Wednesday, 24 April 2013

The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington

A classic of fantastic literature, Leonora Carrington's The Hearing Trumpet is the occult twin to Alice in Wonderland.

One of the first things ninety-two-year-old Marian Leatherby overhears when she is given an ornate hearing trumpet is her family plotting to commit her to an institution. Soon, she finds herself trapped in a sinister retirement home, where the elderly must inhabit buildings shaped like igloos and birthday cakes, endure twisted religious preaching and eat in a canteen overlooked by the mysterious portrait of a leering Abbess. But when another resident secretly hands Marian a book recounding the life of the Abbess, a joyous and brilliantly surreal adventure begins to unfold. Written in the early 1960s, The Hearing Trumpet remains one of the most original and inspirational of all fantastic novels.
Amazon description.

I am a fan of Leonora Carrington's art (an example of which is above) and I recommend liking her Facebook page: where new pictures and sculptures are regularly posted. She was a prominent surrealistSalvador Dali called her "the most important female artist". But since reading this delightful book I've become a fan of her writing as well. 

One of the joys of the book is Carrington's portrayal of old women. The heroine and narrator of the book, Marian, is a ninety-two year old woman with a "gallant" beard, ignored and despised by her unpleasant family.  Carrington is brilliant at portraying a woman who at times is forgetful but is far from "senile". Indeed the portrayals of all the elderly inhabitants of Lightsome Hall are wonderful - each an individual woman, but the best is undoubtedly that of Carmella, Marian's friend, a first class eccentric, given to flights of the imagination:
You might escape to Lapland...We could knit a tent. 
At first the reader is inclined to see Carmella as a slightly dotty old lady, but as the book goes by this view changes. Carmella is often remarkably astute, as in possibly the best line in the book: People under seventy and over seven are very unreliable if they are not cats.

This is another magic realist feminist novel.  The old women rise up against their oppressors and release ancient magic. Marian feels attracted to the leering portrait of the Abbess, identifying with her even though Marian reads a censorious book written by a male contemporary of the Abbess. Later in the book she is mystically part of a Jungian trilogy of women. 

I wondered whether the book would be more surreal than magic realist, but was pleasantly surprised to find the opening to be very realistic. The magic realism grows during the course of the narration, rather as it does in OneHundred Years of Solitude. We start with the hearing trumpet: prior to receiving it as a gift from Carmella, Marian is badly deaf but afterwards she is able to eavesdrop through walls. Then Marian moves to the residential home, which sounds like a bad theme park with houses made in the shape of toadstools, boots and towers. By the end of the book we are passing beyond realism to the surreal and symbolic. One of the magic realist devices that Carrington uses is that Marian will add realist modifiers to the magic/surreal elements: This of course might have been an optical illusion.  

My one criticism of the book is that the ending feels rushed. The details that made the body of the book so enjoyable are dropped and Carrington relies heavily on the surreal and on symbolism.  Nevertheless this book is a joyous and fun read, with some serious points underpinning it. I recommend it to you.

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Anonymous said...

I am reading this book at the moment and I am really becoming a fan. Before I started reading I thought that it would be a thought experiment with no emotion. But, I now find that it is full of humour and pathos.

Catherine Stine said...

I will eventually have to read this one as I am a complete fan of her art!

Leonard said...

One of my my favorite books... May we all accept aging in the spirit of the main character.

Leonard said...

One of my favorite books...

As I age I hope I do so with the aplomb or the main character gumming he meal on the bus.

nina milton said...

This book has just been chosen for the BBC radio 4 programme A Good Read - it was both loved and hated by the 'readers' and now I really must read it! NIna,