Dreaming of Lapland
Flammarion (Le Cornet acoustique) 1974, Exact Change 1996
Reviewed by Seana Graham
There’s often a great deal of happenstance involved in how books come our way, and this book is a case in point. The reason my reading group chose it last month is because one member recommended it, and the reason she picked up the title in the first place is because she is growing a bit hard of hearing. However, though its protagonist Marian Leatherby is 92 years old, hearing impairment is not required to identify with her.
The story starts out in a recognizable world, although that world is Mexico, and although Marian, away from her European roots, has a strong yearning to go to the colder climes of Lapland. She isn’t very copacetic with her son Galahad, his wife or children. But she likes her life, living in a room facing the backyard, which she shares with “my two cats, a hen, the maid and her two children, some flies and a cactus plant called maguey.” She also has a good if mischievous friend named Carmella, who steals every scene she is in.
So we begin to settle into this normal if somewhat exotic world, but not for long. Carmella gives Marian a hearing trumpet, which allows her to hear what’s really going on around her. Galahad is not the most loyal son, and at his wife’s behest, he soon packs Marian off to a nursing home. We can see where this is going, right?
No, we cannot see where it is going. This home is, to put it mildly, odd. It is run by a cult called the Well of Light Brotherhood, modeled, apparently, on some ideas of Gurdjieff’s, and the residents live in structures that resemble toadstools, igloos, birthday cakes and so on. It is run by some fairly oppressive people called the Gambits who set their elderly residents, mostly female to tedious tasks. But in the dining area, there is a portrait of a winking nun, and this nun turns out to hold a much greater power than the Gambits do.
Leonora Carrington was a British woman who married the German painter Max Ernst and became a party to his problems, first with the French and then with the Nazis. Ernst escaped them, leaving her behind, which led to her breakdown and time in a mental institution. She managed to escape this care, and taking refuge in the Mexican embassy led eventually to her living in Mexico itself. Although it was an exciting time to be an exile in Mexico, surely Marian Leatherby’s yearning for northern climes reflects some of Carrington’s own.
Carrington hung out with the Surrealists in Europe and then in Mexico, and in addition to her writing, she was a painter and sculptor. The cover work featured here is her own. The Hearing Trumpet is comic but to a purpose. Although Marian may be old, she is still on an archetypal journey, and an alchemical and Arthurian (or anti-Arthurian) one at that. But, as Helen Byatt writes in the introduction, “In The Hearing Trumpet alchemical cooking is definitely domestic. There is something comfortingly homely at the heart of the novel which allows the reader to live dangerously without being frightened.”
Leonora Carrington died in 2011, living to be 94. I hope that she ended up with a Marian Leatherby sort of life.