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Carson McCullers

I began this book wondering why Carson McCullers was so drawn to writing about girls of around twelve or thirteen, like Mick from The Heart is a Lonely Hunter or the musical teenager from Wunderkind. This novel follows another adventurous and unhappy young girl, Frankie, over the course of a strange weekend in which many things change for her. The story is set in the 1940s and begins with the news that her brother Jarvis is about to get married to a woman he met just before he was posted to Alaska with the army. This announcement stirs up a violent burst of emotion in Frankie, a mixture of jealousy, restlessness and a wish for belonging, which soon turns into the daydream that the newly married couple will take her away to live with them after the wedding.

Frankie lives in a small town in the South and she is lonely. She is not a member of the club formed by the older girls who organise parties in their clubhouse. ‘She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world…an unjoined person who hung around in doorways’. Frankie’s mother died on the day she was born, and she lives with her father, who owns a jewellery and watch repair shop. There is the sense that she is just waiting until this transitional phase of life ends and she grows up. She spends most of the long summer afternoons hanging round in the kitchen with Berenice, the black housekeeper, and John Henry, her small, scrawny and odd six-year-old cousin, where they eat endless meals, play cards and have meandering conversations.

Although the characters are often bored and just passing time until something more exciting happens, these parts of the book are actually the most interesting. Their conversations are strangely compelling, expressing their longings, histories and speculations about life. I could empathise with Frankie, but I liked Berenice the best, especially her stories about her four ex-husbands and the way she responded kindly to Frankie’s constant emotional turmoil and questioning.  One interesting talk they had was about the repetition of events, about how a person can go through a wonderful experience and then always, forever after, wish to relive it. Essentially, it’s a warning that wishes and daydreams can become part of someone’s personality and difficult to escape from. Berenice warns Frankie about her fantasies of running away with her brother and his wife, and asks her, ‘Will you be trying to break into weddings for the rest of your days?’

Frankie is an imaginative girl, daydreaming about far away places like Alaska, often packing her suitcase and fantasising about leaving town, about being a boy and going to fight in the war. I felt the book really captured teenage anxieties about appearance and growing up. Frankie is always worrying about being so tall for her age, and fears that, if she continues growing, she may end up as a fairground attraction like ‘the Freaks’ at the local fair that fascinate her so much. The fact that she looks so grown-up for her age actually gets her into major trouble later in the book. But the way she feels a connection with the Freaks reflects the curiosity about unusual, damaged and marginalised people in all the books by Carson McCullers I’ve read so far. Frankie starts wondering about the lives of the Freaks, how much money they earn and whether they ever get married. In a similar way, she sees herself as a criminal, identifying with another outcast group, and is drawn towards the town jail. ‘Often some criminals would be hanging to the bars; it seemed to her that their eyes, like the long eyes of the Freaks at the fair, had called to her as though to say: We know you.’

This novel also made me realise how the radio and news of the war were a big presence in the 1940s. The radio is constantly playing in Frankie’s house all summer long as background noise, and is described as a babble of different sounds, voices from a distant country, ‘a war voice crossed with the gabble of an advertiser and underneath there was the sleazy music of a sweet band’. However, Frankie feels disconnected from the world and the war, feeling that they are both irreconcilably separate from her own life, and that she is shut out from the significant events that are happening in the world. It expresses how someone living in a small town can feel her life doesn’t matter and she is somehow remote from reality. When she’s fantasising about travelling away with her brother and his new wife, she tells Berenice defiantly that one day she will talk on the radio and be asked to give an eye-witness account of something; that is part of her idea of success, of being an important person.

Race wasn’t mentioned often in the novel, not explicitly, but Frankie understands how Berenice’s life is even more constrained than her own because she is black. After reading about the ‘pane of glass’ dividing black and white areas in the town in Time Will Darken It, I noticed that there was a similar border crossed in The Member of the Wedding, when Frankie passes through ‘the unseen line dividing Sugarville from the white people’s town’. To me, it’s interesting to see how this division is represented in fiction, and also how the narrators in these books can cross those borderlines, go everywhere and see everything, unlike the inhabitants of the town.

One thing I was struck by in reading this book was the many objects and people that were divided, half one thing and half another. One small example was an expression that’s partly friendly and partly angry, as different feelings compete inside one person. There are loads of examples to do with gender, like one of the Freaks at the fair, who’s ‘divided completely in half – the left side was a man and the right side a woman’. Once I’d started noticing this, I saw it everywhere in the novel, and wondered if that’s partly what interested Carson McCullers about her young girl characters. Frankie is a mixture of child and adult, she looks almost grown-up but still has many childlike emotions, she has a new longing for freedom and adventure but her closest companion is her six-year-old cousin. Someone whose life is undefined in this way, pulled one way then another, is an interesting character for an author to explore. These strange hybrid things and people remind me of a Greek mask, half-smiling and half-sad. And it seems appropriate because Carson McCullers’ books are themselves such a mixture of tragedy and comedy.

 

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.