Down Below review: A valuable report from a descent into the unspeakable

Rob Doyle found Leonara Carrington’s text earnest and humourless, appropriately

The late surrealist artist and writer Leonora Carrington, pictured in 2007, who sulked in a tiara before a king and scandalously eloped with fellow artist Max Ernst. Photograph:  Reuters/Henry Romero

The late surrealist artist and writer Leonora Carrington, pictured in 2007, who sulked in a tiara before a king and scandalously eloped with fellow artist Max Ernst. Photograph: Reuters/Henry Romero

On the centenary of her birth, the late surrealist artist and writer Leonora Carrington is the talk of the town. Joining the gush of reissued fiction, memoirs and articles in the press about Carrington’s work and colourful life comes this NYRB Classics reissue, an account of the madness Carrington endured in France and Spain during the second World War.

As Marina Warner acknowledges in her lengthy, useful introduction, Down Below is not representative of Carrington’s writing; indeed, she did not even write it, exactly. Having lost an early draft, she dictated her experiences to a physician friend and his wife, who then knocked it out in book form. Decades later, in the 1980s, Carrington dictated a postscript to Marina Warner. The text amounts to a little under 70 pages.

True enough, the sharp wit and droll absurdism of Carrington’s novel The Hearing Trumpet, and such short stories as The Debutante, are absent here. Down Below is earnest and humourless, the nature of the experiences being described leaving little alternative.

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