Leonora Carrington (1917 to 2011) was born in England and died in a country she much preferred, Mexico. Interest in her writings and her surrealistic art is now quite high, brought on my recent publications occasioned by the 100th anniversary of her birth, including a collection of her short stories and a biography.
The first quandary one has upon completing Down Below, I read it the minimum needed twice, is to decide if it is a memoir of her period of mental illness and her confinement to an asylum, is it a work of the imagination perhaps stimulated by these experiences or should it be read as a fictional
account of the narrator's descent into madness? Is it a Dantesque journey into the Under World, the Down Below, of Surrealism inspired by occult theories behind that movement? You can read it as working out "Daddy Issues" with her very rich father who regarded her interest in the arts as itself a manifestation of mental illness
A good bit of the work is taken up with her time in the asylum. She talks about her reaction to the arrest of her lover, a leading Surrealist. The narrator hallucinates and views workers and doctors as embodied representatives of evil spirits. She sees her father everywhere. We also go along when she escapes to a Mexican consulate and is given shelter, as we're many artists, from the Nazis. She moves to Mexico.
She was initially pushed into madness when her great love, the artist Max Ernst, was sent to die in a concentration camp for producing what the Germans saw as "degenerate" art. The narration mixes simple reporting of what happened to Carrington with out of accepted reality interpretation of events. Down Under is considered one of the great treatments of the descent into madness. It completely fascinated me. In the way back I was fascinated by the occult, maybe I'm coming back to this.
The just published New York Review of Books edition of Down Below contains a very informative and generously lengthy introduction by Marina Warner, who was acquainted with Carrington.
Even the publication history of Down Below requires an explanation. Here are the textual notes from the NYRB edition.
"NOTE ON THE TEXT First written in English in 1942 in New York (text now lost). Dictated in French to Jeanne Megnen in 1943, then published in VVV, No. 4, February 1944, in a translation from the French by Victor Llona. The original French dictation was published by Editions Fontaine, Paris, 1946. Both the French dictation and the Victor Llona translation were used as the basis for the text here, which was reviewed and revised for factual accuracy by Leonora Carrington in 1987."
My prior posts on the short fiction of Carrington contain links to nine of her short stories as well as articles and videos I found interesting.
Please share your experience with Carrington, either through her art or writings, with us.