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Review: Leonora in the Morning Light, by Michaela Carter
S&S, 2021. 393 pp. $27

In 1937, twenty-year-old Leonora Carrington, would-be artist, meets the Surrealist painter Max Ernst in London. One eye blink later, they’re attracted; the average zoo possesses less animal pheromone than these two.

Defying her industrialist father, who disowns her, Leonora follows Ernst to Paris, where she tries to paint, sometimes succeeding, and to avoid her lover’s second wife, who assaults her physically in public.

Despite the pheromones, the lovers are a mismatch. Ernst is forty-six, more than twice her age, and probably couldn’t spell fidelity, never mind live up to it. Nobody around him does. His friends, the likes of Lee Miller, Man Ray, and Paul Éluard, swap sexual partners as if that game couldn’t hurt anybody who has an artistic soul, which makes Leonora fear she lacks one. Head over heels in love, she wants Max to divorce his wife and marry her. Good luck.

I’ll confess that this novel confuses me. I was expecting a story about one woman’s growth as an artist, which would no doubt entail her search for her own style and her fight for recognition in a field dominated by men who’d never accept a woman as anything but bedmate or muse. Indeed, Carter writes in her author’s note, “This is not the story of the Great Man’s Woman. This is the story of the Great Woman.”

Carrington’s 1963-64 painting, The Magical World of the Mayans, at the National Anthropology Museum, Mexico City. Carrington spent most of her life in Mexico. (Courtesy Ioppear via Flickr and Wikimedia Commons)

I wonder. Leonora in the Morning Light vacillates between the feminist/artist theme and Max Ernst’s star power, and since the novel focuses more on their love affair than Carrington’s artistic education, it might not have been a fair fight to begin with.

Perhaps that results, in part, from Ernst’s fame, as evidenced by the emphasis in the jacket flap copy and the pointless prologue, set in 1977, which tries to show how Carrington merits our attention regardless of her erstwhile lover. Moreover, half the book has little or nothing to do with art, recounting the principals’ belated flight from France in June 1940 after the German invasion.

To be fair, before the war, you do see Carrington at work and, even more often, dreaming compelling images that she tries to paint. Also, Ernst does guide her to find her artistic vision and praises her grasp of the surreal—though she feels, with some reason, that he’s stingy that way, when generosity would have cost little. Still, it’s plain that their affair influences her life as an artist.

However, it takes about a hundred pages for Leonora to start painting as if she means it. And Ernst, despite the magnetic attraction, is poison for her, which to me makes him repellent. Selfish, hungry for the limelight, unable to commit himself to her yet complaining when she’s not there when he needs her, he’s holding her back, and she can’t break away.

After they’ve moved to southern France, a home and studio she’s largely created and paid for, nothing will make him leave, even the war. The Germans won’t bother us, he insists, though he knows Hitler has personally branded him a “degenerate” and had his works burned. Besides, the light is so good for painting. She can leave if she wants, but he’s staying, and he won’t discuss it.

What Leonora in the Morning Light does accomplish, though, is to create a remarkably clear picture of artists and how they live, work, and think. Max’s Ernst’s first demonstration for her:

He rubbed the side of the pencil over the paper. . . .It was like dreams, she thought, how they live all day in your body, in the bones of your wrists and elbows, in the spongy tissues of your liver and your lungs. Your logical mind is oblivious to them, and only when you let go and give in to sleep do these dreams dare to show their faces, the way animals at the zoo come out at dawn and dusk, when the light itself is a kind of refuge.

Carter’s a poet, and the language throughout is unerring, whether to set a scene in a Parisian café, artists frolicking at an English cottage, or the desperate escapes after the invasion. I believe everything the characters say and do, which feels utterly natural, without any wink-wink, nudge-nudge because of their fame. Their flaws as well as their genius come through.

If you read Leonora in the Morning Light, be warned that there’s a rape scene. Leonora also has a psychotic break, in which she becomes delusional, involving long, excruciating (and tedious) sequences of images and bizarre events. This didn’t surprise me, because her gift for the surreal is so deep as to suggest fragile internal boundaries between self and exterior, reality and fantasy. Sooner or later, she’ll crack.

What did surprise me was the degree to which she recovers. After her attack, she does draw back from certain subjects and images she fears might push her back over the edge, but you sense she’ll be all right in the long run. I wonder how we can know that.

An intense, unusual novel, this, perhaps best approached as a peek into an artist’s soul.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.