I first came across Carson McCullers while living in Japan. These were pre-Internet days, more or less–certainly pre-ereader–and I was living in eastern Hokkaido, far from any English-language bookstores. I ran across The Heart is a Lonely Hunteron the library shelves of a different KPU–not Kwantlen Polytechnic University, where I now work, but Kushiro Public University, where my partner Wayne was teaching on an exchange program at the time. I checked it out, and rapidly worked my way through the library’s other McCullers titles (The Member of the Wedding, Reflections in a Golden Eye, the short stories) which were there courtesy of one of the English professors, who had a particular passion for her work. It’s impossible for me now to entirely separate the experience of living through an icy Kushiro winter from the reading of McCullers’ hot, scorching Southern narratives, or the liveliness of her prose from the experience of living in another language, one I began to learn and speak painfully slowly, and never entirely to read during my ten months there, during which I alternately relished and was disoriented by the absence of comprehensible written language in my surroundings. It was an unforgettable year, filled with wonder and friendships. It was also the year I began, very tentatively, to write fiction.
“In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.” The first sentence of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, can in a sense be read as a summation of her entire oeuvre: setting comes first (always the South, its small towns), then her chosen protagonists, outsiders of one kind or another, often very different from each other, even in this case; and finally, a celebration of love & loyalty between unlikely partners, or those who might be seen as such. But not only this–there’s a certainty about the voice here, its invocation of the storyteller’s power to conjure a world we as readers are invited to accept, without fuss. Yes, it’s a “hook”–setting up a mystery, raising some dramatic questions. But it’s also a provocation: don’t assume, it says. Don’t assume you know where this might be going. Don’t assume you can possibly know the depth and mystery of the love between these two people, whose understanding of each other is entirely their own. Now look again: the town and the mutes are held together, and set apart from each other, by a single comma. It’s a precarious sentence, easily unbalanced. Take away any one of these elements (town, mutes, togetherness) and the whole thing might just fall apart: such is the fragility of human connection, the “we of me” so yearned for by 12-year-old Frankie, the protagonist of The Member of the Wedding.
McCullers’ first novel, published when she was only 23, was an “instant” success, but her personal and writing lives were anything but easy. A lesbian, whose love affairs with other women, such as Anne-Marie Clarac-Schwarzenbach, have been routinely trivialized by biographers, she suffered from poor mental and physical health throughout her life, and was alternately married to and divorced from a man whose alcoholism and violence threatened them both. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to view her life or works as “tragic.” She lived for a while in the famous creative hotbed of February House, alongside Paul and Jane Bowles, Gypsy Rose Lee and Richard Wright, and pursued her artistic, romantic and spiritual goals with an ongoing intensity despite the limitations imposed on her by an early stroke. She died at only 50. Short and intense, the three novellas, or short novels, which followed The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (Ballad of the Sad Cafe, Reflections in a Golden Eye, The Member of the Wedding) went on to perfect the form, and make it her own.
Nevertheless, it’s some of her short stories that most stay with me. Wunderkind, which draws on her early experience as a piano-playing prodigy, and Madame Zilensky and the King of Finland, published in The New Yorker in 1941. In the latter (spoiler alert), a harried music professor is discovered to be a harmless congenital liar, only for her accuser to discover that the rational world he so trusts in may not be so law-abiding after all. Whimsical yet profoundly affecting, by its ending the story achieves an almost prodigal degree of lift-off; it’s also one of the best defences of fiction I’ve ever read.