Forget for a moment that Leonora Carrington, who died in 2011 at the age of 94, was one of the last surviving original members of the Surrealist movement of the 1930s. Ignore the fact that she was also a painter and a feminist and an anti-establishment rebel in the days before anti-establishment thinking became acceptable. When you read her fanciful novel about a contrary-minded old woman whose life becomes insanely exciting after she is given a hearing trumpet, you might think it had been written recently for today’s readers, particularly those who like stories of “Geriatric Liberation”.
Falling down the rabbit hole
At the start, the story is genuinely funny in a dead-pan way, and the narrator, “Marian Leatherby”, says the most surprising things. She is 92 years old and describes herself as a “monster of Glamis” – a reference to the legend of a hideously deformed child that haunts Glamis Castle in Scotland – and a “drooling sack of decomposing flesh”. Just imagine that. She is quite deaf, has no teeth, sports a little white beard that she finds charming, and has an unforgiving, critical attitude. Her children, those mean bastards, want to get rid of her, and send her off to pseudo-therapeutic home for retired ladies, “Lightsome Hall”, run by a creepy couple, the “Gambits” of “The Well of Light Brotherhood”.
But before she enters the retirement home, her eccentric friend, “Carmella”, gives her a large, old-fashioned, ornate hearing trumpet – a hearing aid that looks like a megaphone. And voila! the whole world suddenly opens up to her, with exciting adventures and terrifically surreal happenings. The things she hears, all of a sudden! Boy oh boy! She even overhears a plot about a poisoning.
Just how much falling-down-the-rabbit-hole can one geriatric old biddy take? Apparently, quite a lot, including surviving a new Ice Age; getting a relative of the Egyptian wolf-head god, Anubis, for a lover; setting up a heist; falling into a boiling cauldron; and participating in wild dances around a fire. (No wonder the writer Sjón put this one on his top ten list of favourite books.)
“‘The Well of Light Brotherhood,’ said Carmella, ‘is obviously something extremely sinister. Not I suppose a company for grinding old ladies into breakfast cereal, but something morally sinister. It sounds terrible. I must think of something to save you from the jaws of the Well of Light.’ This seemed to amuse her for no reason at all and she chuckled although I could see she was quite upset. ‘They will not allow me to take the cats you think?’ ‘No cats,’ said Carmella. ‘Institutions, in fact, are not allowed to like anything. They don’t have time.’ ‘What shall I do?’ I said. ‘It seems a pity to commit suicide when I have lived for ninety-two years and really haven’t understood anything.’ ‘You might escape to Lapland,’ said Carmella.” (p. 17)
When a jealous inhabitant of the home kills another woman (who turns out to be a man) Carmella and her chauffeur, and Marian’s beau, “Mr. Marlborough” and his sister, turn up to save the remaining residents.
“Mr. Marlborough is a great poet and has achieved fame in recent years. At times I had thought of writing poetry myself but 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.” (p. 27)
I do love that image of poetry. It’s very apt.
Finding the Holy Grail
Hanging in the lounge of the home is a portrait of a nun, “Abbess Rosalinda”, that depicts the nun giving a lewd wink. When trying to find out who this nun was, Marian uncovers a record of the location of the Holy Grail and the fluid (or “pneuma”) that was in it, “the elixir of life [that] belonged to the Goddess Venus”.
“This is how the Goddess reclaimed her Holy Cup with an army of bees, wolves, seven old women, a postman, a Chinaman, a poet, an atom-driven Ark, and a were-woman. The strangest army, perhaps, ever seen on this planet.” (p. 198).
At this point the narrative changes from being the witty depiction of the liberation of an old lady, to being a cross between an ancient paranormal detective tale and an extended dream sequence. It’s completely nuts, but, in a “say what?!?” sort of way, fun to read. I eventually just went with the flow and stopped trying to find rhyme or reason in it.
Does Marian Leatherby ever get to Lapland? Yes, but not the way you’d expect.
Octogenarians, nonagenarians and hearing aids
The story is at times completely absurd, and at other times fabulistic, but it also illustrates, sympathetically and wittily, the lives of ordinary, grumpy people in their eighties and nineties who bitch, moan and gossip and love giving the establishment the finger. And also, it shows what an amazing difference to life a hearing aid can actually make. The hearing trumpet is a device like the red pill in the film The Matrix. You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—or switch on your hearing aid! —you stay in Wonderland, and you see “how deep the rabbit hole goes”.
At the time it was published, it was categorized as a Surrealist work and quite as strange as any of Carrington’s paintings (such as the one used for the cover of the book). These days, with the aid of photoshopping tools, anything that can be imagined can be depicted in such a realistic fashion that it is difficult to tell whether it is fake or the real thing. So the Surrealism is not what sets this novel apart any more. And while it is satisfying to see the kick-ass attitude and scandalous behaviour of the very old people, “Geriatric Liberation”, like in The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, is not the main theme of the novel.
What still makes it relevant for today’s readers is that Marian and her cronies are truly liberated, unapologetic and self-reliant women. Men are the supporting cast. This is a feminist novel that has stood the test of time. Carrington expresses her feminist ideas in the novel through the characters but always with her irreverent and outrageous sense of humour. It is a refreshing approach considering that nowadays feminist discourse is so serious and politicized that it is looking for trouble to dare have a laugh about it.