Thursday, June 2, 2011

Clock Without Hands, by Carson McCullers

Carson McCullers' Clock Without Hands is a novel full of perceptive and sensitive portraits, describing the complex interactions of a group of four men from different generations and social castes in the American South. It’s a story told with McCullers’ characteristic humour and pathos.

Carson McCullers (1917-1967) suffered bad health all her life, endured a deeply troubled marriage to Reeves McCullers, and died young at the age of fifty. As could be expected from such a life, McCullers wrote highly sensitive fiction about damaged and doomed people. Despite the dark themes of her work, McCullers could also bring a warm sense of humour to her writing. Her stories and novels often mix the sublime and the ridiculous in equal measure.

No where is this more evident than in Clock Without Hands, Carson McCullers’ last novel. She only wrote four in her lifetime, often spending years on a manuscript. Clock Without Hands was begun in 1951, and started with the working title ‘The Pestle’. The novel was finally finished in 1960, and published the following year by Houghton Mifflin.

Judge Clane’s Dream World of the Southern Past

Clock Without Hands concerns four men living in the Southern town of Milan, whose stories interlock and reach a dramatic climax. The story opens with the middle-aged pharmacist J. T. Malone, who has been diagnosed with leukemia. McCullers here brilliantly evokes all the poignancy of a man facing death, and the unsympathetic responses of those around him. (It’s worth noting that McCullers must have used her own experiences of doctor’s consultation rooms and prodding examinations, as her health was always precarious.)

J. T. Malone is a pillar of his community, if a little dull. He knows well the retired Judge and Congressman, Judge Clane. Judge Clane is the central figure of Clock Without Hands, a larger than life motif for the old ways of the south – both civilised and deeply racist. While McCullers shows sympathy when drawing his portrait – he has suffered greatly through the loss of his wife and son, the latter through suicide – he is also shown to be highly ridiculous and blind to reality. His language is grandiloquent and ornate, while his physical needs are described as those of a voluptuary. Indeed, much of the humour in his portrait derives from his huge, rotund baby-like size. There are hilarious scenes which depict the Judge rolling around chirpily in his bath.

While the Judge is all polite daintiness in his manners, his politics remains that of the old pre Civil War South. He fervently believes that the old ways will come back, with a bit of gentle agitation. To this end, he employs the young coloured man Sherman Pew to write letters arguing for financial restitution to the South, even compensation for the economic damage caused by the abolition of slavery. Sherman is disgusted by this, and quits. His growing anger, which he finds public expression for, can only lead to tragedy.

One last character is the Judge’s grandson, Jester. (The names in McCullers' fiction are often hilarious. The Judge’s wife’s name is Miss Missy, the maid is called Verily, and a love interest of Sherman’s is given the improbable title of Cinderella.) Jester is idealistic yet unworldly, and quietly struggling with his homosexuality. He finds the ways and attitudes of his grandfather, the Judge, intolerable, and in his loneliness yearns for the friendship of Sherman, who is often mean to him.

The Judge, who lives more and more in a dream world of the past, is unable to come to terms with the new world of civil rights and integration. He constantly fails in any awareness of the feelings and sensitivities of those around him, although he is not mean or vindictive. Interestingly, his son, Johnny, had called him irresponsible for this thoughtless work as a judge, often condemning the innocent to death.

Carson McCullers at her Best

Clock Without Hands is one of Carson McCullers’ better novels, on a par with her extraordinary 1948 novel The Member of the Wedding. She has a great gift for exploring the internal worlds of her characters with great sympathy and a complete lack of judgement. This is a novel that is driven by the exploration of four different individual characters, from different generations and castes in society, and how they interact with each other. McCullers gently weaves these individual stories into a compelling plot about human failings and human goodness in a frail, all too human community.

Clock Without Hands, by Carson McCullers. Published by Penguin Classics. ISBN: 978-0-1400-8358-3

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