The surrealist painter Leonora Carrington is enjoying a renaissance of late, with renewed interest in both her visual art and literary work. The last few years have seen the publication of The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington (Dorothy Press), the memoir Down Below (New York Review Books), and, just this January, Carrington’s masterpiece The Hearing Trumpet (New York Review Books). Long eclipsed by the male surrealists, in particular by her mentor and lover Max Ernst, Carrington is long past due an evaluation on her own terms. In Leonora in the Morning Light, Michaela Carter gives us a work of historical fiction based on the dramatic events of Carrington’s youth. Carter’s novel functions as a feminist retelling, turning Carrington from Ernst’s muse into the protagonist of her own story and an artist in her own right.
Already an admirer of Max Ernst’s paintings, nineteen-year-old Leonora is primed to fall for the man himself when she meets him at a friend’s house in England in 1937. She soon follows him to Paris, leaving behind her family’s wealth; her father was was the head of Imperial Chemicals, a detail that, like so many of the details in Carter’s novel—and Carrington’s life—would be totally unbelievable if they weren’t historically accurate.
Once in Paris, Leonora rubs elbows with some of the legends of the surrealist movement, including André Breton, Man Ray, and Marcel Duchamp. During this time, inspired by the surrealists and eager to earn her place among them, Leonora paints her first major work, the self-portrait “Inn of the Dawn Horse.” Max is still in the process of leaving his second wife, who makes things difficult for the couple by showing up at cafes and making scenes.
Soon Leonora and Max leave Paris for Saint-Martin-d’Ardèche, where they create their own peaceful idyll, free to live off the land, paint, and make love. Nestled in their own little Eden, they refuse to listen to friends’ advice and flee the country. In 1940, ahead of the Nazi invasion, Max, a German national, is arrested by the French and sent to a camp but manages to escape. When he is taken a second time, Leonora’s already frail frame of mind gives way to full-blown psychosis, and she finds herself in Spain, fleeing both the Nazis and her father’s agents who have been sent to retrieve her. She spends several months in an insane asylum in Santander, a harrowing experience that Carrington herself chronicled in Down Below.
Carter makes no attempt to copy the stylistic particulars of Carrington’s work, giving us in Leonora in the Morning Light a work of easily accessible realism. Carter understands that she is telling a love story, and appropriately enough, we have alternating access to both Leonora’s and Max’s perspectives. Peggy Guggenheim, Max’s third wife, also makes an appearance in the later pages of the novel.
Leonora in the Morning Light is most convincing when telling the love story between Leonora and Max and in its early sections, where Carter captures the uncertain striving of ambivalent attraction that a young Leonora has toward the older, more established artist. For this reader, the novel most disappoints in its back half, when dipping into Leonora’s psychosis and her subsequent turn away from Max’s influence. Carter does not attempt to beat Carrington’s account of her stay at the asylum, folding the contents of Down Below into a single chapter, but it’s hard to understand Leonora’s metamorphosis with such cursory treatment. When Leonora and Max are reunited multiple times in Lisbon and later New York, there is a sense that the novelist is being overly faithful to the historical record rather than choosing the most powerful ending.
It’s difficult not to compare Leonora in the Morning Light with Carrington’s own work and feel that, while Carter’s novel gives us all the outward particulars of her life, Carrington’s spirit somehow eludes the work. In The Hearing Trumpet, first published in 1974, Carrington’s narrator is a 92-year-old woman who is shipped off to a nursing home, where she uncovers a conspiracy involving a cross-dressing Abbess on a search for the Holy Grail. The novel’s final pages envision a new ice age, in which the narrator cheerfully announces that, after she dies, the planet will be “peopled with cats, werewolves, bees, and goats. We all fervently hope that this will be an improvement on humanity.” The writer of that novel possessed an idiosyncratic consciousness that is probably impossible to replicate. The version of Leonora Carrington we have in Carter’s novel feels like a domesticated, much less eccentric version of the woman that emerges in Carrington’s own art.
That said, Leonora in the Morning Light is a highly enjoyable account of Carrington’s eventful early life that gives glimpses into the surrealist movement and the early days of World War II. Like Carter, I hope that it will draw more people to the work of this exhilaratingly weird artist.
by Michaela Carter
Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster
Published April 6, 2021