Remedios Varo and Alejandro Jodorowski. In the 1960’s and 70’s she became involved with the Women’s Movement, and the novel hails from this period.
Nobel laureate Olga Tobarczuk unpacks the book in her Afterword, a stunning essay in its own right. She points out the radical nature of The Hearing Trumpet’s taking old women as its subject, a group that has been doubly marginalized, and yet may be the freest people in society: “Perhaps old age is actually the only time in life when we can actually be ourselves, without worrying about the demands of others or conforming to the social norms that we have been constantly instructed to follow.” The novel’s eccentricity is a “spontaneous, joyful rebellion against everything that’s established as normal and self-evident.” Feminists and Goddess worshipers will be particularly captivated by the book’s singular vision.
Sally Mansfield Abbott is the author of the coming-of-age novel Miami in Virgo, which focuses on feminism and mysticism. She has taught classes on Goddess Worship in Prehistory at several colleges in the Bay Area. She is a poet and peace activist.