The Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carson McCullers

This book definitely has one of the strangest plots I have encountered. I’d read Carson McCullers’ novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter a few months ago and thought it was wonderful, so when I saw this on the library shelf, I snapped it up immediately! The Ballad of the Sad Cafe is actually a novella, published along with several of the author’s short stories.

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe is quite similar in some ways to the earlier novel, for example in its magical and gothic setting in the American Deep South, and its preoccupation with characters who have something unusual about them, are damaged or set apart from the people around them in some way. The story concerns Miss Amelia, a tough, independent woman who owns a successful business and has a lot of power within the town in which she lives. One day, a hunchback turns up on her doorstep and claims to be related to her. To everyone’s surprise, Miss Amelia takes the weirdly childlike Cousin Lymon to live with her, seeming to develop a strange love for him, and together they set up a cafe that becomes the central point of the town’s social life. It soon emerges that Miss Amelia used to be married, but it only lasted for ten days. I found the story of her disastrous marriage an interesting part of the book. Her husband, Marvin Macy, was a dangerous and violent man who went round fighting, drug-dealing and seducing the young girls of the town, but seemed somehow transformed by his love for the awkward and not exactly beautiful Miss Amelia. However, the marriage soon broke down and when he turns up again in the town, years later, he threatens the happiness of Miss Amelia and Cousin Lymon.

The book felt rather like a fairy-tale to me, partly because of the way the narrator talks directly to the reader. I don’t usually like books that have an intrusive narrator but I quite liked the wistful narration here. The story was presented as something that had happened long ago, I suppose like a folk ballad is. One thing that struck me about both of the Carson McCullers books I’d read was the focus on a late-night cafe that draws together a community of loners, ‘bachelors, unfortunate people and consumptives’. They are like brightly lit dreams in which people can find a temporary escape from the night.

There, for a few hours at least, the deep bitter knowing that you are not worth much in this world could be laid low.

Another aspect of her writing that is very distinctive is the way in which she writes about love – it’s rarely a typical romantic relationship, but instead a love that exists outside of the usual model, maybe between two friends or the love felt by a young girl. It’s something thwarted before it can even begin, or its intensity is unrecognised or unappreciated by those outside  it.

Of the short stories included in the book, I especially liked Wunderkind, a sad story about a teenage girl at a music lesson. Frances, a child prodigy pianist, has over the course of a few months lost her talent, and although she can still play technically well, she can no longer play musically or emotionally. A character in the story comments that her playing is ‘cold’, without feeling, but the story suggests that it is in fact adolescence, with its increase in feeling, that has somehow ruined her playing, or at least prevented her from expressing herself. I thought this story described the feelings of adolescence very well, in addition to the sadness (at any age) of having feelings but lacking the talent with which to express them.

I think Carson McCullers’ writing deserves to be remembered and read more widely and I would definitely recommend it.

 

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