“The town itself is dreary; not much is there except the cotton mill, the two-room houses where workers live, a few peach trees, a church with two colored windows, and a miserable main street only a hundred yards long. On Saturdays the tenants from the near-by farms come in for a day of talk and trade. Otherwise the town is lonesome, sad, and like a place that is far off and estranged from all the other places in the world.”
I’ve never been to the American Deep South, but often, reading The Ballad of the Sad Café, I felt not only like I was there, but as if I had lived there my whole life and knew it intimately. I could hear the locals murmuring together in their Southern twang; I could feel the sticky heat of the long summer days, and hear the chain-gang singing as they worked in the fields. I could also feel it, an atmosphere as rich and profound as it is stifling: the isolation, the poverty, the subdued desire, and the melancholy – all of which make this area, to the outsider at least, so enchanting and unnerving. (Of course, I’m speaking as someone whose knowledge of the Southern States of the USA was gleaned primarily from novels and films, and is therefore at best saturated with cliché, and at worst wildly inaccurate. If anyone who actually knows the place would like to set me straight on any of the above, please feel free…)
It would not be inaccurate to describe this novella as “Southern Gothic”, that sub-genre that explores the spiritual longings and loneliness of the South, usually with a variety of odd, poignant and grotesque characters. They don’t get much more grotesque than in The Ballad of the Sad Café. The highly unconventional protagonist, Miss Amelia, is a woman whose very appearance betrays her oddness. She is over six feet tall, and has muscles like a man. She stumps around in swamp boots and overalls. Fiercely independent, she runs a number of business interests in the small Georgia town that is her home, and devotes most of her free time to suing people. She also has an unconventional past: ten years ago, she shocked the townsfolk with a dramatic ten-day marriage to the local bad boy, Marvin Macy.
Now, with Macy long gone (to prison, in fact), Miss Amelia has returned to her proudly self-reliant lifestyle. Then, one day, a strutting little hunchback turns up in town, claiming to be her distant relative. This is Cousin Lymon, who in due course achieves the seemingly impossible by winning Miss Amelia’s affections. Together, they begin to run a small café, which in turn brings something of life and colour to the area. The town itself is in a sense not unlike an enchanted castle in a fairytale: it is asleep, isolated from the remainder of the world, a place of secrets and sorrow. The arrival of Cousin Lymon, and the opening of the café, are the equivalent of the kiss that wakes the place from its slumber. But nothing lasts forever, and one day Miss Amelia’s past begins to catch up with her, in the form of her ex-husband.
Ultimately, this is a book about love. McCullers, in her beautiful, fluid prose, explores the nature of love: its intricacies, its mystery, its betrayals. In every relationship, McCullers suggests, one partner is the lover, the other the beloved. “If equal affection cannot be, let the more loving one be me,” wrote Auden, and this sentiment finds a poignant echo in The Ballad of the Sad Café:
“It is for this reason that most of us would rather love than be loved. Almost everyone wants to be the lover. And the curt truth is that, in a deep secret way, the state of being loved is intolerable to many. The beloved fears and hates the lover, and with the best of reasons. For the lover is for ever trying to strip bare his beloved. The lover craves any possible relation with the beloved, even if this experience can cause him only pain.”
Love, McCullers suggests, is not simply, or even primarily, pleasure and passion. It is pain and torture: powerful, inscrutable, and with dim and dangerous depths that nobody can really sound. And just as you begin to get an idea where the love relationships explored in The Ballad of the Sad Café are leading, McCullers turns the tables and springs a surprise on the reader, in a way that makes lines like the above all the more haunting.
In addition to the novella, there are a number of short stories in the collection – The Wunderkind, The Sojourner, A Domestic Dilemma – all of which pack a punch, and perhaps owe much to McCullers’ own tortured life. Despite the success she enjoyed as a writer, her short existence was marred by ill heath and general lucklessness; it is unsurprising, then, that her writing should be saturated with such pain. I’ve only just discovered her writing, and I’m dismayed that it took me so long. This in turn leads me back to one of my great concerns. There are so many fine authors, living and dead, and so many wonderful books to explore: how will I ever find the time to read even a tenth, a fiftieth, a thousandth, of all that I should?