Monday, June 20, 2011

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, by Carson McCullers

The Ballad of the Sad Café was Carson McCullers’ only novella, and it is perhaps her strangest work. All the usual themes of McCullers’ work are here – loneliness, alienation, the complexities of the human psyche – but the tone is intensified, with many unusual effects employed to make this a fiction that stays with the reader long after the story has been finished.

Carson McCullers (1917-1967) produced a fairly modest literary output during her short and troubled life. She published four novels, numerous short stories, an unfinished memoir and a novella. English poet Edith Sitwell said that McCullers had a poet’s sensibility, and it is this quality that comes through most in the rich and strange The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951).

Readers of McCullers’ fiction will be familiar with her sensitive and often idiosyncratic approach to themes of loneliness and isolation. McCullers likes to mix pathos with humour in equal measure, making for an often quirky tone that is also firmly grounded in the complexities of the human psyche. Many of her characters and situations should in reality seem far fetched, but somehow they manage to ring true. The only explanation for the authenticity of McCullers’ writing is that she was a keen observer of her native Georgia, turning her experiences into a deeply sympathetic fiction.

McCullers’ acute sense of the ridiculous in the human condition is perhaps no where more pronounced than in The Ballad of the Sad Café. The novella is thronged with many eccentrics, and ends in a most improbable climax. This is mixed with the novella’s backdrop of human isolation, of life devoid of much close company or trusted relationships. Everyone in The Ballad of the Sad Café seems on their own.

Plot Synopsis of The Ballad of the Sad Cafe

The main character, six foot two Miss Amelia Evans, seems a precursor to Mattie Ross, the narrator of Charles Portis’s 1968 novel, True Grit. Like Mattie Ross, Miss Amelia enjoys wheedling money out of people, hates sex (the scene describing her wedding night, and her angry reaction to her husband’s attentions, is hilarious) and physically she’s formidable. Miss Amelia, it is noted, once beat a lawyer in a fist fight.

Miss Amelia is married for ten days to Marvin Macy. After the marriage ends badly, with Miss Amelia refusing to consummate the union, Marvin leaves and sets out on a crime spree. He is eventually caught and incarcerated. In the meantime, Miss Amelia has been running her various businesses and mostly spending her time alone. Then a strange little hunchback, Lymon Willis, comes to town, a cousin of Miss Amelia’s as it turns out. The two hit it off immediately, and happily live together, enjoying each other’s company and setting up a café that turns out to be quite popular.

All goes quite well until Marvin Macy is released from jail, and he returns to the town to wreak havoc and frustrate everyone’s happiness. For some reason or other, the hunchback, Lymon Willis, becomes fascinated with Marvin Macy, almost enamored of him, this despite Marvin’s treating him with absolute contempt (Marvin’s putdowns are some of the funniest lines in the novella.)

The denouement culminates with a full blown fist fight between Miss Amelia and her estranged husband, Marvin Macy. The situation is clearly ridiculous, yet McCullers marries the absurdity of her characters actions with an eerie and haunting atmosphere. McCullers seems to acknowledge that deep down we are all strange, and that this is a part of being normal.

It’s hard to say what The Ballad of the Sad Café is about exactly, beyond the mood and atmosphere that the novella exudes. In many ways it is her most poetic and difficult to grasp work, and ends with a prose-poem that is audaciously tacked onto the end of the story, a twenty-two line piece called “The Twelve Mortal Men” which describes the singing of a chain gang. It’s almost like a Greek chorus that ends the novella. “It is music that causes the heart to broaden and the listener to grow cold with ecstasy and fright,” McCullers writes of the singing men.

The Ballad of the Sad Café is a strange and rewarding jewel in the McCullers oeuvre. It will broaden the reader’s heart, yet its strangeness and essential truths about loneliness and alienation frightens too.

The Ballad of the Sad Café, by Carson McCullers. Published by Penguin Classics. ISBN: 9780141183695

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