A review of The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington

The humour is at its strongest when it mixes the exotic with the homely. At one point Marlborough, a kind of latter-day Noah, says of his sisters, one of whom is a werewolf who comes to mate with a wolf, that “when I crossed half the world to visit them in their respective castles, …my journeys were made with the object of stealing an early model vacuum cleaner which they were in the habit of loaning out to each other at exorbitant prices.”

Reviewed by Paul Kane

Leonora Carrington
The Hearing Trumpet
Paperback 160 pages (September 29, 2005)
Penguin Books Ltd
ISBN: 0141187999

There have been, to my knowledge, only two novels that have been written by English women surrealists; and I can now proudly boast that I have read them both. The first such novel is Goose of Hermogenes (subtitled “A Gothick Fantasy”) by Ithell Colquhoun, which is a strangely haunting and hallucinogenic work. Each chapter takes its title from a stage in the alchemical process of the Great Work (e.g., the first chapter is entitled “Calcination”), and taken as a whole the novel is a kind of allegory of the spiritual journey. (In actual life, by the way, Ithell Colquhoun’s own journey eventually led to her becoming a Priestess of Isis.) The second such novel, written during the 1960s and originally published in France in 1974, is The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington; and it has just been published as a Penguin Classic.

The Hearing Trumpet is fantastic, full of wit and (as one might expect) rather surreal; but it is also an unusual, offbeat exploration of old age and of a world gone awry. The story concerns Marian Leatherby, an energetic lady of 92 years of age, who receives the gift of a hearing trumpet from her family on the eve of being sent away to a care home. The care home is a curious institution, for within its grounds are buildings that are shaped like birthday cakes and igloos, and there is an open gateway to the underworld. A winking nun called Rosalinda is the presiding presence of the home, and a tractate telling her tale appears within the novel itself.

Carrington’s intelligence and invention is an ambient presence in the novel, a motor’s hum in the background. She makes us aware that old age, like childhood, may be a state of powerlessness; but (also like childhood) it is a state of grace too. She shows us an old woman who is besieged by memories, but still alive to the beauty of the world. For Marian may take pains to seem to be as she believes the powerful want to see her (an amusement in itself), but one of her great frustrations lies in writing poetry. To her, “getting words to rhyme with each other is difficult, like trying to drive a herd of turkeys and kangaroos down a crowded thoroughfare and keep them neatly together without looking in shop windows.”

There are wonderful flights of fancy throughout, as when Marion’s friend Carmella fantasises about “a rather frail old gentleman, still elegant, with a passion for tropical mushrooms which he grows in an Empire wardrobe. He wears embroidered waistcoats and travels with purple luggage.” Or as when Marion, confronted with her double (or rather, her own self) asks, “Which of us is really me?”

The humour is at its strongest when it mixes the exotic with the homely. At one point Marlborough, a kind of latter-day Noah, says of his sisters, one of whom is a werewolf who comes to mate with a wolf, that “when I crossed half the world to visit them in their respective castles, …my journeys were made with the object of stealing an early model vacuum cleaner which they were in the habit of loaning out to each other at exorbitant prices.”

Marian’s old age is mirrored by an atrophy of the earth, with an atomic war leading to an ecological collapse. Yet perhaps this is her delusion and the emerging apocalypse is simply a vision of how the world appears to the dying?

The Hearing Trumpet is an enchanting, engaging addition to fantastic literature, by Lancashire’s greatest surrealist.

About the reviewer: Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and can be contacted at pkane853@yahoo.co.uk

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