Review by Jinny Webber
“Reading The Hearing Trumpet liberates us from the miserable reality of our days,” wrote Luis Buñuel after the 1976 publication of Leonora Carrington’s novel, recently re-released by New York Review of Books publications. Buñuel’s miserable reality was a version of ours, more than four decades later, and liberate it does, a satiric, prescient comic romp.
Carrington’s narrator Marian Leatherby is ninety-two, decades older than the author at the time. Carrington had long regarded herself as old by then, however. Born in England in 1917, she was was drawn to the striking juxtapositions represented in early surrealistic paintings at a young age. Later, in London studying art, beautiful Leonora became muse to surrealist artists there. That role and their depiction of the female figure displeased her; she wanted to pursue her own art. During the two years she lived with the German surrealist Max Ernst in southern France, she painted her first self-portrait and the two of them created sculpture together. When Ernst was arrested by the Germans, Carrington began a quest of her own. In Spain she had what to her was a vision, interpreted by her family as a psychic break and her confinement to an asylum where she endured every brutal treatment of the day. She escaped, made her way to the Mexican embassy in Portugal, and married the ambassador and poet friend to obtain diplomatic immunity. After the pair moved to Mexico, they divorced and Carrington stayed on. All this happened during World War II, before she turned twenty-seven With this fuel, she published her autobiography, Down Below in 1944, and collections of surrealistic short stories over the following decades.
Thus it wasn’t a stretch to write The Hearing Trumpet in Marian Leatherby’s voice. Deaf and regarded as senile by her son, and especially her daughter-in-law and her grown grandson, Marian sees others’ folly and how they perceive her with a clear eye and straight face. “I do have a short gray beard which conventional people would find repulsive. Personally I find it rather gallant.” As too, it’s a sign of wisdom and reflects the androgyny running through the book.
For forty-five years Marian has lived with with her unpleasant family in Mexico, where her son is a minor embassy official. Her dream would be to live in Lapland and ride on a sled pulled by wooly dogs. Her only friend Carmella gives her a handsomely decorated ear trumpet, which proves, as Carmella predicts, to change her life. Marian overhears her family hatching a plan. When her son Galahad proposes a holiday for her, she says, “You are sending me away to a home for senile females because all you think I’m a repulsive old bag and I daresay you are right from your point of view.”
A bit shocked at the sight of Lightsome Hall, as they’d never visited the place in person, Galahad and his wife leave her and flee. The Hall consists of a medieval castle-like structure, gardens, a bee pond, and residents’ “Pixie-like dwellings” in incongruous shapes: a toadstool, an igloo, a birthday cake, a cement circus tent, a boot. Marian is housed in a tower, the furniture in its middle story painted on the wall. Witty drawings throughout the novel by Pablo Weisz Carrington, Leonora’s son and a surrealist painter himself, include a depiction of Lightsome Hall in all its frightening oddity. The bullying Dr. Gambit and his more subtly bullying wife run it with a strict set of rules.
Dr. Gambit’s hypocritical sermons on Work, Self Remembering, and Inner Christianity (the capitals are Carrington’s, and many more of them) are rejected or ignored by colorful residents to one degree or another, except for two Gambit disciples. As with Marian, there’s a huge discrepancy in how these women are perceived and how they are to themselves and one another: eccentric no doubt, but not senile.
The most unusual resident, Christabel Burns, who tells Marian she’s twice her age, comes from Jamaica. She’s noticed Marian’s fascination with the portrait of a winking nun on the dining room wall and gives her a book about its subject, the Abbess of the Convent of Saint Barbara of Tartarus, canonized in Rome in 1756. The Abbess’ story is recounted by a priest and translated from the Latin including letters copied from the Abbess’ own hand. The theme of the Mother Goddess religion emerges and a quest for the Holy Grail which, in this document, is the Cup of Venus. The Abbess’ tale blends adventure, cross-dressing, retelling of Judeo-Christian texts, and includes the Knights Templar and the mythic bard Taliessin.
A revelatory murder causes the expulsion of Gambit’s two disciples from the Hall, and the other residents become a sisterhood, led by Christabel, taking over the main hall, dancing moonwise in the gardens, and having a grand time free of Dr. Gambit’s tyranny. After a planetary shift, the climate changes: Marian gets her snow at last. The women are joined by Carmella and her chauffeur, an innovative chef, which proves fortunate in ensuing circumstances. The solving of a riddle follows, and an atomic explosion that leaves the world in snow-covered ruins. Taliessin appears at the sisters’ retreat trudging across the snow as a postman. His mission through the ages has been, he says, “to carry uncensored news to the people, regardless of rank or status,” which makes him unpopular with authorities. He’s come seeking the Grail, now in the hands of surviving worshippers of the Revengeful Father God.
Christabel exhorts the sisters to “make immediate plans to restore it to the Goddess. Her flight after the atomic war was the final nail in the coffin of this generation. If the planet is to survive with organic life she must be induced to return, so that love and goodwill can once more return.”
Carrington’s art and fiction reflect her long-time interest in the intersection of animals and humans. Just before the conclusion it appears in an amazing guise. As Olga Tokarczuk says in her afterword, The Hearing Trumpet is “one of the most original feminist texts ever written.”