To know that Leonora Carrington, a new-to-me author, was an artist who painted in the surrealist style as well as wrote books and was a founding member of the Mexican Women's Liberation Movement in the 1970s goes a long way in putting the story I read by her this weekend into perspective. I can't say that I understand "As They Rode Along the Edge", this week's story from Infinite Riches, but it has some remarkable imagery and a little searching about online helps to make a little sense of what I read.
Carrington was British born (1917), and she sounds rather spirited. She saw her first Surrealist painting in Paris when she was only ten. She studied art at home and abroad and mingled with other Surrealist artists. Ultimately she emigrated to Mexico where she lived most of her adult life. She sounds like a really fascinating woman and now I will have to read more about her and look at her artwork. (Check this out--I love it!).
Here's how the story starts, and it will give you an idea of how unusual the story is:
"As they rode along the edge , the brambles drew back their thorns like cats retracting their claws.
This was something to see: fifty black cats and as many yellow ones, and then here, and one couldn't really be altogether sure that she was a human being. Her smell alone threw doubt on it--a mixture of spices and game, the stables, fur and grasses.
Riding a wheel, she took the worst roads, between precipices, across trees. Someone who's never traveled on a wheel would think it difficult, but she was used to it.
Her name was Virginia Fur, she had a mane of hair yards long and enormous hands with dirty nails; yet the citizens of the mountain respected her and she too always showed a deference for their customs. True, people up there were plants, animals, birds; otherwise things wouldn't have been the same. Of course, she had to put up with being insulted by the cats sometimes, but she insulted them back just as loudly and in the same language."
This is the sort of writing that makes me feel adrift, like I can't touch bottom or sides and am just floating with no control. Normally that makes me uncomfortable and cranky, but strangely I quite liked the story even as I was totally perplexed when reading it. While out hunting, she meets Saint Alexander (who is quite fond of mortification of the flesh--I won't describe his activities) and invites her to his church in order to 'win' her soul. She declines the offer telling him she sold her soul long ago but she and the hundred cats do partake of a meal with him. I won't describe that either.
Other things happen, like a romance with Igname the most handsome boar in the forest, who is later shot by hunters and will become the main dish at a feast held by Saint Alexander and guests to rather, erm, dire consequences (if I am reading the story correctly . . .). Those consequences are mostly left up to the reader's imagination. Quite a lot of the story is, really.
I tried to look for a little interpretation, and came across this article by Ali Smith on the Tate Museum's website. (Which is where that drawing came from, by the way). I found this quite helpful:
"Both bear interesting comparison (referencing the above drawing and one other) with one of her late 1930s short stories, As They Rode Along the Edge, in which a parsimonious saint tries to fool a bunch of savvy creatures and their leader, a hirsute wild girl called Virginia Fur, into letting the church have, at its leisure, not just their souls but their bodies too. Virginia spends her time, followed by a horde of cats, whizzing round her territory mounted on a wheel. ‘Riding a wheel, she took the worst roads between precipices, across trees. Someone who’s never travelled on a wheel before would think it difficult, but she was used to it.’
Most interesting, and for any Londoners who happen by here, there is currently an exhibit of Carrington's work at the Tate (I wish I could go). If you've seen it, please tell me what you think!
I wonder what her other writing is like. I may not read more of her work, but I will be looking for books on her life and art.
Next up is Attia Hosain, another new-to-me writer. I only have four stories left in this collection, the last one quite long--novella-length. I am sure I have already said this, but Infinite Riches is a veritable treasure-trove of stories. How (and with what) will I ever follow it up with?
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A most interesting New Yorker story (from the April 6 issue) by Algerian-born writer, Kamel Daoud who now lives in Paris and is a journalist. I've never read Camus (I know, another gaping hole), but I am familiar enough with The Stranger to recognize that in his story, "Musa" Daoud was using it as inspiration. That was confirmed in his Q&A, which is always so interesting to read. The story, set in 1940s and 50s Algeria about the death of a young man, the murder to be exact, as told by his younger brother. It is a compelling story of grief both of the mother and the brother. I didn't even realize while reading it that it is not actually a short story, but an excerpt from his soon to be published (here in the US that is) novel The Meursault Investigation. The writing (it is translated from French by the way) is quite eloquent and his descriptions and characterizations very refined.
"These days, my mother's so old she looks like her own mother, or maybe her great-grandmother. Once we reach a certain age, time gives us the features of all our ancestors, combined in a soft jumble of reincarnations. And maybe that is what the next world is--an endless corridor where all your ancestors are lined up, one after another. They turn toward their living descendent and simply wait, without words, without movement, their patient eyes fixed on a date."
I think this is my favorite story yet, and there have been some good ones so far this year. You can read it here, too! I think I am going to have to read Camus now, and then Daoud's full novel.