:: Article

The Hearing Trumpet

By Jim Henderson.

Leonora Carrington, The Hearing Trumpet (1974; New York Review Books, 2021)

“People under seventy and over seven are very unreliable if they are not cats,” somebody says a few pages into Leonora Carrington’s 1974 novel The Hearing Trumpet. Most people would agree; if anything, the bad run of septuagenarians of late shows this age range is too narrow. The statement is characteristic of this chatoyant novel. Cats are everywhere in The Hearing Trumpet: their sheddings are collected to form a sleeveless cardigan; psychic powers are attributed to them; the earth freezes over and an earthquake thins out the human population, but the cats survive. Beneath its cattiness, the remark also offhandedly conflates species (the way “people” transmutes into “cats” at the end of the sentence) and recognizes the virtue of people usually excluded from civic life for being too young or too old. This broadening out of our ordinary categories of human life is at the heart of the novel.

The book follows Marian Weatherby, a ninety-two-year-old woman who is hard of hearing and has been living with Galahad, her son. She is good natured but too erratic for Galahad, who decides to put her in a home called the Well of Light Brotherhood. There, under the direction of the sinister Dr. Gambit, the women in the institution are made to practice “Inner Christianity,” a self-discipline regimen with exercises meant to forestall sinful lapses. They otherwise engage in backbiting; for her part, Marian becomes fascinated by a portrait she sees of a nun making a louche expression. Marian is slipped a book that describes the facts of her life, and the nun seems to have figured in a Venusian cult (more on this later). Then, by way of a murder mystery involving poisoned fudge and a revisionist history of the Holy Grail, a faction of women commandeer the home from the staff, another ice age gets underway, and they end up ushering in a glorious new efflorescence of life on earth.

Carrington is maybe best known as a surrealist painter, and the story’s weird divagations seem to fit within the movement’s approach. Everyday life is grim in The Hearing Trumpet. Its aging characters suffer from various ailments: the title refers to an implement given to Marian by her friend Carmella to help with her hearing troubles. Their faltering senses make communication impossible, and they can only drone on about themselves to people who aren’t listening. Marian says resignedly that “people only like whatever concerns themselves and I am no exception to this rule”. This state of affairs is gotten out of by typical surrealist means: confusion between waking and dreaming states, landscapes composed of incongruous parts (the institution’s buildings include “pixielike dwellings shaped like toadstools, Swiss chalets, railway carriages, one or two ordinary bungalows, something shaped like a boat,” and an “outsized Egyptian mummy”), general antinomianism.

For all that, in one of the most striking parts of the novel, Marian’s voice seems to give way to the author’s, which coolly evaluates the movement’s legacy:

Surrealism is no longer considered modern today and almost every village rectory and girl’s school have surrealist pictures hanging on their walls. Even Buckingham Palace has a large reproduction of Magritte’s famous slice of ham with an eye peering out. It hangs, I believe, in the throne room. Times do change indeed. The Royal Academy recently gave a retrospective exhibition of Dada art and they decorated the gallery like a public lavatory. In my day people in London would have been shocked.

Aside from rehashing the story of formerly intransigent art’s erosion into kitsch, this moment speaks to The Hearing Trumpet’s relationship to surrealism. The novel bears little resemblance to automatic writing or any of its other literary patents; instead, it pulls together outmoded narrative types into a strange but fascinating amalgam. It has fairy tale qualities and frequently alludes to Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. Thirty or so pages are given over to the story of the nun, recalling the interpolated stories that eighteenth century novels used to digress into. And the addition of a character named Galahad and a grail gives the novel the qualities of a quest narrative too.

Life in the book also comprises a lot of conflicting possibilities. “Personally I think that time is unimportant,” says Marian at one point. The human lifespan widens considerably in The Hearing Trumpet. Marian herself is up there; her mother is 110 and pursuing a newfound interest in croquet; Christabel, one of the women in the institution, claims to be 184. They are repeatedly likened to children, the idea being not so much “second childishness” as a more capacious form of biography that permits multiple asynchronous life cycles. Gender is not an identity but a form of subterfuge. In the novel it amounts to trappings that can be opportunistically used and discarded, hence a number of scenes in which characters put on extravagant men’s clothes (like “rich but discreet velvets of midnight violet trimmed with sable and frilled at the throat with lion coloured Irish point lace”) to pass undetected as they abscond from one place to another. The boundaries of humanity are extended, with people ceding their consciousness and merging with the landscape and animals treated as peers in the civilization established at the end of the novel.

The basis of this new mode of being is an esoteric spiritual order that is revealed over the course of the book. To believe The Hearing Trumpet, Christianity has taken shape through a series of misunderstandings and pilferings. Georgina Sykes, a sort of decadent aristocrat whom Marian befriends, avers that “everybody knows that the whole bible is inaccurate”. The characters often purport to uncover suppressed counterhistorical anecdotes, like Noah drunkenly falling out of the ark. Most significantly, the Holy Grail turns out to have belonged to Venus. It was in the care of a hermaphroditic goddess named Barbarus but was misappropriated by Seth and eventually by the clergy, leading to its mistaken association with the church. Against what is referred to as the “Revengeful Father God,” the novel puts together a pantheon out of figures like Diana, Hecate, and Epona. Ultimately, everything is put right: the cataclysm at the end allows the women to recover the grail, dislodging that sort of punitive morality in favor of Venus worship.

So the ending is apocalyptic in the current sense of end-of-the-world visions but also in the older one that has to do with unveiling. There’s a lot of catastrophism going around nowadays, but Carrington’s is different from ours. Betraying its Cold War origins, The Hearing Trumpet attaches these fears to different objects: its reference point for its doomsday scenario is not climate change but the atom bomb. What’s more, in keeping with the novel’s expansive conception of human life and its extinction, Marian doesn’t seem too upset: envisioning a future earth populated by “cats, werewolves, bees, and goats,” she says that “we all fervently hope that this will be an improvement on humanity, which deliberately renounced the Pneuma of the goddess”. It’s too early to say how the end of our world will play out, but it probably won’t be as much fun.

Jim Henderson lives in Minneapolis.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, January 29th, 2021.