Book Review: Down Below by Leonora Carrington

Book Review: Down Below by Leonora Carrington

Painting by Leonora Carrington, also titled Down Below, 1940


When the powerful forces controlling the publishing industry maintain they’re looking for novels and memoirs between 60,000 and 80,000 words, it’s a natural outcome that a huge percentage of books are 250–300 pages long. In a better world, they would probably be shorter. Down Below by the late surrealist artist Leonora Carrington bucks that trend with a spare and efficient central text less than 70 pages long. It’s her real recollection of being institutionalized in Franco’s Spain shortly after her boyfriend, the artist Max Ernst, was sent to a Nazi concentration camp for his “degenerate art,” and she fled across the border from France. This is where things get spooky. Carrington would come to believe that the Nazis were using mind control to create a class of zombies and robots. The artist recounts a baroque set of symbols that populated her mind as she struggled with her delusions and was tortured by hospital staff. Figuring prominently: the number 6. The moon. The sun. Saturn.The Father. Christ. And herself. Carrington pushes against the outer boundaries of acceptable discourse about madness still reigning today. Instead of trying to spin out some sort of feel good moral and hit the 250 page mark, the volume ends abruptly with a sudden plot twist. If you Google her, you can easily figure out some spoilers. Suffice it to say that what an inspirational text this could be for mentally ill readers.