Ali Smith begins her introduction to the 2005 Penguin Modern Classics edition of Leonora Carrington's 1974 novel The Hearing Trumpet with a paragraph detailing the "sheer unexpectedness" of the fantastic life of this English debutante turned "Surrealist wild child and muse".
Born into a wealthy English family in 1917, Carrington spent her childhood in a large, stately home near Lancaster. She was later expelled from her Roman Catholic boarding school, and further attempts to civilise her in the manner of young ladies of her day also failed.
After a love affair with the Surrealist painter Max Ernst (who was married and two decades Carrington’s senior), who she met at a dinner party when she was 19, she ran away to Paris where she befriended the likes of Andre Breton, Roland Penrose and Lee Miller.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, Ernst, who was German, was arrested by the French as an enemy alien, after which, Carrington suffered a mental breakdown and was admitted to hospital in Spain and treated for psychosis.
She outfoxed the minders sent by her embarrassed parents and fled once again, this time to the US, and then to Mexico where she lived until her death in 2011. It's something of a surprise that more novelists haven't turned their attention to Carrington's extraordinary life. Maybe it's because hers is one of those amazing stories, the truth of which seems so much stranger than fiction. A series of anecdotes so gloriously wild, Smith explains, that it's near impossible to tell whether they're apocryphal or true. Perhaps much of what was written simply wouldn't be believed.
Thankfully, such considerations didn't put Heidi Sopinka off. Her debut novel, The Dictionary of Animal Languages, is inspired by Carrington's life, the seed of the project planted after Sopinka spent several days interviewing Carrington, then 92, in her Mexico City home for The Believer magazine.
Although Sopinka draws heavily on Carrington's life for that of her fictional heroine – the artist and "acoustic biologist" Ivory Frame, also 92 when we're first introduced to her – The Dictionary of Animal Languages is not a strict fictionalisation of Carrington's life.
Sopinka uses some of the very best tales about the writer and artist but tweaks them for the purposes of her fictional world.
There was the time she supposedly turned up at an exclusive Paris party wearing only a sheet, which she then dramatically let drop to the floor leaving her naked in the middle of the room, and when she served house guests breakfast omelettes full of their own hair, which she’d silently trimmed while they slept.
Ivory turns up to a party wearing nothing beneath a black velvet cloak, a bold interpretation of her lover Lev’s throwaway response to her claim that she has “nothing to wear” to the evening’s revels.
And it’s Ivory’s beloved artist friend Tacita who has the inspired idea of serving an omelette with hair at a dinner party, “cut from the beard of a dinner guest who had taken too much eau de vie and snores on the couch”.
These subtle but important twists are hugely influential and are among the main reasons Sopinka’s story never trips over into the world of fanciful whimsy that so many of the tales about Carrington inspire. Indeed, the young Ivory is a much more reserved person than her real-life inspiration. Or perhaps the stories that abound do Carrington a disservice.
This is the beauty of Sopinka’s clever tale; it gives the illusion of an elegant high-wire walk between fact and fiction, but a dramatic fall would be very much part of the act.
Ivory, we learn, has dedicated much of her life to “le grand project”, the collation of a comprehensive “dictionary” of animal languages, audio files she’s collected over the course of many years and across many continents – an entirely fictional endeavour, although animals were of huge significance in Carrington’s work, appearing in many of her paintings and stories.
She now labours in near seclusion, helped only by her young assistant Skeet, much of her present taken up with recollections of her past: the years she spent in France, first Paris then the countryside, with Lev; his disappearance; and her subsequent breakdown.
“Time doesn’t blunt all memories,” Ivory explains. “Some grow edges sharp as knives.” Sopinka writes the lovers’ story as that of a grand romance, employing a compassion that renders it unexpectedly moving.
Yet at the same time, much emphasis is given to Ivory’s lifelong insistence on the importance of her work and independence, not to mention her own recognition
that she exists “more completely” in solitude, something that is deemed a
privilege for women but granted to men as routine.
“Do you ever feel you’ve had to sacrifice your personal life for your work?” a young journalist asks her. “Woman scientists who marry don’t stand a chance,” Ivory thinks. “Men can get married. They can have children and go right on being scientists.”
It’s Ivory’s choice to not “domesticate”, as she puts it: “These things to me are both dreamlike and dull. I would never have allowed myself to want them, let alone go near them.”
It’s in these illuminating moments that Sopinka comes closest to the rare genius of the real Carrington, a uniquely talented artist and writer who refused to live by the rules.