Saturday, May 26, 2018

The Mortgaged Heart by Carson McCullers

There is a time when everybody wants to run away--no matter how well they get along with their family.  They feel they have to leave because of something they have done, or something they want to do, or maybe they don't know why it is they run away.

There is a story among McCullers' earliest works collected here called "Instant of the Hour After."  It's about a couple who have just had a party, and when all the guests leave, they begin to sharpen their knives at each other.  They're both drunk, and letting the most toxic parts of their relationship hang loose, but being drunk is a sometimes thing for her.  He's a drunk that tonight, like many nights, has drunk to excess.  "Can't a person even think," he says, "without being called obscene or sick or drunk.  No.  No understanding of thought.  Of deep deep thought in blackness.  Of rich morasses.  Morasses.  With their asses."  It's a vivid story, full of telling detail, but it kind of spins in drunk, dizzy circles without progressing.  "I like this the least of anything you have done," writes McCullers' editor Sylvia Chatfield Bates in a note included here.

Compare that to another story, grouped with McCullers' later works, called "Who Has Seen the Wind?"  She presents a similar couple, a little older now, perhaps because McCullers also was when she wrote it.  The drunk husband is now a writer, suffering from an acute sense of writers' block, which is exacerbated by his drinking problem in a way that he refuses to recognize.  The conflict is the same, but suddenly the story is filled with action and agency: he pretends to bang on the typewriter so his wife will think he's working; he drifts to a party where he knows no one and unloads his own anxieties onto an optimistic young writer, he walks through subzero temperatures back home because he doesn't have enough money to call a cab.  By releasing the character from the confines of the bedroom, McCullers turns a closet drama into a piece of convincing realistic fiction.  I was really struck by this comment about writing and war, which reads like a dark inversion of Muriel Spark's assertion that time is never wasted for the artist because all experience is material:

He crossed on D-Day and his battalion went all the way to Schmitz.  In a cellar in a ruined town he saw a cat sniffing the face of a corpse.  He was afraid, but it was not the blank terror of the cafeteria or the anxiety of a white page on the typewriter.  Something was always happening--he found three Westphalian hams in the chimney of a peasant's house and he broke his arm in an automobile accident.  The war was the great experience of his generation, and to a writer every day was automatically of value because it was the war.  But when it was over what was there to write about--the calm cat and the corpse, the lord in England, the broken arm?

"Who Has Seen the Wind?" is the story that "Instant of the Hour After" wanted to be.  It's thrilling, in a way, to see so clearly the progression of an artist.  McCullers' early stories are good, but they're mainly experiments in image and voice, capturing a moment (that titular "instant") rather than telling a story.  And then somehow, through hard work and intuition, facing those same fears about writing as the protagonist of "Wind" (and the same addiction, I'm sad to observe), McCullers became a mature virtuoso of short fiction.  And I enjoyed reading the notes from her editors, who sadly observe that a story she had written was rejected by fifteen different publicationsIt all gives an image of the artist's growth that's only possible because The Mortgaged Heart is a collection of unpublished odds and ends.

Among other things, it includes a brief precis of the plot of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, which was written for I don't know what reason.  It's fun to see what changes McCullers ended up making--in the outline here the novel is called "The Mute" and there are several ancillary characters who ended up getting cut.  A moment where Mick and Harry try and fail to build a working glider is taken straight from another unpublished story, "Untitled Piece," and though that didn't make it into the novel either, you can see a trace of it in the impotent homemade violin that Mick tries to make.

Other pieces--especially McCullers' essays--are pretty inert and I've already forgotten a lot about them.  "Who Has Seen the Wind?" is the cream of the crop, along with some stories about Christmas, which apparently was a big passion of McCullers'.  In one harrowing story that seems like it might be taken from real life, the narrator listens to a story by her black housekeeper about how her son once set down his baby brother near a hearth on Christmas day and it burned alive because of an errant spark.  The narrator, getting the wrong message from this horrible story, places her new infant sibling down on the hearth hoping to get rid of it.  All ends up well in that story, but it's the kind of grotesque gothic detail that McCullers does so well.  She died so young, at fifty--it's great to see how that skill developed, but hard not to feel that we were robbed of seeing where it could go.

1 comment:

Davida Chazan said...

I haven't read McCullers in years. These sound pretty good. Thanks!