JUDY KRAVIS

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Sunday, 21 October 2018

Carson McCullers in The Ballad of the Sad Café takes you in hand from the start. She introduces eight men who gather in the store that will become a café, and tells the reader to think of them for the time being as a whole, not as individuals. The reader obeys. I wonder why I can enjoy this light managing tone from a writer in the American South, and not from a writer in the Irish South, where I live, and where light managing, or heavy, is an art, especially among women. Carson McCullers writes about outsiders, misfits, a trio of them in this story are an exploration of her own outsiderhood. She is of the South, fed by the South even when, still hungry, she has moved away. This is why I don't mind being managed.

What I absorb when I read Carson McCullers is the isolated small town, the life of the countryside, the music of the prose (Carson McCullers trained as a concert pianist), and the three awkward characters, so awkward they must be saying something beyond themselves: Miss Amelia, rich, a good businesswoman, unnaturally big and strong, Cousin Lymon, a hunchback, and Marvin Macy, handsome and almost as tall as Miss Amelia, but a bad lot.

The café, like the relationships between these three, is an interruption to the desolation of the town, not a permanent transformation. The rise and fall of the café is the rise and fall of the story.
.... the hunchback was sickly at night and dreaded to lie in the dark. He had a deep fear of death. And Miss Amelia would not leave him by himself to suffer with this fright. It may even be reasoned that the growth of the café came about mainly on this account; it was a thing that brought him company and pleasure and that helped him through the night. So compose from such flashes an image of these years as a whole. And for a moment let it rest.
The state of Georgia in the middle of the last century is far away and thus more easily a narrative, almost a tale told on a cold night. Miss Amelia's shop sold feed, guano, farm implements, and staples such as meal and snuff. Goods were in sacks which a small person like the hunchback could sit on. She also distilled her own liquor of a peculiar, invisible power, like a message written in lemon juice and held to a flame.
Imagine that the whisky is the fire and that the message is that which is known only in the soul of a man — then the worth of Miss Amelia's liquor can be understood. Things that have gone unnoticed, thoughts that have been harboured far back in the dark mind, are suddenly recognized and comprehended.
In the Irish South, I am fed by the land, but do not seek to play out my own inner dramas in the lives of people I know here; I am in the South but not of it. I feel implicated but not involved. I am allergic to the picturesque, easily irritated by the local. Perhaps this is why I do not write novels. And yes, like Carson McCullers, I am still hungry.

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