Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Surreal old people: Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet

Carrington 1This very slim novel is a fantasia on being old, and explores how one would survive when there is very little left to lose in conditions of extreme oddness. The plot involves a community of old women, werewolves and a dark secret in Mexico. Penguin’s new(ish) edition describes it as an ‘occult classic’. It’s certainly peculiar, but it is totally delightful because the heroine, 92-year old Marian Leatherby, is not fooled by any of the drama going on all around her.

She lives a quiet and reasonable life in her son Galahad’s house in a Mexican city, along with his malicious wife and her unspeakably rude grandson. She wears a short, grey beard which she feels is not at all repulsive but actually rather gallant, and shares her room looking out onto the courtyard with two cats called Marmeen and Tchatcha, and a red hen. She is given a hearing trumpet as a gift from her oldest friend, Carmella, because they are both aware that Marian’s future may be at risk, and with this, Marian can hear again: ‘We thought about all the revolutionary possibilities of the trumpet.’

By using the trumpet Marian finds out that Galahad and his family object to her presence, her use of a valuable spare room and her embarrassing visitors. So they park her in an old people’s home on the city outskirts, where the inmates live in oddly-shaped huts like igloos, decorated in different styles. Marian becomes aware that she is being indoctrinated into a cult, and is increasingly afraid of the strange leering portrait of an abbess on the refectory wall. She is given a secret book, which describes the life of the abbess and a search for the Holy Grail, and Marian’s way of resistance becomes clear. Convinced that the indoctrination drugs are in the food, she and her fellow inmates resist the owners’ blandishments by refusing to eat, and survive only on midnight feasts of sweet biscuits and port. An inadvertent poisoning by chocolate reveals yet more secrets, including a nun who transmigrates to other people’s souls. The novel ends with a new Ice Age, and a reunion with Marian’s friend Marlborough, recently returned from Venice in a rather gorgeous velvet gown, and his werewolf sister, Anabeth.

Carrington 2Really, there is little point pulling out interesting and alluring episodes from this novel because they will never join up to suggest any kind of realistic narrative. The novel is short enough to read at a sitting, and the story of Marian’s adventures in the asylum is downright surreal. It is also charming, affecting and very funny. Ali Smith wrote the Penguin introduction, so she likes it too.

Leonora Carrington, The Hearing Trumpet (1960), Penguin Modern Classics (2005), ISBN 978-0-141-18799-0

About Kate

Blogger, lecturer, podcaster, writer, critic, reviewer, researcher (in no particular order) in and on British literary history. Preferred occupation while listening to podcasts: cooking or knitting. Preferred soundtrack while reading: the sound of silence.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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