Tag Archives: World War II

Review: Down Below by Leonora Carrington

When I gave birth to my daughter eleven years ago I suffered from a severe bout of post-partum depression.  About two weeks after she was born it was as if a cloud or a thick fog had descended over me and I no longer felt like myself.  I could barely move except to do the most essential tasks to take care of my newborn and was silent for most of the day.  I also felt a deep sense of embarrassment over experiencing this depression because what should have been one of the happiest times of my life was one of the saddest.  Talking about one’s physical health seemed far more socially acceptable than discussing ones struggle with mental health.  The New York Review of books reissuing of Down Below helps to ease this stigma and to begin much needed conversations about the importance of mental health.

While reading Down Below, Leonora Carrington’s autobiographical account of her nervous breakdown during World War II and her resulting admission into a sanitarium in Spain I couldn’t help but think about my own bout with mental illness.  There were two themes throughout her account with which I particularly identified: her fear of a relapse and her determined and constant struggle against her demons.  The mental health issues I experienced with post-partum were no where near the severity of the nervous breakdown that Leonora Carrington suffered in 1940.  But the fear of lapsing back into that fog of depression, a fear that is not uncommon to anyone with an illness,  has always haunted me.  Carrington’s recollection of these harrowing events felt to me like they were her attempt at catharsis to rid herself of the fear that she would someday, once again, lose her grip on reality.  She writes, “I am in terrible anguish, yet I cannot continue living alone with such a memory…I know that once I have written it down, I shall be delivered.”

Carrington originally wrote out this short memoir herself a few years after the breakdown but the original manuscript was lost.  She then dictated in French this version we have now to the wife of a friend in 1943 which was translated into English and published in 1944.  As she speaks about these events to her friend’s wife it becomes evident that her motive for bringing forth these horrible memories is to cleanse her mind of these awful events, to unburden herself and to allow her friends to know the full story so they can help her stay whole.  She begins her dictation of this period in her life with:

I must live through that experience all over again, because, by doing so, I believe that I may be of use to you, just as I believe that you will be of help in my journey beyond that frontier by keeping me lucid and by enabling me to put on and to take off at will the mask which will be my shield against the hostility of Conformism.

As she gets deeper into the more disturbing events of her commitment to an asylum Carrington never pities herself or asks her audience to pity her.  She is able to recall the broken and fractured thoughts of a tormented mind with the detached style of writing that seems more fitting for a journalist.  But her lack of emotional response, I felt, was due to the fact that if she stopped and allowed herself to become awash in her feelings, she would never have been able to make it through her entire story.  She continues to stave off her fear as she gets farther into her memoir:

I have been writing for three days, though I had expected to deliver myself in a few hours; this is painful, because I am living this period all over again and sleeping badly, troubled and anxious as I am about the usefulness of what I am doing.  However, I must go on with my story in order to come out of my anguish.  My ancestors, malevolent and smug, are trying to frighten me.

The cover that the New York Review of Books chose for this reissue of Down Below evokes the thoughts in these lines.  It features the center image of Carrington’s painting Crookhey Hall, which was also the name of her childhood home in Britain, with a ghost-like figure dressed in white fleeing other ghostly images that surround a gothic style house.   This painting can be viewed as Carrington’s representation of her escape from her childhood home in Britain and the grip of her wealthy, industrialist family; but it is also a fitting image to portray her never ending struggle to keep her mental demons which describes in Down Below at bay.

The other theme that appears on every page of Down Below is Carrington’s struggle against her illness.  There were many times throughout her experience where it would have been easier for her to give up and succumb to her disease but she never allows this to happen.  Carrington’s breakdown begins when Max Ernst, the surrealist painter with whom she was living in France, was captured by the Germans and brought to a concentration camp.  Even at the very beginning of this episode she fights against the sadness and anxiety that threatens to overwhelm her:  She describes the first few hours after which Max was taken away,

I wept for several hours down in the village; then I went up again to my house where, for twenty-four hours, I indulged in voluntary vomitings induced by drinking orange blossom water and interrupted by a short nap.  I hoped that my sorrow would be diminished by these spasms, which tore at my stomach like earthquakes.

An old friend from England arrives in France to help her escape to Spain where the symptoms of her illness become more severe.  Carrington is committed to Dr. Morales’s sanatorium in Santander, Spain which she believes at the time was a “god-send” because of her increasingly disturbing thoughts and behavior.  Once at the asylum she is tied down to her bed because her fighting against the doctors, which is described as animalistic, is constant.  “I learned later that I entered that place fighting like a tigress,” she says.  The descriptions of her restraints and her injections with the drug Cardiazol, a common treatment for mental disorders at the time, are especially difficult to read.  The indignities she suffers at Santander, instead of mitigating her disease, only add to her trauma:

I don’t know how long I remained bound and naked.  Several days and nights, lying in my own excrement, urine and sweat, tortured by mosquitoes whose stings made my body hideous—I believed that they were the spirits of all the crushed Spaniards who blamed me for my internment, my lack of intelligence and my submissiveness.

Carrington’s delusions are numerous while she is confined to Santander; she believes that Dr. Morales is the supreme commander of the Universe, that she is part of the Holy Trinity, and that there is a paradise at the sanatorium the she calls “Down Below.”  She feels that gaining admission into what she believes is the paradise of “Down Below” will help her to heal and she constantly struggles to make it to this magical place.  When she is injected with Cardiazol which induces painful episodes of epileptic seizures she still continues with her fight to make it through this illness.  She recalls her second injection of this awful drug: “Keeping my eyes closed enabled me to endure the second Cardiazol ordeal much less badly, and I got up very quickly, saying to Frau Aseguardo, ‘Dress me, I must go to Jerusalem to tell them what I have learned.'”

Carrington’s delusions gradually subside to the point where she is able to be released from Santander.  Her parents decide that they want to send her far away to another asylum in South Africa.  But as her last act of defiance in this memoir, she escapes to the Mexican embassy where she eventually meets Renato Leduc who marries her and brings her to Mexico.  She knows that she cannot endure another stay at an asylum that would undoubtedly use the same harsh treatments that she received in Spain.  She decides she has had enough and her last act of struggle, of fighting is what most likely saves her sanity.

After her marriage of convenience with Leduc falls apart, Carrington goes on to marry Imre Weisz with whom she had two sons.  She lives with her family very happily in Mexico for the rest of her 94 years and has a successful career as a Surrealist painter and an author.  Carrington’s memoir not only serves as a testament to her strong will but it also provides us with a brave example of the ability to overcome the struggle with mental illness and the resulting fear of relapse.

This month was the 100th year of Leonora Carrington’s birth and many commemorative articles have been written about her life, her writing and her art.  I have collected a few of these links here:

An article in the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/apr/06/leonora-carrington-from-high-society-to-surrealism-in-praise-of-100-years-on

A review of her short stories from NPR News: http://www.npr.org/2017/04/08/521959754/rediscovering-surrealist-leonora-carringtons-delights-and-disturbances

An article written by author Joanna Walsh for the Verso Blog: http://www.versobooks.com/blogs/2275-i-have-no-delusions-i-am-playing-leonora-carrington-s-madness-and-art





Filed under Classics, New York Review of Books, Nonfiction

Review: Her Father’s Daughter by Marie Sizun

I received a review copy of this title from Peirene Press.  This English version has been translated from the French by Adriana Hunter

My Review:
Her Father's DaughterFrance is a four and a half year old little girl, growing up in war time France with her mother.  Her father left to fight in World War II when she was an infant, so she only knows him through photographs.  In fact, the very concept of a father is alien to her because there are no other examples of fathers to which she is exposed.   I was immediately captivated by this short book and drawn into this small child’s recollections about the war and its lasting effects on her family.

Despite the fact that there is war raging on around her, France’s world is very small and happy.  She lives with her mother in a two room apartment in occupied Paris and as a spoiled and indulged child she does whatever she pleases.  She draws on the walls of her apartment, draws in books, sings at the top of her lungs and has awful table manners.  Her mother showers her with constant attention and affection and calls her “my darling.”  Her grandmother, who seems to the chid like a cold-hearted disciplinarian, visits France and her mother often but the child has no affection for her.  In fact, the child gets rather jealous when her mother and grandmother are talking privately to each other the child does everything she can to interrupt them.

One day France’s mother causally mentions that daddy is coming home.  France goes into a panic because she knows, rightly so, that her cozy world with her mother will never be the same.  When she meets daddy for the first time she is reticent and fearful.  Her father was captured by the Germans and spent years in a German prisoner of war camp.  When he is finally able to come home from the hospital, all of France’s routines are completely shattered.  Her father loses his temper easily at the ill manners of his small child.  When she refuses to finish her dinner he slaps her and when she throws a fit he makes her sit out in the hallway of the apartment by herself.  France develops a contempt for her mother for her once beloved who does not intervene on her behalf.  But at the same France gradually develops a fondness for her father.

Once he is able to settle his anger and impatience, France’s father is able to show her affection and attention.  He begins painting with her and telling her stories.  The transformation of this heartwarming father-daughter relationship was my favorite part of the book.  As France begins to trust her father, she confides in him a secret about her mother that has been bothering her for a long time.  This secret is what finally manages to break apart what was already a fragile marriage.  When France’s father moves out and remarries, she must once again navigate the world without a consistent father figure in her life.

I found this book to be clever in its dealing with the point of view of a child.  The entire story is seen through the child’s eyes, yet the narrator also interprets for us the underlying feelings and emotions of the child, so we get a deeper glimpse into the thoughts of her life and her surroundings.  The sentences are short and sometimes only a word or two which is fitting for a narrator who is a small child.  And throughout the book she is rarely called by her name but instead she is referred to as “the child,” as if she were unimportant, a non-entity to the adults around her.  This is another beautiful and powerful book from Peirene Press and it gave me a new perspective about the tragedies of war and how they affect the youngest and most vulnerable among us.

This is the second book in the Peirene Fairy Tale series.  I am always eager to read another Peirene and this book was absolutely fantastic.  I can’t wait for the third, and final book, in the Fairy Tale selections.  Please visit the Peirene website for more information on this book and to read a sample: http://www.peirenepress.com/books/fairy_tale/peirene_no_20/PLINK

About the Author:
M SizunMarie Sizun is a prize-winning French author. She was born in 1940 and has taught literature in Paris, Germany and Belgium. She now lives in Paris. She has published seven novels and a memoir. Marie Sizun wrote her first novel, Her Father’s Daughter, at the age of 65. The book was long-listed for the Prix Femina



Filed under France, Historical Fiction, Novella

Review: To Bed with Grand Music by Marghanita Laski

I am so delighted that it is finally fall and the temperatures are getting cooler and the NFL season has begun here in the U.S.  I am a huge New York Giants fan and I am hoping for a stellar year.  Speaking of sports, this is another interesting Persephone title, the plot of which involves a woman using sex as a game while her husband is away at war.

My Review:
To BedI thought that the first scene in this book was quite shocking, but as it turns out the subject matter of the entire book is rather bold.  Deborah is in bed with her husband, Graham, who is about to leave for the middle east where he will be stationed during World War II.  Graham informs her that there is no way he can be expected to be faithful to her for the duration of the war.  Graham also gives Deborah permission to have a dalliance of her own since he will be away for so long.  I couldn’t decide what was more shocking: his declaration of intended unfaithfulness or his suggestion that his wife have an affair as well.

Deborah is the type of woman who needs a man to complete her identity.  When she is left alone with her three-year-old son and her housekeeper she thinks she will go crazy from the boredom and the monotony.  Deborah’s mother suggests that she get a job to help pass the time until the war is over.  Deborah eventually finds a job in London as a clerk and it is also in London that she has her first indiscretion with a man.  The first one night stand disgusts her and she runs off in shame, but she quickly changes her mind and her attitude towards having extramarital affairs.

Deborah eventually comes to the conclusion that it is acceptable to have lovers while her husband is gone so that she isn’t lonely.  The first prolonged affair that she has is with an officer named Joe who lavishes attention on Deborah and even gets along well with her son.  When Joe is sent to the frontlines Deborah takes on yet another lover.

The rest of the novel is an account of Deborah’s string of lovers.  Some of the book is very funny, especially when she finds ridiculous reasons to dump one man and move on to the next.  One of her lovers gets along very well with Deborah’s mother and Deborah is extremely irked by this.  So she casts him off and moves on to the next soldier.  Many of Deborah’s lovers provide her with lavish gifts, jewelry, expense differs and clothes.  Deborah is not a sympathetic characters since she is taking advantage of the situation of war to have a series of affairs which are all to her emotional and material benefit.

One part of the book that I found particularly sad is the fact that Deborah cannot bring herself to move back home and take care of her son.  The little boy craves his mother’s attention and the scenes in which she leaves him to go off to London with one of her many lovers is pathetic.  The boy becomes more and more attached to his nanny and we wonder whether or not his mother’s abandonment will have a lasting effect on his life.

This is a very interesting book to compare to Laski’s other World War II title, Little Boy Lost.  Both books bring up a very different side of the war that are somewhat controversial.  And children do not fair well in the lives of adults in either book.  If I found the subject matter of this book bold then I wonder what the reaction to it was in 1946 when it was originally published.

About The Author:
M LaskiEnglish journalist, radio panelist, and novelist: she also wrote literary biography, plays, and short stories.

Lanksi was to a prominent family of Jewish intellectuals: Neville Laski was her father, Moses Gaster her grandfather, and socialist thinker Harold Laski her uncle. She was educated at Lady Barn House School and St Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith. After a stint in fashion, she read English at Oxford, then married publisher John Howard, and worked in journalism. She began writing once her son and daughter were born.

A well-known critic as well as a novelist, she wrote books on Jane Austen and George Eliot. Ecstasy (1962) explored intense experiences, and Everyday Ecstasy (1974) their social effects. Her distinctive voice was often heard on the radio on The Brains Trust and The Critics; and she submitted a large number of illustrative quotations to the Oxford English Dictionary.

An avowed atheist, she was also a keen supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Her play, The Offshore Island, is about nuclear warfare.




Filed under British Literature, Classics, Historical Fiction, Persephone Books

Review: Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski

My Review:
Little Boy LostIt’s about time that I reviewed another title from Persephone Books.  I haven’t found one yet that I didn’t like.  Although, I must admit, that I wasn’t sure if I would make it through this one because the beginning is so incredibly sad.

Hilary Wainwright returns to France after World War II in order to find his lost infant son.  He has only met his son once, on the day he was born, and so he has very little information to go on to track him down.  Hilary’s wife, Lisa, was living in Paris during the war and working for the resistance when the Nazis discovered her secret operations and arrested her.  Just before she is arrested, she passes off her baby to a family friend named Jean whom she hopes will be able to keep him safe.  But Jean is also arrested by the Nazis and she, too, has to relinquish the child before she is caught.  Jean’s fiancé, Pierre, is the only one who can help Hilary track down his son with the few clues that Jean left behind.

Hilary is so devastated by Lisa’s horrible and tragic death; she was the love of his life and his entire world and after the war he is not sure that he even wants to find his son.  To a lot of us this does not seem to make any sense.  Hilary’s son is a part of or an extension of his love with Lisa, but Hilary is afraid of more emotional turmoil if he fails to find his missing boy.  Hilary doesn’t want to open his heart again only to experience disappointment or hurt again.

Hilary’s search for his son leads him to an orphanage in a small town in France.  The scenes of the pathetic and abandoned children in the orphanage are heart wrenching.  When Hilary meets little Jean, the child whom they suspect is his son, Hilary is hesitant to become attached to the child for fear that he will experience another crippling emotional loss.   Hilary notices that Jean does not have any gloves and so he buys him a small pair of red gloves.  This is one of the most emotional scenes in the book because, although the gloves are too small for Jean, he insists on keeping them because he has never had such a nice gift before.

The end of the book deals with Hilary’s decision on whether or not to accept this son as his own.  For a while he even distracts himself from making a decision by entertaining a floozy he meets at his hotel.  The boy resembles Jean in a cursory way and we have to remember that there aren’t any DNA tests in the 1940’s.  Jean seems to want an obvious sign from the heavens pointing to the fact that this is his son.  It was my wish, though, that regardless of whether or not Jean was his biological son, that he would take pity on this small, abandoned boy anyway and decide it was worth opening up his heart again.

About The Author:
M LaskiEnglish journalist, radio panelist, and novelist: she also wrote literary biography, plays, and short stories.

Lanksi was to a prominent family of Jewish intellectuals: Neville Laski was her father, Moses Gaster her grandfather, and socialist thinker Harold Laski her uncle. She was educated at Lady Barn House School and St Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith. After a stint in fashion, she read English at Oxford, then married publisher John Howard, and worked in journalism. She began writing once her son and daughter were born.

A well-known critic as well as a novelist, she wrote books on Jane Austen and George Eliot. Ecstasy (1962) explored intense experiences, and Everyday Ecstasy (1974) their social effects. Her distinctive voice was often heard on the radio on The Brains Trust and The Critics; and she submitted a large number of illustrative quotations to the Oxford English Dictionary.

An avowed atheist, she was also a keen supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Her play, The Offshore Island, is about nuclear warfare.


Filed under British Literature, Classics, Persephone Books

Review: Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans

I received an advanced review copy of this novel from the publisher through TLC Book Tours.

My Review:
Crooked HeartThis is the heartwarming tale of two lonely people that find each other amidst the turmoil of World War II in London.  Noel is an orphan living with his godmother when the novel opens and, although she is a tough old woman and a former suffragette, dementia is taking its toll on her health.  Due to her increasing confusion, she walks out of her home at night and dies in a sand pit.  Noel is then left with some of his godmother’s distant relatives who really don’t care to have the ten-year-old boy around.

When children are evacuated from London, Noel is placed with a woman named Vee who has an interesting and sad story of her own.  Vee got pregnant when she was seventeen, only to be abandoned by her lover.  Vee has raised her son as a single parent, not an easy thing to do in 1940’s London, and she also cares for her mute mother.  Vee is always trying some small scan to bring in money and put food on the table for her son and mother.  When she hears that she will be given a stipend for taking in Noel as an evacuee, she decides that any small inconvenience is worth the extra income.

The strength of this book lies in the development of the relationship between Vee and Noel.  Noel has pretty much been abandoned and is alone in the world.  At the same time, Vee”s mother remarries and her son Donald runs away because a scam of his own making has gone awry.  Vee has spent the better part of her life taking care of her mother and son, only to be left behind by both of them without so much as a thank you.

But Noel proves to be great company for Vee and together they run some minor scams to have a decent income.  When Noel disappears overnight, Vee misses him dearly and does everything she can to find him.  It is evident that this child has grown on her and she wants him in her life permanently.  The plot really pulls at the heartstrings as Noel realizes that there is suddenly a person in his life that cares about him and he has the potential for a true parent and a lasting home.

CROOKED HEART is a novel with a serious backdrop of World War II but the author manages to make the story heartwarming and funny.  For those who love World War II historical fiction, this book is a must read.


About The Author:
L EvansAfter a brief career in medicine, and an even briefer one in stand-up, Lissa Evans became a comedy producer, first in radio and then in television. She co-created Room 101 with Nick Hancock, produced Father Ted, and co-produced and directed The Kumars at Number 42. Her first novel, Spencer’s List, was published in 2002. Lissa Evans lives in north London.


Filed under Historical Fiction