A Strange Feast

I happened to be part way through reading Leonora Carrington's The Seventh Horse And Other Tales when I heard last week that she had died at the age of 94. Many of the obituaries have focused on her wonderful artwork so I wanted to write a little bit here about her equally wonderful short stories. Her novel The Hearing Trumpet is easy to find, but her short stories collections are out-of-print (although it is possible to buy them second hand for more than I can afford  —  a friend kindly let me borrow his copy of The Seventh Horse). In the introduction to the Virago edition, Marina Warner says:
Edward James, the Surrealist patron...wrote of Leonora's images that they were 'not merely painted, they are brewed'. It is an apt choice of word and describes her writings too: these small and concentrated potions in which the oddest elements from metaphysics and fantasy, daily routine and material life are simmered together and mischievously served up.
The stories are a feast of strange and sumptuous detail. Myth, fairy tale, religion, ritual, death, dreams, the comic and the macabre all become entangled in an exotic garden of prose inhabited by humans and beasts and half-human-half-beasts. Metamorphosis and magic abound, but threaded through it all are elements of the mundane, the dilapidated and the everyday (one of the stories is called 'My Flannel Knickers', although the knickers themselves are, perhaps, extraordinary in that they belong to a saint who lives on a traffic island).

Carrington's joy in assembling the eclectic ingredients of her stories is mirrored in the feasts of wild and decadent dishes that frequently appear in the tales:
...a plump fat chicken with stuffing made of the brains and the livers of thrushes, truffles, crushed sweet almonds, rose conserve with a few drops of some divine liqueur. This chicken, which had been marinated — plucked but alive — for three days, had in the end been suffocated in vapours of boiling patchouli: its flesh was as creamy and tender as a mushroom.
In 'Waiting' a character says, 'I don't like meals, I only eat banquets.'

Carrington's evocative description extends far beyond these feasts. There are peculiar gardens, 'I came to a garden overrun by climbing plants and weeds with strange blooms' ('Cast Down by Sadness'), and 'reddish black houses' which 'looked as if they had issued mysteriously from the fire of London' ('White Rabbits'). Several of the later stories in the book are soaked with the sensual riches of Mexico — a far distant world from the grey-skied Lancashire town where Carrington was born (and where I live).

There are many wonderful descriptions of characters; an abbot is described as having a soutane 'grey with dust, and riddled with the depredations of moths' ('Monsieur Cyril de Guindre'), there is a woman whose face 'is a leaf of such a pale green it must have grown under the light of the new moon' ('The Sisters'), and another is 'as thin and dry as a stick' ('The Seventh Horse'). In 'White Rabbits' a woman wears an 'ancient beautiful dress of green silk' and her skin is 'dead white and glittered as if speckled with thousands of minute stars'.

The stories are also peopled with angels, skeletons, vampires and giants. There are humans and beasts in various states of transformation, such as this creature in 'The Sisters':
Perched on a rod near the ceiling, an extraordinary creature looked at the light with blinded eyes. Her body was white and naked; feathers grew from her shoulders and round her breasts. Her white arms were neither wings nor arms. A mass of white hair fell around her face, whose flesh was like marble.
As in Carrington's art, horses, birds, cats and pigs appear frequently. Horses are a particular favourite of hers. Hevalino, the seventh horse in the title story, is a 'strange-looking creature' found caught in the brambles by the lady of the house. Her husband goes on to ride the creature in a 'great ecstasy of love; he felt he had grown onto the back of this beautiful black mare and that they were one creature'. In 'The Neutral Man' one character tells another, who we take to be Carrington, 'We all inevitably show a resemblance to other species of animals. I'm sure you are aware of your own equine appearance.'

In the introduction Warner tells us that 'In the Carrington universe, there are no hierarchical differences between the cooking pot and the alchemist's alembic, between the knitting of a jumper and the weaving the soul from 'cosmic wool', between beasts and people — though animals impress her more than humans, on the whole.'

The language of myth and fairy tale is woven throughout the stories. In 'My Mother Is a Cow' a woman is told by The Goddess that she must 'knit herself a body with spider yarn'. In 'My Flannel Knickers' the protagonist is told to use cosmic wool to 'spin your body and teach the faces how to spin theirs'. The moon is present in many of the stories, although in 'Cast Down by Sadness' we're told, 'I saw the reflection of the moon in the water, but was horrified to see there was no moon in the sky: the moon had been drowned in the water.' There are castles and towers and keys and symbolic numbers and fairytale forests. In 'The Stone Door' a woman has a vivid memory of something she has never seen:
A pine forest white with snow in a country where people are dressed in bright colours. A noise of smashed glass. Little ragged horses as swift and powerful as tigers. Snow, dust and cinnamon.

Wearing a mask I am on all fours with my nose almost touching the nose of a wolf. Our eyes united in a look, yet I remain hidden behind myself and the wolf hidden behind himself; we are divided by our separate bodies. However deeply we look into each other's eyes a transparent wall divides us from explosion where the looks cross outside our bodies. If by some sage power I could capture that explosion, that mysterious area outside where the wolf and I are one, perhaps then the first door would open and reveal the chamber beyond.
Yet, as I mentioned earlier, these stories are not only imbued with the fantastic, but also with a keen sense of the real, including brilliant social observations such as the following:
Once I was a great beauty and attended all sorts of cocktail-drinking, prize-giving-and-taking, artistic demonstrations and other casually hazardous gatherings organized for the purpose of people wasting other people's time. ('My Flannel Knickers')
What stood out to me most in all of these stories, though, was Carrington's ability to depict the spaces in-between, and a sense of otherness and of being apart from the world. In 'The Stone Door' one character thinks, 'If I lived alone on top of the highest tree in the world... I could not be more outside the lives of human beings. Though if anyone ever asked me where I am, I doubt I could reply.' In 'Pigeon, Fly' an artist is summoned to paint a picture of a corpse. It is only on completing the work that she becomes aware of the striking familiarity of the corpse's features and the fact that 'On canvas, the face was unquestionably mine.' 

The stories are full of shadows, reflections and doubles and of characters striving to reach over the divide between one world and another. In 'The Seventh Horse' a character's face is strained 'as if in the effort of listening to faraway voices chattering between nightmares and dead reality'.

In 'The Stone Door' a character despairs that she returns from her thoughts and dreams with 'not a particle of dust to prove their reality'. What Leonora Carrington left us with is an abundance of that dust.

Giving another laugh as dry as the wrinkled skin on his young face, he put his head close to my ear and said; 'Tell me a story and I will give you a slice of funeral cake.'
'Must the story be true?' I asked, setting down my burden.
'All stories are true,' he said. 'Begin.'

The quote directly above is from 'The Stone Door'. The copy of The Seventh Horse and Other Tales I've taken the quotes from was published by Virago Press in 1989. The stories collected in it were written over a period of just over thirty years, from the late 1930s to the early 1970s. I've purposefully tried not to do too much summarising of the stories in the hope that people will get the chance to read and enjoy the stories themselves.The paintings from the top to bottom of this post are: AB EO QUOD (1956), Grandmother Moorhead's Aromatic Kitchen (1975), The Giantess, also known as The Guardian of the Egg (1947), A Warning to Mother (1973), Self Portrait (1938).