Sunday, February 10, 2008

Carson McCullers, Wunderkind

Carson McCullersThere's nothing that makes you so aware of the improvisation of human existence as a song unfinished. Or an old address book.

« Crossposted at Danzig U.S.A. »
To many of my fellow residents of Danzig U.S.A., I often say that my best preparation for becoming law school dean at the University of Louisville was to reread the works of Carson McCullers (1917-67). Plagued by atrocious health and a tempestuous love life, McCullers wrote her best-known work before she turned 30. Her harshest critics consign her to "minor" status and dismiss her work as "Southern Gothic." Her staunchest defenders argue that her literary legacy of "speak[ing] for the physically and psychologically deformed, the unprotected persons in an often indifferent world, is rich enough to earn her a permanent reputation as a great artist." Flannery O'Connor notwithstanding, I think it fair to call her the finest writer Georgia has ever produced.

Read the rest of this post . . . .An anthology containing The Ballad of the Sad Café reminded me of Carson McCullers's genius. The richest phrases from these stories are jewels that burn the skin at the slightest touch:
  • The lover craves any possible relation with the beloved, even if this experience can cause him only pain. (The Ballad of the Sad Café)

  • With inner desperation he pressed the child close — as though an emotion as protean as his love could dominate the pulse of time. (The Sojourner)

  • By moonlight he watched his wife for the last time. His hand sought the adjacent flesh and sorrow paralleled desire in the immense complexity of love. (A Domestic Dilemma)
Carson McCullers
Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Carson McCullers (1940)
I want to write like Carson McCullers. I wish I could channel her. To the extent I have traversed some of the geographic and emotional space that Carson McCullers called home, perhaps I shall.

Along the tortuous and mostly frustrating path toward personal and professional satisfaction, I've gotten waylaid from time to time. Quite a bit, to tell the truth, and more than I would wish on anyone I liked. Perhaps the worst of these detours was law school.

That said, if my professional life has achieved anything of value (to others if not to myself), it is this: Though you studied law, your life might not be an evil bankrupt waste. In a very real sense, my goal of channeling the literary spirit of Carson McCullers may yet redeem this small corner of my life.

Wunderkind that she was, in real literary life as in the autobiographical short story by that name, Carson McCullers established her reputation with her first novel: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940). In his celebrated review of this book, Richard Wright said that Heart was "not so much a novel as a projected mood, a state of mind poetically objectified in words, an attitude externalized in naturalistic detail." Inner Landscape, 103 New Republic 195 (Aug. 1940). "Whether you will want to read the book," he wrote, "depends upon the extent to which you value the experience of discovering the stale and familiar terms of everyday life bathed in a rich and strange meaning, devoid of pettiness and sentimentality."

Carson McCullersWhat made McCullers such a prodigy was her preternatural ability to capture the heart at its frailest. That is a skill associated not with youth, but with experience. The inspiration for the title of her first novel, The Lonely Hunter, a poem written by William Sharp under the pen name Fiona MacLeod, expresses a distinctly middle-aged sentiment:
  • Green branches, green branches, I see you beckon; I follow!
  • Sweet is the place you guard, there in the rowan-tree hollow.
  • There he lies in the darkness, under the frail white flowers,
  • Heedless at last, in the silence, of these sweet midsummer hours.

  • But sweeter, it may be, the moss whereon he is sleeping now,
  • And sweeter the fragrant flowers that may crown his moon-white brow:
  • And sweeter the shady place deep in an Eden hollow
  • Wherein he dreams I am with him — and, dreaming, whispers, "Follow!"

  • Green wind from the green-gold branches, what is the song you bring?
  • What are all songs for me, now, who no more care to sing?
  • Deep in the heart of Summer, sweet is life to me still,
  • But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill.

  • Green is that hill and lonely, set far in a shadowy place;
  • White is the hunter's quarry, a lost-loved human face:
  • O hunting heart, shall you find it, with arrow of failing breath,
  • Led o'er a green hill lonely by the shadowy hound of Death?

  • Green branches, green branches, you sing of a sorrow olden,
  • But now it is midsummer weather, earth-young, sun-ripe, golden:
  • Here I stand and I wait, here in the rowan-tree hollow,
  • But never a green leaf whispers, "Follow, oh, Follow, Follow!"

  • O never a green leaf whispers, where the green-gold branches swing:
  • O never a song I hear now, where one was wont to sing.
  • Here in the heart of Summer, sweet is life to me still,
  • But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill.
Here in the heart of summer, life is sweet to me still. The harvest is yet to come; I might find in motion what I lost in space.

Wonderful LifeOf late I have devoted considerable time to pondering and to watching the classic Christmas movie, It's a Wonderful Life. One scene in that movie invariably reminds me of the exuberance of youth. When I stop thinking of this scene as an emblem of "juniority," I shall be dead, or at least fit to die. George Bailey tells his future wife, Mary, "Well, not just one wish. A whole hatful . . . . I know what I'm going to do tomorrow and the next day and the next year and the year after that."

I know what I'm going to do tomorrow and the next day and the next year and the year after that. Like my literary hero, Carson McCullers, I'm going to tell stories full of pain and longing. I know better than to imagine that telling such stories could ever keep feelings of pain and longing at bay, for it is the essence of the human condition to love through faith rather than reassurance, and more often than not to wait in vain for the transformed echo of love songs one has sung. Between hunts on the lonely hill called life, I shall find solace in giving voice to sorrow and Sehnsucht.


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