by SAM BEDNARCHIK
St. Louis, MO: Dorothy, a publishing project, 2017. 215 pp.
By my roughly crunched count, Leonora Carrington’s complete literary output totals just over 600 pages of writing. Her Complete Stories, reissued by Dorothy in a beautiful book of squat, almost square pages with big text and even bigger margins, barely crosses the 200-page mark. For comparison, a glance over to my own bookshelf shows that Stefan Zweig’s 22 collected stories span over 700 pages, Lucia Berlin’s mere selections total over 400, and Deborah Eisenberg’s doorstop of a collection falls just shy of 1000 pages.
Of course, none of those writers were quite the multi-hyphenate that surrealist author, painter, sculptor, and political radical Carrington was. Still, this slight stack of pages that Carrington left behind feels utterly consonant with the ephemeral quality of the stories themselves, unconcerned with and often outright disdainful toward the impulse to monumentalize. As the titular character of “The Happy Corpse Story” warns, “‘Sentimentality is a form of fatigue.’”
Fortunately for us, Dorothy shares no such values. Since 2010, Dorothy (full name “Dorothy, a publishing project”) has published two “works of fiction or near fiction or about fiction, mostly by women” annually, every October. Carrington’s Collected Stories is their third reissue—following works by Barbara Comyns and Marianne Fritz—and the project’s fifteenth release overall. In addition, the press frequently takes chances on more experimental fiction and poetry by lesser-known or early-career women authors: consider Nathalie Léger’s long creative essay on Barbara Loden’s 1970 film Wanda or Suzanne Scanlon’s novelized story fragments. The project is also largely responsible for discovering (and catapulting to fame) now big-press player, Nell Zink. Dorothy, in other words, has constructed its small-press identity around the dutiful memorializing of authors in need of discovery or, in Carrington’s case, recovery.
Spanning nearly 35 years—roughly from 1937 to 1971—Carrington’s stories are at once entirely set in their surrealist ways and yet still prove elastic enough to accommodate the global and cultural changes visited upon the middle of the 20th century. The sylvan vistas and aristocratic estates of her early, fairy-tale infused Anglo-Irish stories (“As They Rode Along the Edge,” “The Three Hunters,” “Monsieur Cyril de Guindre”) yield over time to Mexico-set political gatherings, stories of Russian scientists experimenting on rats, and a host of postwar signifiers like jukeboxes, Frigidaires, pharmaceuticals, life insurance policies, and even a miniature manikin (or is it the shrunken corpse?) of Joseph Stalin (“A Mexican Fairy Tale,” “Et In Bellicus Lunarum Medicalis,” “How to Start a Pharmaceutical Business”).
As Carrington’s stories register the passage of time, her form remains stubbornly consistent: a young woman (sometimes a young man, sometimes an old woman) passively, curiously ventures into a dreamy landscape or situation. At some point, the story ends. In the collection’s opening story, “The Debutante,” the young protagonist allows a hyena to eat the family maid and don the maid’s face in order to take the place of the young woman at that evening’s ball, held in her honor. (It does not go well.) In “The Royal Summons,” the task of assassinating the Queen falls to her representative who, when the two take their walk through the Royal Menagerie, must push the Queen into the lion’s cage. (Feeling communal pressure, and the threat of an animate Cypress tree, the young representative goes along with it.) And in “The Neutral Man,” our protagonist arrives to a masked ball to find that she’s the only one costumed. She’s cornered by the eponymous host, who insults her, requests that she assassinate someone on his behalf, and then, learning that she is not a Protestant, bans her and all “unbelievers” from the house.
Part of the malleability of Carrington’s story form lies in its design. The disorienting, non sequitur-laden aesthetic aims not to elucidate a historical moment but rather to capture the sensation of glimpsing brief flickers of historical and global flux as they rush by. They’re sieve-like, their utility rooted as much in what eludes each story as in what is caught. Politics, economics, rumblings of revolution and war haunt the peripheries of many of these stories, but they’re barely visible and rarely attended to. That Carrington’s stories offer no historical clarity seems the point: in failing to do so, they instead offer an aesthetic of subjection to historical turbulence.
And reading Kathryn Davis’ introduction, you can’t help but feel that Carrington was the perfect author to attempt such a project. A wild child—indeed, a wild adult, too—Carrington’s life reads as a series of attempts by authority figures to contain her: born to cold parents residing in a gothic mansion in Ireland; sent away to an increasingly strict set of boarding and finishing schools following each preceding expulsion (“I had an allergy to collaboration,” Davis quotes). It was at one of these schools—the Ozenfant Academy in London—that Carrington was first exposed to surrealism and the International Surrealist Exhibition where she met the surrealist painter Max Ernst, who soon after became her first husband. After a few years of almost utopic marital bliss, the crescendo of World War II led to Ernst’s imprisonment in a French internment camp and Carrington, who had fled to Spain, suffering a breakdown and being institutionalized. (Carrington’s own internment registers as a lacuna in the Collected Stories, which abruptly jump from the early period of 1937–1941 to stories written in the early 1950’s; however, Carrington recalls her time in this mental institution in a short memoir, Down Below, reissued by the New York Review of Books this month.) As Guardian writer Charlotte Higgins notes, Carrington was, by her count, one of two women (alongside Jessica Mitford) to be “subject[ed] to an attempted ‘rescue’ from Spain by protectors dispatched in submarines by concerned relatives…Carrington’s nanny was dispatched by such a means of transport at the lunatic asylum in Santander.”
For someone whose early life was spent locked inside myriad oppressive spaces, the outside world might indeed have only been sporadically glimpsed; and for someone subsequently so well-versed in containment, Carrington might understandably have been averse to trying to nail down or contain much of anything in her own art. She is, we might say, an artist of flux, a phrase whose generative ambiguity perfectly suits Carrington.
Even in the relatively quieter second half of her life, in which with the help of Mexican ambassador Renato Leduc she fled Europe for Mexico City, Carrington’s life and art still revolved around a pointed resistance to convention and authority alike. One example: while in Mexico, Carrington designed posters in support of the budding Women’s Liberation Front movement. Another: journalist Marina Warner learned in an interview with Carrington that she refused to archive her work, as though even notions of property, canon, and copyright were too restrictive.
Given the speedy course of change that greeted her life, it’s no wonder that Carrington’s stories seem so pragmatically unsentimental about holding onto the past. On the one hand, flux was biographically far more consistent than stasis anyway; on the other hand, how would one even begin to catalogue a life such as Carrington’s or a century such as the twentieth? Still, Dorothy press is trying anyway, and their release of Carrington’s stories seems a fitting monument.