Monday, March 10, 2008

Reading McCullers

"... vain, querulous and a genius"

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

"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."
What others have said about American author Carson McCullers who is profiled in this excellent piece by Ali Smith in the Guardian.

I discovered McCullers in my teens when, miracle of miracles, I found that the English stockroom of my school was unlocked, and inside there were piles of novels! Better still, I found that some hardworking teacher had compiled and cyclostyled long-lists of "suggested reading" for other classes and I used them as my guide to the shelves. I hid in this little room from the prefects during lunch breaks (we were supposed to be outside getting "fresh air" in often sub-arctic conditions!), sneaking books out to read at home and replacing them as soon as I'd read them. Thanks my unseen mentor, this was the best introduction to "quality" fiction that I could have had. (I think this also explains my great enthusiasm for reading lists.)

I read first The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, McCullers novel about a deaf-mute who moves to a small southern mill town, and was totally blown away by it (so much that I can still pretty much remember it in detail x decades on!). Then in rapid succession I read The Member of the Wedding, and The Ballad of the the Sad Cafe. I have an urge now to reread them ... and I wonder how they will have changed half a lifetime on? (Because of course, books always change when we aren't looking.)

McCullers, of course, was an unredeemable bookaholic herself (as all authors must be) :
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.

By the way, I came across a post on a blog some time back in which a teenage writer was talking to her teacher about award winning books and was told that such titles were "too deep" for her. I really saw red when I read that! How does anyone have the right to tell you what you can and cannot cope with at what age?


anis audrey said...

McCullers is among my favourite writers and it's a pity so few Malaysians know about her. The clock stops when I read her. It doesn't matter that some of her most magnificent work date back to the 40s - the emotional struggles faced by her characters are as real and relevant to us today as they were during her time. The bravest thing she did was to write about the American South as how she lived it. That surely, can give us all a tip or two about writing about the "here and now". Thanks so much for posting on her!

bibliobibuli said...

i'm so glad someone at last responded to the post to say they love her too.

i think she fell out of fashion (as writers tend to do) but now penguin classics are reissuing at least a couple of her books so hopefully a new generation will encounter her work. i think it's time to read her again ...

and i think you're absolutely right in what you say about writers like this giving courage to our own authors ...

anis audrey said...

Yes, thanks to Penguin I found Lonely Hunter at Kinokuniya a couple of years back and like you, was blown away by it. I was born in 1975, almost a decade after she died, so I think I can be classified as one of the new generation readers! My favourite though, is Clock without Hands. I would recommend her books to every teenager willing to read it. That teacher you told us about obviously had issues of her own. Thanks again, Sharon.