15th Aug 2011
My Three Favourite… Surrealist Women Writers
I was first introduced to surrealism through the hallowed walls (or lack thereof) of André Breton’s consciousness. By many accounts a misogynist, Breton’s control over the surrealist movement was such that it has become notorious as a male-dominated genre in which women appeared primarily as idols, icons and supportive wives. The manifestos were written by men, as were the journals (most famously Littérature and La Révolution Surréaliste).
However, as Penelope Rosemont’s 1998 study Surrealist Women: An International Anthology proves, there were many brilliant women who chose to explore and, to a certain extent, exploit, surrealist techniques, both in art and in literature.
Peripheral figures, their fame (if it could be described as such) was transient and their beautiful and enigmatic works are drifting towards obscurity. Testament to this is the difficulty with which I managed to obtain copies of each of the books I’m about to recommend you read.
Each intensely unique, these stories conjure characters of the most extraordinary hue. As far from mundane naturalism as you can imagine, the events (as you might expect) are absolutely surreal.
The novelists share a deep interest in magic, in the power of the human mind and in the eerie influence of nature unchecked. The novels are Blakean, visionary, and each one in its particular way has left a deep impression on me.
Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet has recently been revamped by Penguin, and is the most famous of the three. It is an absolute joy to read; feisty women leap from its vivacious and irreverent pages.
The 92-year old heroine, Marian Leatherby has no teeth (she doesn’t mind: ‘I don’t have to bite anybody’) and a short grey beard which she finds ‘rather gallant’. Her best friend, Carmella, is both bald and telepathic.
Her new friends at the Well of Light Brotherhood’s Institution for Senile Females (into which she is placed by her despairing family) include Maude Somers, a delicate lady who is really a disguised ‘venerable old gentleman’, Georgina, a ‘sex-maniac’ and Anubeth, an elegant wolf-headed woman.
In Carrington’s universe the unorthodox reigns supreme. The institution is presided over by a painting of a scandalous eighteenth-century sorceress, the ‘intrepid and energetic’ Abbess Doña Rosalinda Alvarez della Cueva, a murderess and mistress of disguise whose hobbies include orgies, levitation and chasing the holy grail.
These women are irrepressible, powerful and all are aged over ninety. They organise mutinies, commit and solve murders, converse with wolves and magicians, discuss marijuana cigarettes and disguise themselves with moustaches and dark glasses.
Conversely, the majority of the men who dare to appear in the story are incompetent, overweight, terrified of their ferocious wives, or dead. ‘Men are very difficult to understand,’ says Carmella. ‘Let’s hope they all freeze to death.’
Though many surrealists considered themselves writers and poets, it is their art that continues to generate interest, perhaps because the obscure aims of the movement are difficult to digest unless distilled onto one single piece of canvas.
Trawling through obtuse and seemingly unrelated passages of text is not a task for anyone on the bus, by the poolside or just before bed – the times that most of us get a chance to read.
Surrealist fiction, generally speaking, has failed. André Breton’s Nadja, Salvador Dali’s Hidden Faces and the poetry of Benjamin Péret remained in relative obscurity, despite the enormous fame of their authors. This is perhaps because surrealism relies so heavily on the power of the visual, which often translates badly into text.
Ithell Colhoquon’s Goose of Hermogenes however, manages to remain visually startling. That it is written by a painter is clear. With this book it is always a joy to pick a passage at random and devour the alternate harmonies and bizarre juxtapositions of the sentences, syntax and ideas.
They are jumbled, often related by nothing except a general sense of atmosphere. The vague plot involves an unnamed heroine who must visit an eccentric and sinister uncle in his borderless house on an island.
The dark magic surrounding her and her own powerful imagination lead her into an obscure maze of fear and desire, where the heroine’s fantasies mingle with the heavy atmosphere. The book is gothic and highly sexual, the language finely wrought.
The heroine is sexless apart from her jewels; she carries the mark of a vampire’s tooth upon her neck, and murders an unnamed boy within the first three pages. Many passages read like descriptions of paintings or images, theatre-sets which the unseen protagonist and the heroine stand before or enters into, as the author adjusts the thickness of the gauze between foreground and background.
Dorothea Tanning equally employs the sinister figure of a conjurer employing mind control to manipulate an arena in which he carefully selects pawns to further his incomprehensible ambitions.
Chasm: A Weekend is her début novel (written when she was 94!) and reads in many ways like a dream-narrative. ‘People under seventy and over seven are very unreliable if they are not cats’ wrote Carrington, and Tanning has taken the idea up with gusto.
Her heroines are a seven year old girl named Destina (descended from a line of women named Destina dating back to the mid 17th century) and her great-grandmother (Destina, ‘an eccentric old family member, a harmless addition to the décor’) who predicts the events that are played out during one terrible night in the American desert. It is made quite explicit that the traditional, beautiful heroine, Nadine, is little more than a brainless idiot.
Seven-year-old Destina collects human eyeballs, the claws and tails of gila monsters, skins of reptiles and spotted eggs. Her best friend is a lion, whom she walks with in the desert in the dead of the night, and she manages to make a grown man fall in love with her by forcing him to sit in her bedroom and eat her dinner.
She is both innocent and wise, a reincarnation of Blake’s Lyca or Spenser’s Una, and in her childishness she is exempt from all of the absurd tangles and obsessions that drive the more worldly characters to madness or death.
These are powerful, joyful books that celebrate femininity, androgyny and obscurity. Their heroines are old ladies, small girls, mad women and grand hybrid beast-ladies. Each is set in an extraordinary, timeless mansion that extends sprawling and indefinite.
They are filled with mysteries, secrets. Like the women who penned them, these novels rely on a series of impressions, of myths: for Carrington, religious, iconic; for Colquhoun, those surrounding the occult. For Tanning the myths are sexual, economical. Fate is a key player in the work of all three.
If you get a chance, read about the lives of these three writers. The surrealists believed that it was not only the artistic technique that was significant, but the artist herself and her vision of life.
The legendary antics of Leonora Carrington exceed those of any Jilly Cooper heroine. As a teenager in Paris, she stood completely naked at parties, covered her feet in mustard at the smartest restaurants, and was known to leave a party to shower with all of her clothes still on, and return soaking wet to finish a conversation.
Colquhoun was chased by Aleister Crowley around his house as he tried to seduce her, and lived for a long time in the middle of nowhere, in a corrugated iron hut with no water or electricity.
Tanning married Max Ernst after playing a game of chess and falling in love with him in a double marriage with Man Ray and Juliet Browner. These are no ordinary chicks.
The books might be too ambiguous, too tangential and flowery for some. They are not cutting works of contemporary satire. But they embrace rebellion, exceptionality, sexual perversity and an open-mindedness that is rarely portrayed with such eloquence in fiction.
They abide by none of the traditional rules of literature. ‘The marvellous’ is what they seek, not inclusion in any patriarchal canon. In this aim they thoroughly succeed. So go. Buy their books and save them from oblivion!
(Image of Dorothea Tanning with Max Ernst, © Robert Bruce Inverarity, in the collection at the Smithsonian Institution)