19 March, 2008

'Vain, querulous and a genius'


(photo by cartier-bresson)

or so the guardian describes Carson McCullers
in the following March 8 article:

The charming story goes - as told by the author herself - that Carson McCullers had the inspiration for the central motif of The Member of the Wedding while she was running down a road in Brooklyn late one Thanksgiving night in the early 1940s, chasing the noise of a fire engine with Gypsy Rose Lee, one of her housemates at the time. "Just as we were having brandy and coffee there was the sound of fire engines," McCullers wrote near the end of her life in her autobiographical work, Illumination and Night Glare.

Gypsy and I lit out to find the fire which was nearby. We didn't find it, but the fresh air after the long, elaborate meal cleared my head and suddenly, breathlessly I said to Gypsy, "Frankie is in love with the bride of her brother and wants to join the wedding."
"What!" Gypsy screamed, as until that time I had never mentioned Frankie or my struggle to solve The Member of the Wedding

Until that time, Frankie was just a girl in love with her music teacher, a most banal theme, but a swift enlightenment kindled my soul so that the book itself was radiantly clear.

It is one of the most energised and affection-inspiring visions of McCullers that we have. There she goes, the young, acclaimed American writer, tall and lanky, racing down the road with her friend (who happens - as if reality were conjuring its own version of McCullers's fictional style of unexpected juxtapositions - to be a celebrated stripper and burlesque star as well as an aspiring novelist) till she's pulled up short by the equivalent of a symbolic light-bulb flashing above her head, struck by the force of one of her own moments of creativity.

McCullers always referred to these creative breakthroughs as moments of "illumination", as a sort of lit-up, quite external force of magic, a "divine spark". She related this ignited little story slightly differently to her good friend Tennessee Williams:

Suddenly I said: Frankie is in love with her brother and the bride. Then I cried and cried . . . The illumination had focused the whole book. I couldn't use any approximations. I wanted the language to be pure . . . worked on it five years.

Even in this more hard-working form, it is a sweetly innocent version of the vision of Frankie's polyamorousness and the coming of what would become McCullers's most renowned literary conceit. Frankie Addams's need to be part of things, her headlong, hopeless crush on her brother's wedding, was the metaphor which, of all McCullers's illuminations, would resonate most fully with her readers and, with the endearing energy of her lonely-girl heroine, would win a deep and lasting affection for this novel above all her others.

There is a great deal of sweetness in the prevalent vision of McCullers as the poet of haunting oddbods, the laureate of American loneliness, the gifted bard of adolescent girls. But any reader of McCullers with a half-open eye knows her routing of sentimentality as one of the central actions of her fiction. The Member of the Wedding, published in 1946, has, in more recent years, picked up critical kudos as a mid-20th-century gay classic. It has influenced works as culturally inquiring and politically vibrant as Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye (1970) and Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar (1963), the first line of which profoundly echoes McCullers's novel. The Bell Jar's opening pages go out of their way to suggest a close kinship between them. As Morrison and Plath knew, The Member of the Wedding is a cutting piece of fiction, and its antecedents are equally sharp. But still the sentimental image persists.

All through her life, the people who knew her, the critics who lauded her and the readers who championed her fell for the child-self in both McCullers the woman and McCullers the writer, the self seemingly in love with innocence, purity, illumination, maybe even a little in love with herself as a purveyor of literary wistfulness. She was drawn to phrases such as "the square root of wonderful", the title of her second play, which flopped badly; or sentences as near twee as this: "Since livingness is made up of countless daily miracles, most of which go unnoticed, Malone, in that season of sadness, noticed a little miracle" - from her final novel, Clock Without Hands (1961).

McCullers had learned a kind of acceptable literary decorum early at the hands of the publishing industry, when her editor at Houghton Mifflin altered, pretty much against her will and only shortly before its publication, the title of her first novel, The Mute, to something much more lyrical, much less direct, and very differently resonant. The final title of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was adapted from a line in a 1914 poem by William Sharp (whose real name was Fiona MacLeod): "But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts / on a lonely hill." It is her most unashamedly political novel, but it never does to underestimate her sense of the connection between the social and the literary. It's always wrong to sentimentalise McCullers - even on her own invitation - since her work is always an unexpected, uneasy combination of miraculous and brutal, always concerned with the marginalised and with social hierarchies, and is always more astutely and contemporarily political than it might on the surface appear to be.

Richard Wright, the young black novelist, knew this at once when he read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter on its publication in 1940 and wrote of the "astonishing humanity that enables a white writer, for the first time in southern fiction, to handle Negro characters with as much ease and justice as those of her own race".

But contrasting visions and versions of McCullers, along with her own unsettling literary visions, have been startling readers since this debut. In her very early 20s, looking about 14 years old, "New York's new literary darling" first appeared to the public, sweet and unlikely in her author photo, dressed in one of her husband's shirts and a tailored men's jacket, leaning on a small pile of copies of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. It was "a sit-up-and-take-notice book for anyone to write, but that a round-faced, Dutch-bobbed girl of 22 should be its author simply makes hay of all literary rules and regulations". America's critics wholeheartedly proclaimed her a miracle, the open-faced wunderkind from the southern States who, if this book was anything to go by, would change the face of the American novel.

In fact, for a while she was the face of the American novel (and it's interesting how very fixated on her actual face, her appearance, her eyes, her androgyny, many commentators were and are). "For those of us who arrived on the scene in the war years, McCullers was the young writer . . . an American legend from the beginning," Gore Vidal wrote on the publication of Clock Without Hands

Her fame was as much the creation of publicity as of talent. The publicity was the work of those fashion magazines where a dish of black-eyed peas can be made to seem the roe of some rare fish, photographed by Avedon; yet McCullers's dreaming, androgynous face in its ikon elegance subtly confounded the chic of the lingerie ads all about her. For unlike other "legends", her talent was as real as her face.

Only seven years after that auspicious debut, Simone de Beauvoir (who liked McCullers's "little" novels for their "uniqueness and absence of moralism", though also reacted against them, finding them "a little too womanly, too poetical and quivering and full of secret meaning") wrote candidly to her lover, Nelson Algren, about McCullers, who was living in Paris at the time: "Did I tell you the girl is now in the American hospital, half-paralysed because she drinks so much? I heard it just before leaving Paris and I was displeased at it. I was fond of her when I once saw her, her strange, ugly, sensitive face, her slim elegant figure in grey flannel trousers, her hoarse southern voice. Maybe she would have written really good books, but there is not much hope about her."

There she is, a new kind of 20th-century-wunderkind strung somewhere between hope and hopelessness; stumbling and wrecked in suave postwar Paris or uncannily "real" among the recipes and lingerie ads of the American fashion industry, whose magazines, always brave enough to publish good literary writing, were where her work was often found in the 40s.

In fact, some of the wildly differing ways of seeing McCullers the writer can be characterised by a glance at the responses to her first two novels. Critics and readers who had wholeheartedly embraced The Heart is a Lonely Hunter were shaken by the violence, the near-gleeful display of seeming perverseness and the surfacing of disturbing sexualities in her second novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941).

When it was serialised in Harper's Bazaar in 1940, it resulted in the cancellation of many subscriptions, including that of General George Patton's wife. She was just one of the readers unable to stomach a novel about homoerotic desires and wild repressions set on an American army base, in which, for instance, a character posts a live kitten cold-heartedly through the slot of a winter mailbox, and another, griefstricken, "had cut off the tender nipples of her breasts with the garden shears" (and it is a typical McCullers touch to use the word "tender" in this horrific image).

Surely this wasn't the same sensitive soul who'd remapped her American community so movingly and poetically in her first novel? McCullers always maintained that she herself found the violence and the repressive gothic in Reflections "hilariously funny", that she wrote it very fast and for fun, simply to relax after the long and arduous work she'd done on The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. But she knew, too, the consequences and necessities of her own devil-may-care-seeming liberalness. After its publication, the Ku Klux Klan phoned her home in Columbus and left a message: "we know from your first book that you're a nigger-lover, and we know from this one that you're queer. We don't like queers and nigger-lovers in this town."

Similarly, first reactions to The Member of the Wedding reveal its reviewers as tempted to be precious. "Rarely has emotional turbulence been so delicately conveyed." Carson McCullers's language has the "freshness, quaintness and gentleness of a sensitive child", as the New York Times Book Review put it on publication. Delicate? Gentle? How is it possible to encounter the toughness, the surreal domestic gothic of this novel, or consider the brutal disaffection of the death of Frankie's cousin John Henry in its latter pages, and still deal in words such as these?

It is "a deceptive piece of writing", as one of its finest and earliest critics, Marguerite Young, herself an experimental writer of note, said in an essay, "and its candour may betray the unwary reader into accepting it as what it first seems, a study of turbulent adolescence". McCullers herself was apparently shaken by the response to the novel of Edmund Wilson, at the time America's most eminent literary critic, who was so bemused by a book about a subject he seems to have found anathema to any serious literature - three days in the life of an adolescent girl - as to declare the story "utterly pointless".

Such examples of critical blindness are part of the reason why The Member of the Wedding is a novel "very much tamed by its readers, touted as a tale for young adults about young adults, an economical way to learn about the pangs of growing up", as Patricia Yaeger puts it in Dirt and Desire: Reconstructing Southern Women's Writing, 1930-1990 (2000). For although it is true that "as a portrait embodying the spirit and detail of adolescence, Carson McCullers's Frankie Addams is an achievement comparable to Twain's Huck Finn and Salinger's Holden Caulfield", as the critic Richard Cook put it, readers and critics who give in to the easy attractiveness of seeing The Member of the Wedding as merely a coming-of-age tale, a sweet momentary illumination of adolescence before the disillusion of adulthood, are closing their eyes to the political heft and the combination of hope, hopelessness and callousness that resonates throughout this very funny, very dark novel.

The writing of The Member of the Wedding took five years (interrupted in 1941 while McCullers dashed off The Ballad of the Sad Café in a matter of months), and she laboured over every page. "It's one of those works that the least slip can ruin," she wrote to Reeves. "It must be beautifully done. For like a poem there is not much excuse for it otherwise."

It's a book that takes place in a summer so bright that the brightness is "black", a book whose comedy and charm are always underlaid by a sense of mourning. It places itself and its reader at the border between childhood and adolescence, the portal to adulthood - at a crucial approaching point of change - then uses images of imprisonment, stagnation and repetition. "Good prose should be fused with the light of poetry,' she wrote, "prose should be like poetry; poetry should make sense like prose."

Carson McCullers was born Lula Carson Smith in Columbus, Georgia, in February 1917; her father was a jeweller and her mother brought their eldest child up convinced she'd be a famous concert pianist; by the age of 10, she was performing pieces by Liszt, Beethoven and Chopin. In her state, the segregation lines were still firmly drawn, but McCullers wanted to know why black people had separate drinking fountains, why they lived in poorer houses in poorer parts of town. Later in life she remembered yelling with rage at the taxi driver who had refused to take her parents' black cook in his cab.

By the age of 13, she had jetissoned Lula in favour of the ungendered Carson; by 15, after a bad bout of what seems to have been rheumatic fever which went undiagnosed for years and caused many of her later health problems, she announced to friends that she was planning to be famous as a writer rather than a pianist, since this would be less physically strenuous. She left the south for New York at 17, eventually taking creative-writing classes at Columbia University and NYU while she worked on The Mute; the stories she wrote there, which dealt vividly and sensually with subjects such as drunkenness and menstruation, pushed the boundaries of even New York creative-writing school acceptability.

In 1937, she married Reeves McCullers, also an aspiring writer. "He was the best-looking man I had ever seen. He also talked of Marx and Engels, and I knew he was a liberal, which was important, to my mind, in a backward southern community." After her early success, and after the relationship had revealed itself as the sometimes supportive, more often destructive force it was (she and Reeves would split several times, remarry, then split, then reform the relationship again, before Reeves's suicide in Paris in 1953), she moved by herself across New York into a shared house in Middagh Street near the Brooklyn Bridge. This extraordinary aesthetic hothouse was leased by her friend, the Harper's Bazaar literary editor George Davies; its regular visitors and longer-term housemates included WH Auden, Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, Klaus and Erika Mann (the exiled children of the German writer Thomas Mann), Richard Wright and his wife, and Paul and Jane Bowles. It was a house that even brought the bookish out in Gypsy Rose Lee, who wrote most of The G-String Murders while sharing the third floor with McCullers.

It was through her Brooklyn friends in the early 1940s that McCullers met the beautiful, androgynous, European photographer Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach, who'd also had an early literary success, and with whom McCullers fell deeply in unrequited and unconsummated love. (Clarac-Schwarzenbach's untimely death in 1942 after a cycling accident - she had fallen while riding a bike with no hands - was just one of the bereavements McCullers suffered during the time of writing The Member of the Wedding; another was the death of her father.)

McCullers was a lover of difference in both her life and her work; the erotic in her writing is deeply connected to notions of sexual and racial difference. "That is one of the things I love best about Brooklyn," she wrote in 1941. "Everyone is not expected to be exactly like everyone else." Janet Flanner wryly noted that she would have driven "any small town right off its rocker. Carson stood out with New Yorkers, even, as an eccentric of the first water." Truman Capote remembered "the first time I saw her - a tall slender wand of a girl, slightly stooped and with a fascinating face that was simultaneously merry and melancholy". Klaus Mann, too, noted this clash of temperaments, "a strange mixture of refinement and wildness, 'morbidezza' and 'naivety'".

She was capable of reading so deeply that she wouldn't notice her own house go up in flames around her, as once happened when she was lost in Dostoevsky. Unable as a child to stop reading Katherine Mansfield's stories when she went to the store for groceries, she carried on as she asked for the goods at the counter, then under the street lamp outside. As a fledgling writer, she was sacked from her day job as a book-keeper for a New York company when the boss found her deep in Proust's Swann's Way under the big ledger.

As a student in New York, the girl from the South was so shy that she would sometimes spend whole days with a book, shut in a tiny phone booth in Macy's department store, one of the few places she felt safe. But on arrival in the city, one of the first things she did was write to Greta Garbo to announce she'd like to come round for tea. Even though she was an award-winning, fellowship-winning writer, she was perfectly capable of infatuations that meant she'd stand for hours outside a freezing theatre to catch a glimpse of a ballet dancer she'd fallen for, or, as Katherine Anne Porter found out at Yaddo, the writers' colony, of lying on the ground outside her chosen beloved's door until the beloved should pay her some attention (Porter simply opened the door at supper time and stepped over McCullers as if she wasn't there).

"Carson burdened everybody who got close to her," Lillian Hellman said. "She was vain, querulous and a genius," Vidal said. But there are very few literary figures who could have two figures such as Marilyn Monroe and the Danish writer Isak Dinesen over for lunch, as she did in 1959, sparking rumours of how well the unlikely pair danced together, and how well she'd danced on the table herself.

"She needed a certain amount of alcohol in her system to function creatively," is the kind way her first biographer, Virginia Spencer Carr, put it. In one short story, McCullers calls it "the rhythmic sorrow of alcohol". She drank all day, from breakfast onwards, for most of her adult years, and died in 1967 aged only 50. In those three decades of writing life, a life salvaged from this alcohol dependency and the poor health she suffered from the age of 15 onwards (including three strokes before the age of 30, which left one half of her body paralysed), she'd become an American literary standard-bearer. She had published five striking and formally inventive novels, each one its own tour de force, alongside two plays, one of which was a hugely successful adaptation of The Member of the Wedding (which made McCullers enough money to see her through her remaining years), 20 short stories, several non-fiction pieces and a small number of highly acclaimed poems. Though her final novel, Clock Without Hands - an unexpectedly farcical work, more jaunty in its expressionism than much of her other long fiction - was rather unfairly panned by the critics, her critical standing had long been assured.

Over the years she cited her own influences as Flaubert and Chekhov as much as Faulkner; Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as much as Joyce and O'Neill; Hemingway and e e cummings for their anti-war literature; and Lawrence and Fitzgerald, who both clearly influenced her early short fiction pieces. Seeing her own southern tradition as parallel to Russian realism, springing from the same "dominant characteristic" of "the cheapness of human life", she wrote in 1941 about "the cruelty" of which the Southerners have been accused, how this cruelty is fundamentally "only a sort of naivety, an acceptance of spiritual inconsistencies without asking the reason why".

The formal risks she takes are thrilling and exhilarating. To some extent her style is always concerned with unexpected juxtapositions, verbal, thematic and formal. She is expert at the meeting of kindnesses and violences; an early autobiographical short story, "Court in the West Eighties" (written in 1934, when she was first in New York), reveals a constant preoccupation in her fiction - the struggle of connective potential against hopeless, and often violent, division. Its protagonist is sitting at her window in a set of apartment blocks, fascinated by the peculiar combination of intimacy and distance in the very act of observing the lives of strangers around her: our eyes would meet and then one of us would look away. You see all of us in the court saw each other sleep and dress and live out our hours away from work, but none of us ever spoke. We were near enough to throw our food into each others' windows, near enough so that a single machine gun could have killed us all together in a flash. And still we acted as strangers.

The invisible lines that connect people or make people strangers to each other preoccupied her, as did the surreally thin line she sensed between nurturing and violence. One of her favourite mottoes was, she said, that of the Roman poet Terence: "Nothing human is alien to me." She said: "I become the characters I write about. I am so immersed in them that their motives are my own." Her preoccupation, revealed by almost every one of her narrating voices, is the relationship between such self-involvement, and concepts such as objectivity, omniscience, reportage, fixity.

Over time, her position on narratorial power seemed to shift; her narrator in Reflections in a Golden Eye is relatively judgmental and closed compared to the narrator of her final novel, Clock Without Hands, whose magnificent set-piece near the end is an aerial descent from a position a great distance away to a new, necessary intimacy, as if she's demanding not just that the fictional narrator meet the eye of the real human, but that the eye of God meet the eye of man.

McCullers loved to write about eyes; she loved both their helpless, wide-open intimacy and their ability to close - just as she loved to think or write about Christmas, but usually only in the context of August's overwhelming heat. Her near-adolescent characters, particularly the girls (all members, as it were, of the family of Frankie), long in their too-hot summer discomforts for snow, for a new, white landscape, for some kind of an escape. Snow, in one of her short stories - whose subject is writer's block and a writer's social and personal disempowerment - is itself a muteness, an existential blank space, like a blank page, a kind of disconnection which brings with it a combined sense of relief and hopelessness.

She is aware of the inlay of mystery in the most mundane phrase, hones her language down to leave it seeming so plain as to be near banal, while at the same time giving her poorer characters a diva-like dandification when it comes to their love of stories, words, rich vocabulary. This is usually their only power. "A lot of my life," Sherman says in Clock Without Hands, "I've had to make up stories because the real, actual was either too dull or too hard to take."

In her fiction of the 1930s and early 40s, she deals repeatedly with what she suggests is a particular American blindness, or numbness, to world politics and to the war; she repeatedly refers to the state of war-mangled Europe and uninvolved America in terms that highlight notions of "isolation" which are both political and metaphysical. Often, in throwaway comments, the poetic, highly charged state of adolescence is related by McCullers to a state of being at war, dealing with war; in many ways, The Member of the Wedding can be seen as a war novel, and as a comment on what McCullers sees as America's own adolescent state. In fact, in one essay written for Vogue in 1940, McCullers directly compares America itself to an adolescent, one feeling "the shock of transition".

Such a yoked combination of adolescent and world power comes dangerously close to bathos. But McCullers was never afraid of unlikely literary combinings. Mystery and mundanity. Cruelty and naivety. Farce and tragedy. Tenderness and savagery. Charm and violence. Debauchery and miracle. Feeling and numbness. Hopelessness and hope.

The most coolly crafted of her novels, The Member of the Wedding, a part hopeful, part despairing call for the sanctioning of a different, more inclusive kind of love and a rewrite of the conventional rules, is both a triumph and a tragedy of impossible unifications. In being a book so crucially about possible and impossible unions, and with typical McCullers flexibility of vision, it demonstrates, at the same time as it tragically denies, a new definition of human connection.

For all its comedy, The Member of the Wedding is a dark, grieving vision. For all its disillusion and loss, at its centre is a lasting, questioning, comic life force almost too big for such a small book. It is also a vision of endless human promise - the story of three marginalised people who sit in a kitchen, make an unexpected, new kind of harmony together and dare, against all the odds, to reinvent the fixed world in their imaginations as different, and better. The Member of the Wedding and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter are reissued on March 27 by Penguin Classics.

5 comments:

MicNic said...

A show of hand to who actually read all of that

Lady V said...

I read it when it came out... Thought of you, Tot F. Thought of me.

"She needed a certain amount of alcohol in her system to function creatively,"

Nuff said...

pod said...

i think we can safely assume our gay male totties won't get past the second sentence. the female totties will relate in innumerable ways (see above...errrr!!) and misfit-loving oats will be appreciative too.

a niche audience. mmm.

albeo said...

Very niche if I may say.
Lesbian AND incestuous? That's when I started yawning and skipped to the comments section...

sxg said...

did it occur to you though that this post is actually about 3 lines LONGER than Ballad, for instance?