Sunday, May 8, 2011

Carson McCullers and the Ballad of the Sad Cafe

My book club has been reading southern writers recently, including William Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury), Flannery O’Connor (Wise Blood), and my favorite, Carson McCullers (The Ballad of the Sad Café). I have read many of the works by each of these before; in the case of O’Connor and McCullers, I have read all of their fiction, as well as several biographies of each. Rereading McCullers was a particularly gratifying experience. I was so enamored by her in high school (10th grade), where I devoured everything I could. I hold my reading of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter as one of the more formative experiences of my life: I had always been a reader up until that point, but that book made me a believer. Her writing was so precise and spoke so directly to me that I believed I found had a kindred. As anyone who has ever survived the awkwardness of adolescence can testify, making a connection, being accepted, or just simply being understood can make months of unbearable confusion seem passable, even meaningful. Carson did that for me, and for that, I will always be grateful.

And yet, as an adult I have not gone back to McCullers. Carson’s works meant so much to me at such a significant point in time that I have been hesitant to reread her because I am scared to see that meaning diminished in some way. I don’t want to look back at her work and have that impact scarred. More than anything, as someone who also found great meaning in the works of Anne Rice and Tori Amos (oh, the delicious anguish!), I don’t want to be embarrassed by my taste or adolescent passions.

Luckily, rereading Ballad I didn’t cringe once. If anything, I was able to appreciate it more this time, no longer under the spell of raging hormones and sexual anxiety. The story of cross-eyed Miss Amelia, Cousin Lymon the hunchback, and dangerous Marvin Macy, and their triangle of unrequited love still holds the magnificent power it had in its initial release in 1943. McCullers graceful prose packs such beauty and yet remains wholly unsentimental, a feat many modern writers could learn a thing or two from. She captures the pain of loving someone without knowing love in return, and earns the tear it brings. Take this moment, when Miss Amelia, owner of her small southern town’s one café, realizes the person she has fallen for, a hunchback, loves not her, but her ex-husband, the ex-con Marvin Macy:

There were times when Miss Amelia seemed to go into a sort of trance. And the cause of these trances was usually known and understood. For Miss Amelia was a fine doctor, and did not grind up swamp roots and other untried ingredients and give them to the first patient who came along; whenever she invented a new medicine she always tried it out first on herself. She would swallow an enormous dose and spend the following day walking thoughtfully back and forth from the café to the brick privy. Often, when there was a sudden keen gripe, she would stand quite still, her queer eyes staring down at the ground and her fists clenched; she was trying to decide which organ was being worked upon, and what misery the new medicine might be most likely to cure. And now as she watched the hunchback and Marvin Macy, her face wore this same expression, tense with reckoning some inward pain, although she had taken no new medicine that day. (pg. 236, Collected Short Stories of Carson McCullers)

Passages like this one affirm McCullers’ strength as a storyteller. This beautiful paragraph, so exact in its telling, is a mixture of whimsical sadness and southern gothic that defines the best of McCullers’s works. It is a true marvel. Novellas such Ballad are usually called “gems” and this is no exception. Rereading this passage, I remembered why I connected so much with McCullers and her beautiful sad creatures that love and long and dream of snow. She is the real deal, and even the sad creature that I was at the age of 15 could see that. What a wonder she is, and I am so thankful to have been introduced to her at such an impressionable age. It will not take me a half a decade to read her again.

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