A game of draughts to decide who must throw the queen to the lions; a corpse remaining warm enough to hatch eggs; one hundred cats and a badger chasing a saint; games of Pigeon Fly; nymphs running through gardens cared for by nuns; sisters with wings drinking blood; rabbits feasting on decomposed meat; lovers stolen while you wait; young girls collecting the heads of poultry; masked balls with moustaches on the menu; underwear flying each day from a traffic island; society beauties knitting spiders’ webs; Russian rats trained for surgery; mothers who are cows, grandmothers who are umbrellas, live jaguars made of stone. And everywhere, horses. Horses leading you to Fearful parties, girls that become horses, magpies that become horses, rocking horses that become, well, horses, horses that trample a woman but are also the child in her womb…
In Down Below, Carrington’s account of her madness and ordeal in a mental institution, she is fascinated by colour, by numbers, by shapes and by animals. She writes of being able to approach animals when others can’t, of communicating with them. Not surprising then, to find similar traits in her stories. They are full of conversations with animals, they are full of humans who are not quite human and of creatures who fall into no category of species or several. It would be very easy for such stories to feel overly stylised or overtly childlike. Yet they never do – however bizarre the stories, and many are off the scale, reading them feels like an insight into Carrington’s world and an educative experience.
There are the allegorical: ‘My Flannel Knickers’ in which a jungle of faces try to hide signs of ageing and one attacks a policeman to hasten her retirement from social face-eating competitions. There are the political: ‘Et in bellicus lunarum medicalis’ in which ministers struggle with how to respond to Russia’s donation of rats trained to perform surgery while their doctors are on strike; pawning them off on the Psychoanalytical Association doesn’t go down well though, when the rats turn out to be good at unclogging the toilet, the water does. There are the cautionary: ‘The Happy Corpse Story’ in which a corpse tells the story of her father who was so busy being a businessman he could never stay anywhere more than a minute in case people thought he wasn’t urgently needed elsewhere, destroying himself before long. Of course they are never just one thing. They have in common a keen eye for the world around us, despite their ostensible surrealism.
It is appropriate that Carrington’s coming out story is about a coming out ball. Her own debutante ball was a rare night on which she appeared to conform to parental and societal expectation. A problem for her parents for years, expelled from schools and despaired of by nuns, here she was supposed to exhibit herself tamed and seeking a husband. She sensibly hated the whole ghastly proceeding. She did not conform to such parental demands again. This was 1935; a year later Carrington was enrolled at art school and the next year met Max Ernst, whom she apparently fell in love with before meeting when she saw a rather terrifying painting of his: Two Children are Threatened by a Nightingale. She moved to Paris with him and left her parents’ grips behind.
Her first short story, written when living with Ernst in France, reveals the misery of a debutante – the young woman is ‘in a state of great distress’ and goes to the zoo to be among friends. She hatches a plan with a young hyena, happy to go to the ball given the amount of food served; the hyena will go in her place wearing her dress and her maid’s face as a disguise. Aside from picking apart ideas of women being treated as less than human, or of women being forced to suppress who they are in order to be sold to a husband, one fascinating aspect of the story is the fantastic lack of recognition. The hyena’s smell is likely to give the game away, but apparently not its appearance. The debutante worries only that her mother might notice the switch if the hyena stands too close to her – clearly her own mother has little idea who the girl is and cares more about how she looks to society than really seeing her daughter properly. This makes the story sound heavily laden with symbolism. Well it may be, but it is also simple and witty and one can read it lightly, enjoying the cruel humour – to hide the maid’s body the hyena eats it but cannot quite finish the feet; the debutante gives her a bag embroidered with fleur-de-lis to store the feet in until the hyena is ready for a snack later. Sweet and alarming details adorn these dark stories.
Parents, maids and governesses all play a role in trying to tame Carrington’s characters. In ‘Jemima and the Wolf’, Jemima’s mother berates her governess for her efforts with the ‘difficult’ child. (In some fairness to the mother, Jemima does have a habit of cutting off chicken heads and keeping their tongues in a bottle – perhaps some change in habit would be beneficial.) But even when she tries to escape one authority, it is to be caught by another – away from her parents, Jemima falls under the influence of a friend of her father’s, a ghoulish man with a shadow shaped like a wolf whom she is compelled to follow. Imposing male figures like this play a strong part in many of her stories and Ernst as both father and husband figure never seems far off. Ernst had an alter ego, a birdlike creature he called Loplop, which surely features in the story ‘Pigeon Fly’. Before her death a wife has written to her friend of her husband’s terrifying and enthralling behaviour, not to mention his sexual habits which involve turning into a bird. The accounts are found by a woman, whom the husband had all but forced to come to a forest and paint the corpse of his dead wife. The face on the canvas is, the artist realises, her own.
Not every story can be mapped onto experiences or people in Carrington’s own life, nor do they need to be – they are sensual and wondrous alone. It is interesting to read the fantastical and note how simplistic the language is. Fiction authors, writing about humans living in authentic places in specific times, fill their work with imagery to evoke a particular moment. Carrington, writing about a wild boar in love with a wheel-riding creature who is followed everywhere by a hundred cats, is almost casual: ‘This boar had a single eye in the middle of his forehead, surrounded by black curls. His hindquarters were covered with a thick russet fur, and his back with very tough bristles… Attached to his curly head was a young nightjar.’ By no means is her writing lacking in imagery – there are stunning similes and metaphors – but the overriding tone feels matter of fact, real, making the content all the more surreal and thus all the more enjoyable. Rather like reading Down Below, it is unclear to the reader if some images are intended as metaphors or just indicative. ‘Kiss me… I shall eat your migraine’ says a king to his loved one; one sort of feels that Carrington may have meant just that.
Yet at the same time, there are moments when Carrington’s writing calls to mind Ovid’s Metamorphoses, surely a poem that can hardly contain itself for imagery. There are several reasons for this. One is the same fascination with identity. In some stories, such as ‘The Oval Lady’ a reader might assume that the narrator is a woman but this is never stated; there is no need even for the narrator to be human. People, animals and plants transform. No one actually changes gender, unlike Teireseas in Met.3 who does so twice seven years apart, but nothing can ever be categorised and overstepping boundaries is par for the course.
Further, there are women transforming into animals or giving way to animalistic natures to the dismay of men. In ‘The Oval Lady’ a woman is punished for ‘playing at horses’, a game in which she and her magpie friend turn into horses. Having warned his daughter seven times about such behaviour, her father is forced to rein her in (literally). It is unclear whether he actually tortures her or her rocking horse for the game. In either case he is utterly afraid of his daughter overstepping the mark, being anything other than a quiet presentable young lady, and reacts violently. In ‘As they rode along the edge’, Virginia Fur, a female creature of indescribable kind, leads the beasts of the forest in a hunt to destroy Saint Alexander. Compare the famous story told in Ovid’s Met. 3 where women give way to violent frenzy, stirred up by that feminine but male god Bacchus. They see Pentheus, the king, as if he were a boar, hunt him and pull him to pieces. For both, there are peculiar mythologies and the deep influence of religion: goddesses of Fear and Sin, Christianity and some rather chilling nuns for Carrington; furies, Fate and powerful gods using humans to win their petty battles for Ovid. Both can be witty and satirical but also dark and macabre. Both are fascinated by sight, by perception, by insight; Ovid might claim to have the Muses on his side providing this last, Carrington seems almost possessed by it.
Reading Ovid and reading Carrington both give the experience of reading and understanding a painting or sculpture. Perhaps the most famous sculpture inspired by Ovid’s writing is that of Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne. As you walk around it, you see Daphne turning into a laurel tree. She is both saved and doomed by the change; Apollo can never have her yet he can pluck the leaves that now are her and the tree becomes his forever. As you read this passage in Ovid’s description, you really see the change happen. So too in Carrington’s writing do you see metamorphosis, often through the eyes of an observer who has just missed the moment of change: ‘She bent down to see better and to satisfy herself that a metamorphosis had really occurred. Fine, soft fur had grown between her toes, a fur that stopped on the instep where she found little hairs barely visible to the naked eye’. For Carrington the metamorphoses are often joyful rather than melancholic. Feeling her furry feet, Jemima laughs and murmurs, ‘I have to take care of this beautiful fur so that it grows more’. Playing at horses, the narrator observes of Lucretia: ‘She was beautiful, a blinding white all over, with four legs as fine as needles, and a mane which fell around her long face like water. She laughed with joy and danced madly around in the snow.’
There are too overt classical references in the stories. A woman is held captive by ‘The Watchers’. Among their prisoners is a sailor from Ulysses’ ship (‘They had made him a chartered accountant, but his memory was unimpaired.’) The woman’s aunt turns out to be Circe and the man is still rather angry at being turned into a pig by her. The woman finds it all rather amusing. Unlike in Ovid or Homer, metamorphosis is viewed as a blessing through which creatures can become more truly themselves rather than being trapped by the change.
The reference to Ulysses put me in mind of a further link between these stories written separately over a lifetime – an almost Homeric fascination with host-guest relationships and feasting. A central theme in Homer’s Odyssey is the etiquette of hospitality and the generosity shown to guests by their hosts; there’s a lot of gift giving and eating together. In Carrington’s writing social norms, especially the sharing of food, are satirised, exaggerated wildly and repeatedly turned on their heads. In ‘The Three Hunters’ the narrator stumbles across a hunter and shares some whisky with him. In response, he invites his new acquaintance back for dinner and wines at his manor house. There ensues a feast for four people comprising six dozen hares, a hundred ducks and nineteen boars. The hosts leave an hour between each sentence in conversation and then break down because all their hunting trophies turn into sausages.
Short stories and novels are often compared. I have heard many novel readers who say that they cannot engage with the characters in the same way when given so little time to get to know them. This seems to me short-sighted; after all the short story is an art form separate from the novel. But there is an element of hungering for more after reading Carrington’s stories. This is not a wish to find out what else happens to the characters (I’m not too worried about whether the skeleton’s pumpkin detector continues to grow out of his head in ‘The Skeleton’s Holiday’, for instance). It is more that the stories are such that one longs to reread them and doing so offers a rather different story each time. Different interpretations of any writing is one thing but it’s quite unsettling to read and reread ‘A Mexican Fairy Tale’ and become less and less certain how to feel about the mole who makes an excellent tortilla but also cuts people up or about what happens at all in fact. The more I read about Carrington’s life, and the biography by Joanna Moorhead is excellent, the less I feel the need to answer these questions and can instead just appreciate how brilliantly odd the real and the surreal are.