A song unfinished

Carson McCullers

The Ballad of the Sad Café
by Carson McCullers.
Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics,
Penguin Books, 1963 (1951)

A novella, six short stories, along with innumerable themes and motifs are here united, packed into a slim volume of consummate writing which has lost none of its power in the seventy years since first appearing in 1951. Mostly set in Georgia and New York, with one or two fictional locations (possibly the author’s home town of Columbus, Georgia under other names) plus a brief visit to Paris, the stories deal with loneliness, unfulfilled ambitions, and love; they are by turns humorous and heart-rending, wistful and whimsical.

What gives them a special strength is the sense of their being based on lived experiences, certain situations echoing aspects of the author’s own life without necessarily being autobiographical. Add to this a musician’s sensibility in the phrasing, cadence and tempo and it’s unsurprising that these narratives are akin to Albumblätter: these were short instrumental pieces that were popular in the nineteenth century, independent compositions which were then published in collections.

Appearing in various periodicals between 1936 and 1951 the stories were collected under the umbrella title of The Ballad of the Sad Café, and as befits an author who had originally planned to pursue her studies in piano at New York’s prestigious Juilliard School of Music, many of her pieces feature music in one way or another.

Sunday (detail) by Edward Hopper

The earliest short story here is Wunderkind (1936), written when Lula Carson Smith was not even twenty but realising that, following a bout of rheumatic fever, she was unlikely to be able to pursue her musical ambitions. 15-year-old Frances is a piano prodigy having lessons with Mr Bilderbach, whose violinist friend Josef Lafkowitz has as pupil an equally talented young violinist, Heime Israelsky, also from Cincinnati. Bilderbach and Lafkowitz both believe their pupil is a true wunderkind or wonder-child, but Lafkowitz tries to subtly undermine Frances’ already wobbly confidence.

There’s also the matter of the ambiguous relationship between Frances and her teacher: is he attracted to her (he calls her Bienchen, literally ‘little bee’ but here possibly meaning ‘Cutie’) or is it the reverse? The fact that in school she is studying Le voyage de monsieur Perrichon, a comic play by Eugène Labiche which deals with duplicity and betrayal, is a clue that Frances’ self-doubt may be leading to a crisis. The autobiographical element is very strong, but anyone who has had musical lessons since they were young will surely recognise correspondences from their own childhood.

The Jockey (1941) is a tragicomedy in miniature, completed around the time Carson was divorcing her husband of three years, and features themes that will continue to recur in her subsequent work. Bitsy Barlow is the title character; dapper and diminutive, he cuts a distinctive figure but has a personality twisted by bitter memories of his young Irish friend, a fellow jockey, who after an accident on the racecourse now has a blighted career. Bitzy blames his so-called superiors — a trainer, and bookie, and a never-named racehorse owner — and is steadily going off the rails, so to speak. When his trainer attempts to sympathise (‘I realize how you feel’) Bitsy responds with an acerbic ‘Do you?’ And when the rich man at his dinner table casually says, ‘Well, those things happen,’ that is the trigger for Bitsy to express his bitterness in more direct ways. ‘Libertines,’ is his final comment on their moral corruption.

Also from 1941 is Madame Zilensky and the King of Finland. This leads us to an educational institution — Ryder College, Westbridge — where the prosaic Mr Brook, Head of Music, achieves a coup by engaging the gifted if eccentric Madame Zilensky to teach piano at the college. She knows her stuff, clearly, but Mr Brook entertains steadily growing doubts about her capacity for truth-telling. When he confronts her with one of her unlikely anecdotes he sees that “in her eyes there was astonishment, dismay, and a sort of cornered horror. She had the look of one who watches his whole interior world split open and disintegrate.” How will Mr Brook respond to such a revelation?

While the Zilensky story questions our individual capacity for understanding, remorse and compassion, A Tree, a Rock, a Cloud (1942) touches more tangentially on these qualities. An all-night café, owned by the no-nonsense, slightly irascible Leo, has among its customers a quiet solitary male, with a wide-eyed 12-year-old about to start his paper-round completing the main cast of characters. Lost, unrequited love is the main theme here, and philosophical discussions on developing Platonic love (hence the tree, rock and cloud) are balanced by quizzical asides and interjections as if the three are characters in a play by Samuel Beckett.

By 1950, when she produced The Sojourner, several major events had happened in McCullers’ life, and she was still only in her early 30s. She’d written three novels, been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, divorced and remarried Reeves McCullers, and had been dividing her time between Paris and New York; in addition her father had died, another in a series of stroke had resulted in her left side being paralysed, and she’d attempted suicide. Aspects of most of these incidents fed into her latest short story. In this, John Ferris has travelled from Paris to attend his father’s funeral in Georgia; in New York, the day before his flight back to Europe, he meets his former wife Elizabeth who has since remarried and had children. Invited to dinner with Elizabeth and her husband, the improbably named Bill Bailey, he is treated to Elizabeth playing the piano for him and to a cake with candles—he’d forgotten it was his 38th birthday.

Back in Paris he feels his life slipping away. While waiting for his French girlfriend Jeannine (who has a singing engagement) he promises her son Valentin that they’ll go to the puppet theatre in the Tuileries, only to be told by the boy that ‘The guignol is now closed.’ The Sojourner is as affecting as many of the tales here, not least in its reflection of the truths of life and death. When his ex-wife plays the piano for Ferris, ‘There’s nothing that makes you so aware of the improvisation of a human existence as a song unfinished,’ he says to his hosts. L’improvisation de la vie humaine is a theme reiterated in the final paragraph:

Again, the terror, the acknowledgement of wasted years and death. […] With inner desperation he pressed [Valentin] close — as though an emotion as protean as his love could dominate the pulse of time.

‘The Sojourner’

Melancholy stalks the pages of A Domestic Dilemma (1951) as well. Contrasting with the “idle warmth of a small, southern town” like Paris City, Alabama in summer is a winter in New York City, at “the hour when the evening lilac glow was fading in the slushy streets” and when the surrounding “countryside seemed vast and somehow desolate.” Martin Meadows’ wife’s alcoholism — a reaction perhaps to her being alone, away from her small southern town origins — acts on his psyche as malevolently as the ‘tooth-tree’ he claims will grow in his son Andy’s body:

‘You’ll bite into something and swallow that tooth. And the tooth will take root in poor Andy’s stomach and grow into a tooth tree with sharp little teeth instead of leaves.’

‘A Domestic Dilemma’

And finally we come to the title story, in which meals, and music, and melancholy, and other motifs will all weave their counterpoint from start to finish. At the end of The Ballad of the Sad Café there is a coda entitled The Twelve Mortal Men, composed of twelve males in black and white-striped prison suits forming a chain gang on the highway. In a reverse image of a piano keyboard (there are seven black and five white men) they sing what we must construe is a call-and-response ballad:

All day there is the sound of picks striking into the clay earth, hard sunlight, the smell of sweat. And every day there is music. […] What kind of gang is this that can make such music? Just twelve mortal men who are together.

In a southern town a tragicomedy plays out on the main street. The hardware store run by the curmudgeonly Miss Amelia has a change coming the moment a lone weary figure appears down the dusty road. The stranger, a soon-to-be-strutting hunchback, claims to be be Amelia’s Cousin Lymon, and from that moment the store steadily and miraculously becomes a lively hub for the community as it transforms into a welcoming café. But then Amelia’s estranged husband Marvin is released from the penitentiary and things are set for a showdown.

Though I’ve reviewed these stories in chronological order, this novella heads the collection and so prefigures and develops the all-pervading motifs while intensifying the emotional depths to be met with later. Though there is humour aplenty to be had — Lymon appears as a mischievous Mr Punch, six-footer Amelia trains with a punchbag like a prize fighter, gossips speculate in the absence of any supporting evidence — the reader, even though forewarned of the coming dyscatastrophe, still hopes for a happy outcome. But the themes of duplicity and unrequited love as ever loom large, themes that biographers identify in McCullers’ own life.

I can well understand why the novella has been put into a collection with these earlier short stories: each item, distinctive and working perfectly well on its own, serves also to add meaningful resonances to its neighbours; they are the literary equivalents of musical variations on interrelated themes, a little like Handel’s Harmonious Blacksmith piece which Frances is asked to play in Wunderkind. Doubtless I’ll find the same motifs further developed in her novels, a project I anticipate will be equally rewarding as this one. But in the meantime, as Wordsworth describes in The Solitary Reaper, the music in my heart I’ll bear “long after it was heard no more.”

Carson McCullers

Read for my Library of Brief Narratives meme; No 13 in my 15 Books of Summer

24 thoughts on “A song unfinished

  1. Thank you for giving me the chance to revisit this book through your review. It’s a long time since I read it, perhaps 20 years even, and now I might read it again soon. The Member of the Wedding is my favourite of the two novels I’ve read, although I loved The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re very welcome, Jan, I’m glad it brought back memories. I’d read the short stories before, but not the novella — the copy I had was disfigured by student notes and underlinings but this time I bit the bullet and sailed through them and wasn’t disappointed with what I read.

      I’ve noted your preference from the two novels you’ve mentioned, and if The Member of the Wedding comes up first I’ll know it won’t be a dud!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the link, Josie—I saw that she’d mingled with other established and up and coming litetati around this time so this should fill out what I’ve already read.


        1. I finally remembered where I’d seen the collection; it’s among my mother’s books; I mentioned it to her and she said it was something she’d won as a prize back in uni, that and a collected Maugham. Will dig it out soon. I remember the cover–its an orange penguin with a house or silhouette of one in black,

          Liked by 1 person

    1. I have that problem occasionally too, Mallika, not remembering if I’ve read a title or even thinking I’ve read it when in fact it’s because its reputation has gone before it! Luckily, now that I’m taking the trouble to review everything I read, such false memories are a thing of the past! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I remember liking these stories when I first read them, but at any age I know I would have reacted badly to how funny it is for a woman to be six feet tall (as I am) and to do things physically like a man.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting. Our middle child is 5’11” (taller than me, anyway) and is currently a personal trainer, so the idea of a physically tough young woman hasn’t fazed me for many years at least. I liked the way in ‘Sad Café’ Amelia’s personality was made familiar for us before her height and boxing proclivities, and I was impressed by how she was well on the way to whupping Marvin before the contest was rendered uneven. “Bust a gut!” as she said to him… How would I have reacted earlier in life? Dunno, probably nonplussed.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Melancholy is definitely an overarching mood! I’m almost certain I wouldn’t have got much out of these even up to a few years ago either but now I’m much more in sympathy with the emotions she expresses and the little details she includes.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What a wonderful review! I had no idea of Carson McCullers’ range or involvement in music. As soon as lockdown is over I’m off to my second hand bookshop. I’m sure I’ve seen it there. Hope I can get one with the Edward Hopper cover.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. When I first read the short stories Wunderkind was my favourite because it seemed so rooted in lived experience, a faint echo of my own childhood piano lessons with an ex-pat Russian.

      But this reread revealed how much music — its qualities and sensibilities as much as its technical terms and references — soaks into the fabric of a great many of the narratives, and suggested to me the degree to which a yearning for a lost passion must have consumed McCullers for a good many years. This time around The Sojourner became my favourite.

      Liked by 1 person

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