As a child, Leonora Carrington — painter, fabulist, incorrigible eccentric — developed the disconcerting ability to write backward with her left hand while writing forward with her right. This trick did not go over well with English convent school nuns. Between the world wars, Carrington was thrown out of one school after another for persistently odd behavior. When she came of age, she fled England — and her family’s fortune — for France and the Surrealists, for a life crammed with incident and adventure, occasional poverty and steady productivity. She died in Mexico City in 2011, at the age of 94, leaving behind paintings and stories full of strange, spectral charm, in which women undress down to their skeletons and a sociable hyena might venture out to a debutante ball, wearing the face of a murdered maid.
This year marks the centennial of her birth, and three of her books have just been reissued: THE COMPLETE STORIES (Dorothy, paper, $16); DOWN BELOW (New York Review Books, paper, $14), a memoir of her months in a mental institution in Spain; and THE MILK OF DREAMS (New York Review Children’s Collection, $15.95), her fables for children. Carrington never stopped writing with both hands; she is always telling two stories at once. “Leonora told me that every piece of writing she ever did was autobiographical,” her biographer Joanna Moorhead recalled. In her short story “The Oval Lady,” for example, the teenage Lucretia, who loathes her father (“I’d like to starve myself to death just to annoy him. What a pig”), is violently subdued by her nanny, who jams a bit between her teeth and climbs on top of the girl, clinging to her back while Lucretia wrecks the room. It’s a loose-limbed little exercise — Carrington is just flexing her imagination. But it is as truthful as it is playful; here is her childhood in miniature: the lifelong weirdness with food, the threat of institutionalization, the domineering father and his proxy, the nanny. (Carrington’s own nanny was dispatched on a warship to rescue her from an asylum in Spain to send her to another in South America.) Behind the special effects frequently lurks a fearful or desperate moment from her own life. As the most famous Carrington story goes, she once cut off the hair of a much loathed houseguest in the middle of the night and served it to him in an omelet in the morning. This is the best description of what it feels like to read her work: In the middle of the fluffy fairy tale, something bristles, something unpleasantly familiar, something human and frightening.
Carrington is also a member of a select group of writers — exophonic writers, they’re now called — who work outside their mother tongues. Her memoir, “Down Below,” has perhaps the most unusual translation story I’ve heard. After her first husband, the Surrealist painter Max Ernst, was sent to a concentration camp, Carrington suffered a nervous breakdown and began to believe that by purging she could purify the world. She was sent to an asylum in which treatment amounted to a form of torture: She had artificial abscesses induced in her thighs to keep her from walking and was administered drugs that simulated electroshock therapy. She first wrote of these experiences in English in 1942 and promptly lost the manuscript. Later, she told the story to friends in Mexico City, one of whom jotted it down in French. It was then translated back into English to be excerpted in a Surrealist journal in 1944. The blurriness in tone is partly intentional and partly, one suspects, a consequence of being much handled. Many of her pointed short stories were also written in her rudimentary French or Spanish. Her tentativeness with the languages accounts for the “delinquent pleasure of her voice,” Marina Warner writes in a new introduction to “Down Below.” “Unfamiliarity does not cramp her style; rather it sharpens the flavor of ingenuous knowingness that so enthralled the Surrealists.”
Sounds appealing, no? I tried my own hand at it, and first wrote the previous paragraph (slowly and unhappily) in Hindi, a language I’ve spoken all my life but rarely written in, and then translated it (slowly, with much cheating) into English. It was an unpleasant, embarrassing exercise, like being blindfolded and shoved into a strange room. Every direction I turned brought me into thudding collision with my limits. Writing can often feel like this — but rarely to such a painful degree. How puny is my vocabulary in Hindi, I realized, how muddled my thinking, how equivocal and hesitant I become; it’s as if something of myself as a child has been preserved there. To move back into English was a relief. Why would Carrington choose to hamstring herself like this? Why would anyone?
There are as many reasons as there are kinds of writers. Continue reading