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July 24, 2007

CAAF: A passion for tropical mushrooms and letters

Terry wrote yesterday about the allure of handwritten letters. It's a topic I've been thinking about lately whenever shuffling out for the mail. The ratio of bills & junk mail to actual items of interest is currently running about 100:1 at our house, and some days that seems like a bleak signpost of ... something (mortgages, lightning).

So I think about sending more letters and how nice it would be to receive some in return, particularly if these letters were to arrive in packages with gin, smokes, and the new Oxford Univ. Press edition of Coleridge's Faust translation tied up in string. But as my friends who've received cards from me with messages like "Congratulations on your baby -- and congratulations on his high-school graduation!" know, these impulses usually dissipate on the walk back from the curb.

This cycle (wanting mail, never sending mail) reminded me about the letters that appear in Leonora Carrington's The Hearing Trumpet, a book I take to the bed with about twice a year. The story features an incredibly old, bearded lady named Marian (a stand-in for Carrington) and her equally old best friend Carmella, who is bald and wears red wigs in a "queenly gesture to her long lost hair." (Carmella is understood to be a stand-in for Carrington's friend Remedios Varo.)

Here Carmella is introduced to the reader:

[Carmella] lives in a very small house with her niece who bakes cakes for a Swedish teashop although she is Spanish. Carmella has a very pleasant life and is really very intellectual. She reads books through an elegant lorgnette and hardly ever mumbles to herself as I do. She also knits very clever jumpers but her real pleasure in life is writing letters. Carmella writes letters all over the world to people she has never met and signs them with all sorts of romantic names, never her own. Carmella despises anonymous letters, and of course they would be impractical as who could answer a letter with no name at all signed at the end? These wonderful letters fly off, in a celestial way, by airmail, in Carmella's delicate handwriting. No one ever replies. This is the really incomprehensible side of humanity, people never have time for anything.

Carmella's letters are laced throughout the book, and she has a great flair. After the jump, one of her letters to strangers is described ...

This scene occurs shortly after Carmella's introduction, as the two ladies sit together sucking on violet-scented lozenges:

[Says Carmella:] "Every since I stole the Paris telephone directory from the consulate I have increased my output. You have no idea of the beautiful names in Paris. This letter is addressed to Monsieur Belvedere Oise Noisis, rue de la Rechte Potin, Paris IIe. You could hardly invent anything more sonorous even if you tried. I see him as a rather frail old gentleman, still elegant, with a passion for tropical mushrooms which he grows in an Empire wardrobe. He wears embroidered waistcoats and travels with purple luggage."

[Marian answers:] "You know Carmella I sometimes think that you might get a reply if you didn't impose your imagination on people you have never seen. Monsieur Belvedere Oise Noisis is undoubtedly a very nice name, but suppose he is fat and collects wicker baskets? Suppose he never travels and has no luggage, suppose he is a young man with a nautical yearning? You must be more realistic I think."

"You are sometimes very negative minded Marian, although I know you have a kind heart, that is no reason that poor Monsieur Belvedere Oise Noisis should do anything so trivial as collecting wicker baskets. He is fragile but intrepid, I intend to send him some mushroom spore to enrich the species which he had sent from the Himalayas." There was no more to be said so Carmella read the letter. She was pretending to be a famous Peruvian alpinist who had lost an arm trying to save the life of a grisly bear cub trapped on the edge of a precipice. The mother bear had unkindly bitten off her arm. She went on to give all sorts of information about high altitude fungus and offered to send samples. It seemed to me she took too much for granted."

Posted July 24, 2007 11:17 AM

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