Tag Archives: Spain

Down Below: Leonora Carrington

Regular readers of this blog are familiar with my fascination for books set in asylums, and that brings me to artist and writer Leonora Carrington’s short book: Down Below, a New York Review Books release. The book runs to 112 pages and includes a substantial background of Leonora Carrington’s life as a lead-in to the period she spent in an asylum. And here’s the rich and influential  for you, her nanny was “sent out” in 1940 in a submarine to “fetch Leonora back” from the asylum. At least she got lucky there. Marina Warner’s introduction shows Leonora clearly already on the rebellious side when she met, at age 19, the married artist Max Ernst. After Ernst sorted his “genital responsibilities,” they lived together in France until the German invasion. At that time, Ernst was arrested and Leonora fled to Spain.

Down Below

Down Below covers Leonora’s flight to Spain, a journey fraught with strange thoughts, danger and portents of death. She meets a man named Van Ghent and imagines he has “nefarious” powers:

I was still convinced that it was Van Ghent who had hypnotized Madrid, its men and its traffic, he who turned the people into zombies and scattered anguish like pieces of poisoned candy in order to make slaves of all. One night, having torn up and scattered in the streets a vast quantity of newspapers which I believed to be a hypnotic device resorted to by Van Ghent, I stood at the door of the hotel, horrified to see people in the Alameda go by who seemed to be made of wood. I rushed to the roof of the hotel and wept, looking at the chained city below my feet, the city it was my duty to liberate. 

She plays in the park at night, decides that Van Ghent is the “enemy of mankind,” and visits the British embassy where she tells the consul that the war is “being waged hypnotically by a group of people–Hitler and Co.- who were represented in Spain by Van Ghent.” The consul decides Leonora is mad, she’s passed through the hands of several physicians but ends up, finally, in an asylum in Santander.

From this point, everything goes downhill. The narrative becomes much more surreal as Leonora claims to be “transforming my blood into comprehensive energy–masculine and feminine, microcosmic and macrocosmic.” After reacting violently to staff, she’s strapped down and force fed through tubes inserted into the nostrils. She loses sense of time and place, and as the narrative becomes more surreal, it’s impossible to know what is real and what is imagined. She believes she’s the “third person of the Trinity,” and imagines a country named Down Below where she will be ‘purified.’

This is all quite painful reading, and the author’s matter-of-fact tone doesn’t make it easier or any less depressing. This isn’t an it-can-happen-to-anyone asylum memoir as Leonora clearly had problems with reality, had some sort of psychic breakdown, and with her violence and behaviour, she desperately needed help. Unfortunately, the treatment she received seemed to make things worse. Leonora Carrington is considered a major figure of the Surrealist movement, so it’s perhaps not too surprising that her memoir of the time spent in an asylum should resemble a surreal nightmare. Down Below has a patchy history and was “reconstruct[ed]” which probably explains the occasionally truncated feeling of the narrative.

Review copy

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Filed under Carrington Leonora, Non Fiction

El Verdugo by Balzac

Balzac’s El Verdugo is around 15 pages on my kindle edition. It’s a change of pace which places us in Spain during Napoleon’s campaigns, and the story opens in a moment of deceptive peace with a ball in the background. Balzac uses balls a lot in his stories, but then these were grand social events with opportunities for courtship and great intrigue. El Verdugo seems to include both scenarios in the opening scene with young French Major Victor Marchand looking at the town and the ocean while leaning on the terrace parapet of the Chateau de Menda. The château belongs to the Marquis de Leganes, a grandee of Spain who has 5 children–3 sons: 30-year-old Juanito,  20-year-old Felipe, and the youngest son is 8, and two daughters. Marchand noticed that during the evening, the eldest daughter kept casting glances “expressing extreme sadness”  his way. Perhaps she’s in love with him? Marchand may be in charge of the French troops there, but he is the son of a grocer, and while he notes Clara’s interest, he cannot credit that the Marquis would allow his daughter to marry the enemy–a commoner to boot. But romance is in the air, and, after all, it’s a romantic setting:

The beautiful sky of Spain spread its dome of azure above his head.

The scintillation of the stars and the soft light of the moon illumined the delightful valley that lay at his feet. Resting partly against an orange-tree in bloom, the young major could see, three hundred feet below him, the town of Menda, at the base of the rock on which the castle was built. Turning his head, he looked down upon the sea, the sparkling waters of which encircled the landscape with a sheet of silver.

Marchand has received a dispatch from Marechal Ney which warns that the English may soon send men to the region, so Marchand must be vigilant and remember that the Marquis and his family are enemies. Marchand’s thoughts are conflicted as he gazes out across the parapet, and notices that something is wrong….

Balzac, that great observer and chronicler of human nature, always manages to get to the heart of the matter. Is there anyone who can describe so accurately the viciousness of family politics when it comes to the division of a family estate? In El Verdugo which means The Executioner, Balzac examines the nature of divided loyalties, punishment and human cruelty. Does an adherence to a moral code of behaviour trump family loyalty? There’s one chilling scene in which executions take place against laughter and feasting. Balzac, a writer of great compassion, seems to argue that the anguish of suffering set amidst feasting and laughter shows human behaviour at its worst. By the story’s chilling conclusion, we ask ourselves which were the noble acts of courage and who acted callously and with supreme cruelty. Translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley. Prepared by John Bickers and Dagny

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Filed under Balzac, Fiction