I was aware of Leonora Carrington as an artist but not as a writer until I came across this strange little story. It’s probably about as far removed as one can get from stories like ‘Smoke Ghost’. It’s perfectly matter-of-fact in its tone; the oddity arises initially in the subject matter and only later does it strike one as to just how matter-of-fact the narrator is in the face of such curious goings-on.
It starts with the name of the street on which the narrator is now living – Pest Street. it screams unwholesomeness, as I am sure it is meant to. And there’s something wrong with the houses themselves, ‘reddish black, [looking] as if they had issued mysteriously from the fire of London’ (277). ‘This is not the way that I had imagined New York’ (277), the writer informs us crisply, as though she had specifically ordered up an altogether different vision, only to for there to be a mix-up in delivery. How dare New York be so unaccommodating, one thinks.
Yet something is indeed amiss about Pest Street: ‘[t]here was always a reminiscence of smoke, which made visibility troubled and hazy’ (277); nonetheless the narrator is able to study the house opposite in great detail. These contradictory polarities emerge time and again throughout the story, unremarked on, accepted as perfectly normal. The narrator appears not to notice that anything is amiss and thus we as readers are obliged to either accept the narrator’s equanimity or struggle so fiercely to understand what’s going on that the story disintegrates before us. And that, I think, is the key to this story. We’re not being invited to interrogate its oddities but instead are asked to accept it simply for what it is. The pleasure lies in seeing what is going to happen next.
It is a story composed of startling images, as befits the work of a painter. We have the narrator seated on a ridiculous little balcony, drying her hair in the sun, bending forward yet somehow able to look upwards to see the raven circling We have the neighbourly conversation between two women hesitantly making contact, except they’re discussing rotting meat. And bizarre as it might at first seem, the narrator then goes out to buy meat she can let rot, the key to further contact with the woman across the road. A woman who, we note, looks not unlike her, with similar long dark hair. Also, a woman who uses her own hair to wipe the dish clean, an image which reminded me immediately of Mary of Bethany, who washes the feet of Jesus, and then dries them with her own hair. Mary of Bethany is the sister of Lazarus, whom Jesus raises from the dead.
It’s equally difficult to get past the idea of the house across the road as being somewhat tomb-like. There is the difficulty of finding the door in the first place, of the bell pull that comes away in the narrator’s hand, the door that caves in. Does it really tumble or is this a poetic turn of phrase?
And when the woman appears on the stairs, ‘I saw that her skin was dead white and glittered as if speckled with thousands of minute stars’ (278), a staggeringly beautiful description of … well, of what? Is this a skin condition? Lazarus is a name associated with lepers and it comes as little surprise to discover that the woman’s husband, similarly afflicted and apparently blind, is called Lazarus. Later, the woman herself claims that they have the ‘holy disease’ though they seem to have been spared the more lesions and distorted joints that generally mark a leper. So far, in its own peculiar way, the story makes a sort of sense and a terrifying disease is transformed into something oddly, perversely exquisite.
But then there are the meat-eating white rabbits. Something we think of as cute, fluffy, vegetarian is transformed into a far more sinister creature and indeed it is the meat-eating rabbits who finally and quite understandably, prompt the narrator to flee. The thought of a roomful of rabbits, carnivorous or not, is profoundly disturbing because it is simply not what one expects; it is the most mundane of the images invoked yet, ironically, the one that is too much to cope with.
This is a very short story yet somehow, mysteriously, the images it contains seems to multiply in the mind (rather like rabbits), teasing the brain. Oddly, they don’t demand that the problem-solving aspect of the brain string them together like pearls, to make a coherent linear narrative. Indeed, Carrington herself obligingly does that for the reader. This is a perfectly conventional narrative in many respects, with a beginning, a middle and an end, a clear narrative movement, a rather prim tone. One could perversely describe it as a simple account about meeting the neighbours and settling into the street, but what neighbours they turn out to be! And these are just the people across the road. What else is lurking in Pest Street? We will never know, of course, but we will forever wonder. The story, like the rabbits, forever multiplies.