100 Years of Leonora Carrington

As they rode along the edge, the brambles drew back their thorns like cats retracting their claws.

This was something to see: fifty black cats and as many yellow ones, and then her, and one couldn’t really be altogether sure that she was a human being. Her smell alone threw doubt on ita mixture of spices and game, the stables, fur and grasses.

Riding a wheel, she took the worst roads, between precipices, across trees. Someone who’s never travelled on a wheel would think it difficult, but she was used to it.

Her name was Virginia Fur, she had a mane of hair yards long and enormous hands with dirty nails; yet the citizens of the mountain respected her and she too always showed a deference for their customs. True, the people up there were plants, animals, birds; otherwise things wouldn’t have been the same. Of course, she had to put up with being insulted by the cats at times, but she insulted them back just as loudly and in the same language. She, Virginia Fur, lived in a village long abandoned by human beings. Her house has holes all over, holes she’d pierced for the fig tree that grew in the kitchen.

—from ‘As They Rode Along the Edge’ by Leonora Carrington

This story is now available in The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington published in the USA by The Dorothy Project, and in The Debutante and Other Stories published in the UK by Silver Press. Both titles have been published as part of a 2017 centenary celebration of Carrington’s birth, which also includes the NYRB republication of her asylum memoir Down Below and her children’s book The Milk of Dreams, as well as Joanna Moorhead’s biography The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington.

For a breakdown of the differences between the two supposedly ‘complete’ collections of Carrington’s short stories, read ‘Hyenas, Horses, and Rabbits, Oh My!‘ by Selena Chambers at Weird Fiction Review. Over time Chambers will be reviewing each of Leonora’s stories found in the two collections, as well as evaluating the other books listed above.

There could hardly be a better time to be reading and appreciating Leonora Carrington!

(Click here to read my review of the out-of-print collection House of Fear, which includes a selection of her stories, the novella Little Francis, and the memoir Down Below, and here for my review of The Seventh Horse and Other Tales, which paired another batch of her stories with an abridged version of her novel The Stone Door).

kafka: ‘in a different realm’

“It is conceivable for a writer to take the pulse of his era and make it come alive in language and images, yet still be out of his depth when it comes to palpable engagement with the world, although this constellation is exceedingly rare. Far more often someone who is truly at home in two worlds is misunderstood as being ‘out of touch’ in the public, social cosmos, which he shapes and endures in combination with others, and in an interior psychic space dominated by feelings, dreams, fantasies, associations, and ideas, which he inhabits alone. Anyone whose experience inside his head offers as vast and constant a stream of impressions as the world outside cannot stay focused on the here and now. But where is he then? In a different realm.

An individual who appears to be out of touch with reality is rarely in the privileged position of being able to open and close the subtle locks between inside and outside at will. The vortex pulling him inside his head is always palpable, but the reality principle demands that he remain perpetually alert; people expect him to limit himself to things that can be communicated. Anyone who starts talking about daydreams on the street, in a store, or at the workplace alienates people, no matter how intense and meaningful those daydreams are. He remains alien because he understands and acknowledges a second world, and for the most part, and to his detriment, he remains just as alien in that interior world for the same reason. He is present, but neither here nor there.

That condition can culminate in insanity, and Kafka justifiably feared winding up insane throughout his life. But it has little to do with the accomplishment society expects of the individual. Someone who is alienated from the world might function perfectly well as a craftsman, attorney, teacher, or politician, or as a vice secretary of an insurance institute, and his struggle to balance himself—poised like a man with one foot off the ground—can easily remain hidden from view, without a trace, as it probably has in thousands upon thousands of brains.”

Reiner Stach, Kafka: The Years of Insight

k. and the creative process

[Please forgive the momentary fixation on F.K. again. I often return to him for comfort, especially when I can’t write. Reiner Stach has done K. devotees a remarkable service with his meticulous biographical research and synthesis. I have fallen into this book like I haven’t fallen into a book in a long time. And to think, there is one more published volume yet to read! Not to mention the early years that Stach still hopes to cover, should he ever gain access to Brod’s vault.]

Here are a couple of passages related to K.’s creative process…

“He knew that his best, most profound writing sometimes came from a heightened consciousness of depression. However, complete inertia and indifference lurked no more than a breath away.” (p. 151)

“If we were to observe the ebb and flow of Kafka’s literary productivity from a great height, we would see a wave pattern: an initial phase of intensive, highly productive work that comes on suddenly and lasts several hours a day, followed by a gradual decline in his powers of imagination, lasting for weeks, and then finally, in spite of his desperate attempts to fight it, a standstill and feelings of despair for months on end. We do not know why he had to go through this cycle several times, and we will not know until we have a categorical paradigm of artistic creativity. Kafka himself never uncovered the logic behind the igniting and extinguishing of his art; he was always too deeply enmeshed in the effort of tapping whatever reservoir was accessible to him at the moment.” (p. 175)

Reiner Stach, Kafka: The Decisive Years (English translation © 2005; original German edition © 2002)

a profound wakefulness

Kafka: The Decisive Years“Kafka missed nothing, forgot nothing. There is little evidence of the absentmindedness and boredom he always complained about; on the contrary, his incessant presence of mind is almost painful to witness, because it renders him unapproachable. Someone must stay awake, but this wakefulness deprived him of a sense of home and alienated him from the world and from people, in a mundane and sometimes comical sense. Nabokov’s novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, which highlights the impossibility of writing an adequate biography, expresses the suffering associated with profound wakefulness from the point of view of someone experiencing it:

[…] in my case all the shutters and lids and doors of the mind would be open at once at all times of the day. Most brains have their Sundays, mine was even refused a half-holiday. That state of constant wakefulness was extremely painful not only in itself, but in its direct results. Every ordinary act which, as a matter of course, I had to perform, took on such a complicated appearance, provoked such a multitude of associative ideas in my mind, and these associations were so tricky and obscure, so utterly useless for practical application, that I would either shirk the business at hand or else make a mess of it out of sheer nervousness.

This statement applies to Kafka word for word. It is astonishing how little he ‘made a mess of’ in spite of everything: wherever his life took him, he stood the test, as a pupil, student, and official. But nothing came easily to him; every decision, even the most trivial, had to be wrenched from that stream of associations. He once wrote, ‘Everything sets me thinking’. Everything set him writing. But first he had to translate life.”

Reiner Stach, Kafka: The Decisive Years

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