Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Reading House of Fear & Tales from Down Below by Leonora Carrington

This book, as I've mentioned before, seems to be the only borrowable copy of Leonora Carrington's fiction in the five boroughs that is not the delightful The Hearing Trumpet. The collection is made up of several short stories and a memoir of her time in a Spanish asylum in the 1940s. The memoir section, dictated in French, three years after her incarceration, is called Down Below or Notes from Down Below. Let me say here that there is no question that Carrington suffered from mental illness. Reading Notes from Down Below reminded me of a lost summer I spent in the company of someone going into a manic phase and how that could have easily slid into psychosis. Even though I have no connection to the mystical and religious figures that populate her delusions, it's the kind of reading that gives me a growing sense of dread because it makes me feel a little crazy too.

Besides that effect, and despite the actual illness that it depicts, this memoir also gives a good picture of what it was (is) like to be a creative person, to create towards sanity, in a uncreative world. This quote breaks my heart with truth: "I gave little thought to the effect my experiments might have on the humans by whom I was surrounded, and, in the end, they won."

To the left is a map, a drawing made of the boundaries of Carrington's prison. It shows how hard she was trying to make a story out of the terrible things happening to her. It freaks me out with its details--the same reality as the clandestine cigarettes and paralyzing injections, but not the same at all.

How others view her sanity or insanity is totally informed by her femaleness, and this comes through in how she is treated and mistreated. Everybody just wants her to be quiet, maybe get better, maybe not. I wish I had some more quotes for this, but the library police were breathing down my neck... The second section of the memoir, all about the time shortly after the institution, is shocking in its clarity about the concessions one has to make for safety in wartime and how shitty it is to have a family that cares more about propriety than your health and happiness. There is much more to say about Notes from Down Below—it demands a reread some time when I can think about it more.

The stories in the collection were not as interesting to me as the memoir. They play with dimensions and time, as surrealist fiction does, and nothing is as it appears. Horses appear over and over. Everything has many adjectives odd attached to it, but all come off as flat and juvenile. I wish I could get at more of her later fiction. Why must I to be constantly thwarted by my monolingualism?

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