August 29, 2011

The Hearing Trumpet

As devoted as they were to the triumph of the irrational over the conventional, of the anarchic and revolutionary over conventional authority, the fractious assemblage of artists who called themselves surrealists were notoriously a boy’s club. The artist Leonora Carrington, who died this year at the age of 93, elbowed her way into their movement, deflated their chauvinism, and outlived them all.

Her 1976 novel The Hearing Trumpet (which appeared first in French, in 1974, and was subsequently self-translated) has yet to find the full readership it warrants. No doubt this is because Carrington was reaching out of her visual arts box.

The book opens as a kooky first-person account of the admittedly ancient and eccentric Marian Leatherby. When a friend gifts her with a prodigiously effective hearing trumpet, she learns that her family intends to send her to a home. The institution, run by a pair of parsimonious, judgmental Christian mystics, houses its inmates in bizarre structures in such shapes as a lighthouse, an igloo, and a circus tent. Marian’s fascination with the dining hall’s portrait of a leering, winking nun leads her to a mysterious medieval text of sorcery, corruption, Templars and a Holy Grail that serves as a font of suppressed women’s magic. And that's where it gets crazy.

Experimental in content but clear in its narrative presentation, The Hearing Trumpet is not just daffy but genuinely playful and funny. At the risk of spoilerage, its final cataclysm earns its expatriate author a uniquely feminist (not to mention lycanthropic) spot in the literature of cozy British apocalypse. A neglected classic that deserves sit on any shelf where the literary and the fantastical collide, alongside Borges, Calvino, and Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars.