‘Frankie had become an unjoined person who hung around doorways, and she was afraid’: The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers

107822-mCarson McCuller’s The Member of the Wedding is the story of a young girl who suddenly finds herself at sea in the world; she hates being herself, and she can find no words for the new things that burst within her:

It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old. This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member … Frankie had become an unjoined person who hung around doorways, and she was afraid.

McCullers has a genius for evoking the lives of the lonely and outcast, and for articulating the subtle bonds of affection that develop between apparently disparate people. In The Member of the Wedding the lonely is Frankie Addams, caught between the world of her childhood and the uncharted adult world of love and other mysteries; and the companions to whom she resentfully clings one long hot summer are her six-year-old cousin John Henry, as small and fragile as Frankie is big and gangly, and Berenice, who cooks and cleans for Frankie and her widowed father.

The story is simple and most of the action erupts over one weekend, from Frankie’s brother’s announcement on the last Friday in August that he is getting married that Sunday, to the briefly described wedding and its devastating aftermath. But what McCullers evokes with her lyrical, spare prose and her bare-boned story is one of the most profound portraits in all of literature of the awkward, painful, disorienting metamorphosis from girl-hood into womanhood—a portrait that draws its power from McCullers’s ability to capture Frankie’s mercurial moods and the whirl of talk around the kitchen table between Frankie, John Henry and Berenice, as Berenice gradually realises what is blossoming in the troubled young girl before her: she is falling in love—with a wedding.

Frankie, Berenice and John Henry around the kitchen table. Still from the film 'The Member of the Wedding'

Frankie, Berenice and John Henry around the kitchen table. Still from the film ‘The Member of the Wedding’

Frankie’s urge to belong somewhere suddenly finds an outlet in her brother’s wedding, and all her floating dreams of escape from her dull life in a small Southern town into the big exotic world at war that turns without her are focused with an unrelenting intensity on her brother Jarvis and his fiancee Janice. All at once it occurs to Frankie that when she leaves home for her brother’s wedding in Winter Hill she will never again return to her old life, and so she prepares to leave home forever. And her preparations must be nothing short of a complete transformation. Her new place in the world as a member of the wedding, far from home and alongside her brother and his fiancee, requires a whole new Frankie, starting with a new name—F. Jasmine Addams, to go with the ‘JA names’ Jarvis and Janice—and new hair: ‘For the wedding I ought to have long, bright yellow hair, don’t you think?’

McCullers brilliantly draws the young Frankie in all her seriousness and urgency and sudden need to grow up, crashing against Berenice’s straight-talking worldly realism and John Henry’s childish play, which was so recently part of Frankie’s life. At the game of bridge around the kitchen table, John Henry ‘watched all the cards very carefully because he was in debt; he owed Berenice more than five million dollars’. McCullers can evoke the individual logic of John Henry’s childhood and of Frankie’s adolescence, in all their full illogic, from within their own experience and without ever once patronising them. In the same way, she can convey Berenice’s life, with her dream of a world in which ‘There would be no coloured people and no white people to make the coloured people feel cheap and sorry though all their lives …’ When at last Berenice realises the full depth of F. Jasmine’s need and emotional turmoil, and takes her into her arms, McCullers, with the lightest, most delicate of strokes, draws one of the most beautiful, heart-rending scenes of the novel.

Carson McCullers

Carson McCullers

By the time Carson McCullers came to write The Member of the Wedding, she had already published two novels. Her first, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, was published in 1940 when McCullers was only 23 years old; it became a bestseller and McCullers became a literary star. Born Lula Carson Smith in 1917 in Columbus, Georgia, McCullers was the eldest child—brilliant and sensitive—of three children. Her father was a watchmaker and jeweller, and her ambitious mother was determined her first-born would be a musical genius. At 15, McCullers had the first of many illnesses that were to ruin her health—rheumatic fever. She was later struck by a series of strokes that left her paralysed down one side by the time she was 30. McCullers became a talented pianist and was sent to New York City aged 17 to study music at the Juilliard. Instead, she enrolled in evening classes in creative writing at Columbia University and her first story, ‘Wunderkind‘, was published in 1936 in Story magazine.

Carson and Reeves

Carson and Reeves

McCullers, passionate, selfish and petulant, met and fell in love with the writer Reeves McCullers, a corporal in the US Army, and they were married in 1937. They moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, where McCullers wrote The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and became the successful writer Reeves would never become. The tension caused by the inequality of their talents, their tempestuous passions, heavy drinking and homosexual affairs led to a traumatic divorce in 1940 and McCullers moved to New York. Here she lived at the February House which was home to writers and artists including George Davis (the editor of Harper’s Bazaar), Gypsy Rose Lee and W.H. Auden, and became friends with Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote. Of his first meeting with her, Capote wrote: ‘I remember thinking how beautiful her eyes were: the colour of good clear coffee, or of a dark ale held to the firelight to warm. Her voice had the same quality, the same gentle heat …’ (Anais Nin gave the February House its name after discovering that McCullers, Davis and Auden were all born under the astrological sign of Pisces.)

After the publication in 1941 of her second novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye, McCullers spent over five agonising years trying to write The Member of the Wedding, struggling with chronic physical pain, unable to type properly—for months she could only type with one finger—and emotional torment, having fallen in love with American writer Katherine Anne Porter, who rejected her obsessive attentions. McCullers married Reeves again in 1945 and the following  year The Member of the Wedding was published. At the suggestion of Tennessee Williams, McCullers turned her novel into a successful play which was adapted for the cinema in 1952. The film, which has become a classic of American filmmaking, was the director Fred Zinnemann’s favourite of all his films.

McCullers spent the last years of her life before her death aged 50 dictating her unfinished autobiography, Illumination and Night Glare (published posthumously in 1999), in which she wrote: ‘I yearned for one particular thing; to get away from Columbus and to make my mark in the world.’

Carson McCullers

Carson McCullers

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‘I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me’: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

First edition

First edition

‘I am an invisible man,’ declares the narrator of Ralph Ellison’s only novel. ‘I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fibre and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.’ The truth of these disturbing lines is relentlessly revealed in Invisible Man, the story of a young idealistic African-American man in the American South and Harlem of the 1940s whose early promise and academic aspirations are confounded at every turn by the very people who pretend to help him: the white town leaders who invite him to speak at their gathering, the president of his state college for Negroes, the members of the socialist Brotherhood who take him up in New York. Finally, humiliated, defeated, hounded on every side and yet with a nascent, defiant sense of himself, he disappears down a manhole, making official his status as an invisible man.

Invisible Man opens with the unnamed narrator in his bolt-hole recalling the previous 20 years of his troubled life, beginning with the uncharacteristically fierce dying words of his grandfather, who had been a slave. His grandfather’s words continue to haunt him and only after the repeated shattering of his hopes and dreams does he begin to make sense of their cryptic meaning:

I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy’s country ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction. Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction, let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.

The narrator then cuts to one of the most shocking scenes in literature. Having made a brilliant oration at his high-school graduation, in which he successfully demonstrated rhetorically that ‘humility was the secret, indeed the very essence, of progress’, he is invited to speak at an important town gathering. But before he can speak, he must take part in a ‘battle royal’. In the violent battle which ensues, the narrator learns the depraved depths to which his humility must sink if he is to progress in the world.

Like Stendhal’s Julian Sorel, the narrator dreams of furthering himself through his brilliant mind and gift for speech, and, like The Red and the Black, the novel is charged with irony and moves with the force of a roller coaster. Along the way, the narrator meets other African-Americans who have found an understanding he cannot yet share, for they are dispossessed and insane—and he distances himself from them in horror, clinging instead to the white world and aspiring to work alongside the duplicitous president of his college. An impoverished African-American farmer, Jim Trueblood, tells a story of how he found the strength to live through disgrace and banishment from home. One night, filled with despair, Trueblood looked up and saw the stars:

All I know is I ends up singin’ the blues, I sings me some blues that ain’t never been sang before, and while I’m singin’ them blues I makes up my mind that I ain’t nobody but myself and ain’t nothing I can do but let whatever is gonna happen, happen.

This man, despicable in the eyes of the narrator, finds his strength through his own music. Another man, the inmate of a semi-madhouse, sees that the narrator has ‘learned to repress not only his emotions but his humanity’—but the narrator, still beholden to his dream, cannot see this until his dream begins to fall apart, which it does with astonishing and devastating rapidity when he is dismissed from his college and sent to New York.

Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison

Ralph Waldo Ellison, born in Oklahoma City in 1914, was named after the American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. His parents, both children of former slaves in the South, moved west to Oklahoma hoping to bring up their children in a state known for its freedom. When Ellison’s father died, his mother found work at an Methodist Episcopal church, where Ellison could use the minister’s library. He became a passionate reader—of Twain, Stendhal, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner, Hemingway, Joyce, TS Eliot—and a talented trumpeter. He later wrote:

When I read Stendhal, I would search within the Negro communities in which I grew up. I began, in other words, quite early to connect the words projected in literature and poetry and drama and novels with the life in which I found myself.

At 19 Ellison won a scholarship to study music at the Booker T. Washington Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he was introduced to the ideas of philosopher Alain Locke (1886-1954), who had studied at Harvard under William James. Locke, the first African-American Rhodes scholar at Oxford University, edited The New Negro: An Interpretation (1925), in which he argued that African-American life in the 1920s was ‘not only establishing new contacts and founding new contents, it is finding a new soul’.

Ellison then moved to Harlem to study sculpture. From 1938 to 1942, he worked for the Federal Writers’ Project (established as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal), interviewing ordinary people and recording their stories. Between 1937 and 1944, he published reviews in journals like Negro Quarterly, which he briefly edited, and in 1943 reported on the Harlem race riot, an event that came the climax of Invisible Man. Following the Second World War—during which he served in the US Merchant Marines—Ellison married Fanny McConnell and they moved to Vermont. With the assistance of a Rosenwald Fellowship, Ellison devoted himself to writing, and spent the next seven years working on a novel about black identity and heroism, which was published in 1952 as Invisible Man. His impassioned, surreal novel was on the bestseller list for 16 weeks and won the 1953 National Book Award for Fiction. Following its publication, Ellison lectured extensively on African-American culture and struggled to write his second novel, which remained unfinished upon his death in 1994.

Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison

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‘I am over-run, jungled in my bed, I am infested with a menagerie of desires’: By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart

When Elizabeth Smart left her upper-middle-class family home in Ottawa, Canada, aged 18 to study piano for a year at King’s College, University of London, she made a move that would irrevocably alter the course of her life. While in London, Smart picked up a book of poems, read it and fell instantly in love with its author.

Convinced that the only way to live was with passion, guided by the heart and poetic inspiration alone, Smart wrote to the poet, George Barker. They corresponded for almost ten years until after the outbreak of the Second World War, when Smart moved to a writers’ colony in Big Sur, California, where she finally met the love of her life. At her instigation and with her financial assistance, George Barker flew to California from Japan, where he had been teaching English at the University of Sendai.

I am standing on a corner in Monterey, waiting for the bus to come in, and all the muscles of my will are holding my terror to face the moment I most desire. Apprehension and the summer afternoon keep drying my lips, prepared at ten-minute intervals all through the five-hour wait.

But then it is her eyes that come forward out of the vulgar disembarkers to reassure me that the bus has not disgorged disaster: her madonna eyes, soft as the newly-born, trusting as the untempted.

So begins By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, the novel Smart based on her lifelong love affair with George Barker. These opening lines conjure the narrator’s most longed-for desire since first reading a book of poems in a London bookshop: the moment she will behold for the first time the man she already loves. But when he alights from the bus in July 1940, he is followed by his wife. Although Smart had arranged for both Barker and his wife to fly to America from Japan, she had not anticipated the agonising consequences of her act. The excruciating love triangle that results from this meeting fuels the narrative of Smart’s novel.


With its hypnotic prose, throbbing rhythms and rich metaphors, By Grand Central Station reads more like a poem than a novel. It is a lament, composed of tears and blood, earth and sky, as obsessive and unleashed, as intimate and cosmic, as the paintings of Frida Kahlo. The story itself is simple—it charts the rise, faltering and unravelling of an intense sexual love affair, perhaps incapable of surviving ordinary life (‘But how can I go through the necessary daily motions, when such an intense fusion turns the world to water?’)—but the way in which the story is told is so mesmerising, so visceral, that its extravagant emotion is alive. Such intense passion has the power to polarise onlookers and readers, either to transport or offend. When the lovers are arrested on the Arizona border under the Mann Act (for intending to fornicate in Arizona) by two policemen, one remarks: ‘We’re family men … We don’t go much for love.’

The novel is extraordinary for the opulent precision of Smart’s prose, which draws freely on myth, the Bible and literature, then cuts these allusions with references to everyday things such as pots and pans, wilted geraniums and children’s thin legs. Frustrated by the limitations of traditional narrative prose, Smart developed a lyrical prose style that she believed could express deep truths the way that poetry does, by evoking the unspeakable, the inexpressible, through metaphor—’I am over-run, jungled in my bed, I am infested with a menagerie of desires.’

Elizabeth Smart

Elizabeth Smart

The rich texture of Smart’s language can be heard in the words of her title, taken from the famous opening lines of Psalm 137 (and echoing their use by T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land): ‘By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea we wept …’ The title evokes an intensely traumatic event of Old Testament history—the captivity of the Jews in Babylon following the destruction of the Temple of Solomon in 586 BC—which produced a great literature expressing the exiled people’s desire for revenge, their anguish and longing for God, their wavering repentance. Smart’s skill is in her ability to fuse her own intensely personal experience of love and loss with these larger moments of history, to magnify and articulate her own experience of homelessness, her sense of exile, her longing for her own god (Barker). It is hyperbolic. It works beautifully. The devastation and disorientation of Europe during the Second World War, raging as Smart wrote, are also echoed in her prose, so that what is essentially a love song becomes a haunting chant of loss and longing for an age.

George Barker

George Barker

By Grand Central Station is now acknowledged as a masterpiece of poetic prose, but although it received favourable reviews, including one by noted English critic and novelist Cyril Connolly, it did not sell widely when it was first published in England in 1945. Perhaps this is not surprising in a country that was yet to accept publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D.H. Lawrence’s exploration of sexual passion and attack on conservative sexual mores. Elizabeth Smart continued her affair with George Barker for many years, and had four children with him, despite the fact that he never left his wife. She lived in England for most of her life, working as a copywriter to support her children—eventually becoming the highest paid copywriter in England—and then as editor of Queen magazine. In 2006 Smart and Barker’s son Christopher Barker published The Arms of the Infinite, a memoir of his parents’ tempestuous love affair.

Michael Ondaatje narrated the 1991 film of Smart’s life, Elizabeth Smart: On the Side of the Angels. He observed of her extraordinary novel that every good reader eventually discovers By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, and finds in it a fundamental and abiding emotional truth.

Elizabeth Smart with three of her children, 1945. Photo: Gérard Dicks Pellerin

Elizabeth Smart with three of her children, 1945. Photo: Gérard Dicks Pellerin

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I was conscious only of the cymbals of the sun clashing on my skull: The Outsider by Albert Camus

The trigger gave, and the smooth underbelly of the butt jogged my palm. And so, with that crisp, whip-crack sound, it all began. I shook off my sweat and the clinging veil of light. I knew I had shattered the balance of the day, the spacious calm of this beach on which I’d been happy.

And so the life of Meursault, narrator of The Outsider, is destroyed by his one senseless, sun-induced act on a beach in Algiers. Meursault kills a man, and he is arrested and tried for murder. His peculiar indifference to his fate—or his unwillingness to behave in the manner expected by his captors—renders him guilty in the eyes of the court, and the events of his otherwise innocuous life are retold until they form the profile of the criminal he is deemed to be.

outsider-coverThe novel, narrated by Meursault in the lucid, spare prose that is Camus’ hallmark, falls into two parts. In Part One, which opens with the announcement of the death and funeral of Meursault’s mother, Meursault is a regular young man who unthinkingly goes about his days, from his mother’s funeral to the beach to the movies with a girl who wants to marry him. And then explodes the one random act that crystallises his whole life into something new, an act perhaps brought on by the Mediterranean sun: ‘I was conscious only of the cymbals of the sun clashing on my skull, and, less distinctly, of the keen blade of light flashing up from the knife, scarring my eyelashes, and gouging into my eyeballs.’ In Part Two, Meursault is imprisoned. His life, taken over by the rule of the court, is no longer his own to dispense with as he pleases: ‘Still, there was one thing in those early days that was really irksome: my habit of thinking like a free man.’

The Outsider was Camus’ first novel. Published in 1942 in Nazi-occupied Paris in a world at war, the novel captured the spirit of disillusion of its times and was an immediate success. The Outsider went on to become France’s best-selling novel of the 20th century and its brooding, handsome, 27-year-old author became a cult figure. When Camus won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957 aged 44, becoming the second youngest writer ever to do so, in his acceptance speech he characterised his generation as one born in a season of war and revolution, ‘Heir to a corrupt history, in which are mingled fallen revolutions, technology gone mad, dead gods, and worn-out ideologies’. He spoke passionately about the role of artists in such an era, when the duty of his generation was like that of no generation before it—a duty not just to reform the world, but to prevent the world from destroying itself.

In this new, worn-out world, Meursault drifts with a disaffection that later marks him as ‘a criminal at heart’. He unthinkingly abandons himself to the whims of his flesh and to the flow of his life under the hot Algerian sun. The Outsider is filled with Camus’ fierce love for the land of his birth, Algeria. In an essay, ‘Summer in Algiers’, he wrote: ‘Men find here throughout all their youth a way of living commensurate with their beauty. After that, decay and oblivion. They’ve staked all on the body and they know that they must lose.’ This worship and indulgence of the body is everywhere apparent in Part One of The Outsider: ‘While I was helping her to climb on to a raft, I let my hand stray over her breasts … I had the sky full in my eyes, all blue and gold, and I could feel Marie’s stomach rising and falling gently under my head.’ Meursault lives in the present moment, unmoved by ambition or love. When Marie asks him if he loves her, ‘I said that sort of question had no meaning, really; but I supposed I didn’t.’ When his boss asks him if he’d like to move to a new branch in Paris, he says he doesn’t care: ‘As a student I’d had plenty of ambition of the kind he meant. But, when I had to drop my studies, I very soon realised all that was pretty futile.’

Albert Camus

Albert Camus

Albert Camus was born in 1913 in Mondori, a village in the interior of Algeria. His father’s ancestors had settled in Algeria following its conquest by the French Bourbon king Charles X in 1830; his mother was of Spanish descent. Before Camus turned one, his father was killed in the First World War, and his mother took her two sons, Albert and his elder brother Lucien, to Algiers to live with her mother. They lived a difficult, impoverished life in a small apartment. Camus was a talented student, reserved and focused, excelling in French and mathematics, and his primary-school teacher Louis Germain (to whom Camus dedicated his Nobel Prize speech) helped him to get a scholarship to Algiers High School in 1923.

At 15, Camus joined a soccer team and it was on the soccer field that he absorbed the basis of the strong moral sense for which he was later famous, the spirit of individual effort as part of a team: ‘solitaire et solidaire’ (alone and united). Soccer became a lifelong passion, although an almost fatal bout of tuberculosis forced him to stop playing in 1930. Two years later, he began to write.

Throughout his life Camus was vigorously engaged in left-wing politics. In Algeria he worked and wrote for the Theatre du Travail, which he founded in 1935 to bring quality theatre to working people. He admired Dostoyevsky, Malraux, Melville and Faulkner, and wrote stage adaptations of Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun and Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed. As a journalist Camus reviewed Jean-Paul Sartre’s early work, as Sartre did Camus’, and the two writers met in Paris in 1943. In Paris, Camus joined the French Resistance and with Sartre edited the Parisian journal Combat, whose motto was: ‘In  war as in peace, the last word is said by those who never surrender.’ The friendship between Camus and Sartre was famously broken in 1952 following their disagreement over the Soviet Union, when Sartre became a Communist and Camus denounced Stalin.

Sartre (seated front left) next to Camus, with Picasso's dog, and artists and intellectuals including Picasso, de Beauvoir and Eluard, 1944.

Sartre (seated front left) next to Camus, with Picasso’s dog, and artists and intellectuals including Picasso, de Beauvoir and Eluard, 1944.

In 1960, aged 46, Camus was killed in a car accident with his friend and publisher Michel Gallimard. In the mud by the wrecked car the manuscript of his last, unfinished novel was found. The novel, The First Man, an autobiographical story about his fatherless childhood in Algeria, was published in English in 1995.

Although Camus never wanted The Outsider to be adapted for the screen, after Camus’ death Visconti brought it to the cinema in his 1967 film Lo Straniero, starring Marcello Mastroianni as Meursault and Anna Karina as Marie. The film was one of Visconti’s less successful screen adaptations but the novel that inspired it has remained in print since its first publication in 1942.

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‘I knelt and started to pray and prayed for everybody I thought of’: Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises

The first edition

The first edition

In October 1926 the publication of a novel by a relatively unknown 27-year-old American writer caused a literary sensation. The novel was The Sun Also Rises. The writer was Ernest Hemingway. The novel’s revolutionary approach to prose—unadorned direct sentences, understated dialogue, lean description—and its exotic story of 30-something bohemian American and British expatriates in Paris and Pamplona captured the disillusion of the post-war times, and the novel was an immediate commercial success. The style of its cool-talking hero Jake Barnes and modern heroine Lady (Brett) Ashley, with her blonde hair cut short and brushed back like a boy, was imitated across America.

A review in The New York Times enthused:

No amount of analysis can convey the quality of The Sun Also Rises. It is a truly gripping story, told in a lean, hard, athletic narrative prose that puts more literary English to shame … This novel is unquestionably one of the events of an unusually rich year in literature.

Its fortunes were spread by word of mouth—the novel was based on Hemingway’s life in Paris and his trip to a fiesta in Spain in the summer of 1925, and the characters were based on real people; the guessing game for discerning their real-life identities helped fuel the novel’s popularity.

The Sun Also Rises is narrated by journalist and aspiring writer Jake Barnes, whose injury from the First World War has left him unable to function properly sexually. The novel opens with a story about Robert Cohn, a Jewish writer who travels to Paris after his marriage breaks up. Jake and Robert play tennis together, and in the evenings hang out in cafes and dance clubs with their friends, all writers and artists of some description, getting blind drunk and talking about writing, life, sex and marriage. The novel comes into focus with the appearance one night of the beautiful, English, Lady Ashley, who is waiting for her divorce so she can marry someone else—the Scottish Mike Campbell.

Brett was damn good-looking. She wore a slipover jersey sweater and a tweed skirt, and her hair was brushed back like a boy’s. She started all that. She was built with curves like the hull of a racing yacht, and you missed none of it with that wool jersey.

Brett trails men in her wake, including Jake. Cohn also falls in love with her, described with classic Hemingway succinctness and macho touch: ‘When he fell in love with Brett his tennis game went all to pieces.’ An explosive brew is mixed when Jake and his friend, the energetic writer Bill Gorton, plan a fishing trip to Spain followed by the fiesta in Pamplona. Cohn, still obsessed with Brett, decides to join them. So do Brett and her fiancé Mike. These fictional events arose from Hemingway’s own experience of life in Europe and trip to Spain.

Ernest Hemingway at lunch with Ava Gardner, bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguin and others at lunch in Costa del Sol, Andalusia, Spain

Ernest Hemingway at lunch with Ava Gardner, bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguin and others at lunch in Costa del Sol, Andalusia, Spain

In 1921, Ernest Hemingway left Chicago with his new wife, Hadley, the first of his four feisty wives, and moved to Paris. The American writer Sherwood Anderson had suggested Paris to Hemingway because it was the centre of a lively expatriate community of artists centred around Gertrude Stein—and Hemingway was a 21-year-old journalist determined to become a novelist. Through Anderson, Hemingway met Stein and Ezra Pound, who encouraged his writing. The idea of a story set around bullfighting in Spain came to Hemingway on a trip to Pamplona fraught with sexual tension and innuendo in July 1925 with a group of friends. By September 1925, Hemingway’s story had become the first draft of a novel, which he revised in late 1925 and 1926 with the help of F. Scott Fitzgerald, whom he had met in Paris. Fitzgerald recommended Hemingway to his publisher, Charles Scribner’s Sons, and the novel—originally Fiesta, now renamed The Sun Also Rises—was published in 1926.

Hemingway’s idiosyncratic spare prose, with its disenchanted tone, was one of the most copied styles of the 20th century. The colloquial, masculine rhythms of his prose are cool and funky, the conversations are straight and loose, the drinking is excessive and characterised by numerous frank disclosures about sex and being drunk—such as Brett’s ‘I must have been blind’ (drunk).

Gertrude Stein by Man Ray, 1927

Gertrude Stein by Man Ray, 1927

The book’s two epigraphs evoke the passing and changing of time. The first epigraph, Gertrude Stein’s comment about the expatriate writers living in 1920s Paris—’You are all a lost generation’—has been used ever since to describe the entire post-war generation, evoking its feelings of hopelessness and spiritual unease. The second epigraph, from the Old Testament, includes the words: ‘The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to the place where he arose’, which Hemingway hoped would evoke some promise in this sea of despair. The character Jake, based on Hemingway, is irresistibly yet tentatively drawn to the dark cathedrals of Spain—they help him to feel better, the same as he feels good when he walks up a river to fish for trout and is passionate about bullfights:

I knelt and started to pray and prayed for everybody I thought of … I was a little ashamed, and regretted that I was such a rotten Catholic, but realised there was nothing I could do about it, at least for a while, and maybe never, but that anyway it was a grand religion, and I only wished I felt religious and maybe I would next time.

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway was born in Chicago in 1899, the eldest son of Clarence Hemingway, a doctor, and Grace Hemingway, an accomplished singer. His summer holidays were spent with his family on Lake Walloon in the Upper Michigan, where the vigorous Hemingway became keen on hunting and fishing. He began writing in high school and graduated in 1917. He found a job in Kansas City as a reporter then during the First World War drove ambulances for the Red Cross in Italy (he was refused entry to the army because he had a bad eye). He was injured just before his 19th birthday and sent to hospital in Milan, where he fell in love with his nurse—an experience he immortalised in A Farewell to Arms, published in 1929. Hemingway continued all his life to be drawn to war, attracted by its danger and tense living. He worked in Spain as a journalist covering the Civil War, supporting the Republicans against Franco, a period that inspired For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). He later reported on the invasion of China by Japan and covered the Second World War from London, flying missions with the Royal Air Force and crossing the Channel with the American troops on D-Day in June 1944. After the war Hemingway sojourned in his house in Cuba, then moved to Ketchum, Idaho. Here was was hospitalised for depression and given electro-shock treatment. Two days after his return home from hospital, he fatally shot himself.

In 1954 Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for literature for his mastery of narrative, notably in The Old Man and the Sea (1952), and his influential prose style. He was unable to attend the ceremony, but wrote a brief, typically understated acceptance speech, which includes the following poignant observation on the loneliness of the writer: ‘For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.’



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‘Would you be interested in publishing a time bomb that I have just finished putting together?’: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

lolitaIn February 1954, the Russian-born American writer Vladimir Nabokov wrote to the publishers New Directions offering them his latest novel: ‘Would you be interested in publishing a time bomb that I have just finished putting together? It is a novel of 459 typewritten pages.’ New Directions declined to publish his novel but it was eventually published the following year in Paris—and soon after was banned in France. The time bomb was Lolita, perhaps the most controversial novel of the 20th century for its story of ‘Humbert Humbert’, the pseudonym of a man who at the age of 37 becomes hopelessly infatuated with a 12-year-old girl, Dolores Haze, whom he renames Lolita: ‘She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.’

The novel opens with a ‘Foreword’ by John Ray, Jr, PhD, the cousin of Humbert Humbert’s lawyer, into whose care Humbert willed on his death his memoir titled Lolita, or the Confessions of a White Widowed Male so it can be prepared for publication. Dr Ray remarks that the manuscript is ‘a tragic tale tending unswervingly to nothing less than a moral apotheosis’, adding that although the cynic might argue that commercial pornography makes the same claim, the learned would maintain that, unlike the 12 per cent of American men with his erotic tendencies, Humbert is filled with despair by his urges.

The cynic and the learned reader have been arguing ever since over the content of Lolita—is it pornography or art?—a debate that reached new heights in America over Adrian Lyne’s 1997 remake of Nabokov’s novel starring Jeremy Irons and Dominique Swain, which faced difficulties getting cinema release in the USA. Nabokov saw his novel as a work of art, containing ‘various allusions to the psychological urges of a pervert’, in a long tradition of European writing dating from ancient times to the 18th century that mixed comedy with lewdness.

Nabokov's butterflies in first American edition of Lolita, 1958. Image via the Nabokov Museum.

Nabokov’s butterflies in first American edition of Lolita, 1958. Image via the Nabokov Museum.

Humbert’s memoir famously opens with a play on Lolita’s name: ‘Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth.’ Humbert then recounts his happy childhood on the Mediterranean, surrounded by golden sand and sea vistas, where one summer he falls ‘madly, clumsily, shamelessly, agonizingly’ in love with a girl several months younger than he called Annabel. Their passion is so intense that only complete immersion in each other’s flesh and souls could have satisfied it—but Annabel dies for months later of typhoid, leaving her lover with his eternal longing. Humbert, a bookish European intellectual, conducts a remorseless self-analysis in the pages of the novel. He attributes his passion for Lolita to his ruined love for Annabel:

We loved each other with a premature love marked by a fierceness that so often destroys adult lives. I was a strong lad and survived; but the poison was in the wound, and the wound remained ever open, and soon I found myself maturing amid a civilization which allows a man of twenty-five to court a girl of sixteen but not a girl of twelve.

Humbert is torn by his illicit desires, which he resists until he moves to America following the Second World War. One day, while looking over a potential lodging, he happens to notice ‘Lo’: ‘from a mat in a pool of sun, half-naked, kneeling, turning about on her knees, there was my Riviera love peering at me over dark glasses …’

Lolita is the story of Humbert’s love affair with Lolita, which hums across suburban America, along its highways and in its motels. It is a tragic and disturbing novel of possession and desire—and the beauty, erudition and irrepressible playfulness of Nabokov’s prose only serve to deepen the tragedy of the story, of which Humbert is only too painfully aware:

I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tyres, and her sobs in the night—every night, every night—the moment I feigned sleep.

The novel was eventually published in America by Putnam in 1958 with a note by Nabokov about its genesis. He traces Lolita to a story he read in Paris in 1939 or 1940 about an ape who, after great encouragement, eventually produced the first ever drawing by an animal—a charcoal sketch of the bars of its cage. This poignant report inspired Nabokov to write a short story in Russian, and he returned to the idea years later in America, in 1949. ‘I was now faced with the task of inventing America,’ he wrote. This he did, inventing his own America in words, writing Lolita during his many trips in search of butterflies through Arizona, Colorado and Wyoming (Nabokov was a highly regarded, self-taught lepidopterist, a butterfly expert). Lolita became a bestseller and its sales enabled Nabokov to retire from teaching and devote himself exclusively to writing.

Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov was born in 1899 in St Petersburg, Russia, to an aristocratic family. His father was the head of the pre-revolutionary liberal Constitutional Democratic Party and went into exile when the Revolution broke out, moving with his family to Berlin. Nabokov received a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied zoology then French and Russian literature, receiving a first-class honours degree in 1923. The previous year his father had been assassinated in Berlin (having rushed to shield the man for whom the bullet was intended), an event that was to haunt Nabokov for the rest of his life. His first novel, Mary, written in Russian, was published in 1926, and his first novel in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, was published in 1941. In 1925 Nabokov married Vera Evseyevna Slonim, with whom he had one son, Dimitri. In 1940 he moved with his family to America, where he taught at Wellesley College, and then taught Russian and European literature at Cornell University from 1948 until the publication of Lolita ten years later.

tehranLolita has had a widespread impact on contemporary culture, from coining the word ‘nymphet’ to the word ‘Lolita’ itself, which is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘a sexually precocious schoolgirl’. The first cinema adaptation of the book, for which Nabokov wrote the screenplay, was Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 hit film Lolita, starring James Mason as Humbert and Sue Lyon as Lolita. In 2003 a book about a group of Muslim women and one man in Iran who find inspiration in Lolita and other literary classics became a bestseller: Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi. Nafisi writes: ‘no matter how intimidated and frightened we were, like Lolita we tried to escape and to create our own little pockets of freedom …’

Sue Lyon and James Mason in Stanley Kubrick's Lolita, 1962

Sue Lyon and James Mason in Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, 1962

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‘Sometimes I think it aint none of us pure crazy and aint none of us pure sane until the balance of us talks him that-a-way’: As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

dying63In 1929 William Faulkner began writing a novel in the early morning hours while employed as a nightwatchman at the University of Mississippi power plant. He had already published three novels, including The Sound and the Fury (1929), but was yet to find widespread success. He staked everything on his new novel: ‘I set out deliberately to write a tour-de-force,’ he later commented. ‘Before I began I said, I am going to write a book by which, at a pinch, I can stand or fall if I never touch ink again.’ According to Faulkner, he finished the novel in six weeks. The book he wrote, published the following year, was As I Lay Dying. The title comes from Agamemnon’s speech from the Underworld in the Odyssey, about his ignominious death plotted by his wife on his return home to Greece from the Trojan War. In As I Lay Dying it is the wife, Addie Bundren, who dies and her husband, Anse, whose neglect and meanness are implicated in her dying.

As I Lay Dying is composed of 59 fragments spoken by fifteen characters—Addie herself; Anse; their four sons, Cash, Darl, Jewel and Vardaman; their daughter Dewey Dell; their neighbours; the doctor, Peabody; and various bystanders who are drawn into the outlandish events that follow Addie’s death as Anse, for once determined to follow Addie’s wishes, transports her corpse from her deathbed to her final resting place in Jefferson. Over the course of the novel the Budrens’ harsh farming life in the backwaters of one of America’s most impoverished states, Mississippi, is revealed in beautiful, muscular prose: ‘That’s the trouble with this country: everything, weather, all, hangs on too long. Like our rivers, our land: opaque, slow, violent; shaping and creating the life of man in its implacable and brooding image.’

Like a Cubist painting the novel’s multiple perspectives are shattered and put back together by Faulkner. Each new view brings to life a character’s intimate thoughts sparked by Addie’s death, thoughts that are filled with grief, sorrow, incomprehension, selfishness, madness, love. The picture Faulkner paints, never quite seen in its totality, is one of the most bizarre of literature: a straggly group of four men, a girl and a coffin on a cart, accompanied by a fierce, sinewy man on a ‘durn circus animal’ (Jewel on his piebald horse) trailing across the land through flood and fire under a buzzard-hung sky with a decaying corpse which, by the time they reach Jefferson, is nine days dead. Two books that filled Faulkner’s mind, which he returned to time and again, were the Old Testament and Don Quixote, and As I Lay Dying is like some surreal incarnation of the spirits of these two books in the soil of Faulkner’s ‘apocryphal country’, the imaginary Yoknapatawpha County where his novel takes place.


Bottle and fishes by Georges Braques

As I Lay Dying is a meditation on life, death and madness. The views of death range from the doctor’s learned ‘I can remember how when I was young I believed death to be a phenomenon of the body; now I know it to be merely a function of the mind—and that of the minds of the ones who suffer the bereavement’, to Addie’s brutal truth: ‘I could just remember how my father used to say that the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time.’ Cash’s poignant observations on his brother Darl, who is ‘touched by God himself and considered queer by us mortals’, show his profound understanding of madness: ‘Sometimes I aint so sho who’s got ere a right to say when a man is crazy and when he aint. Sometimes I think it aint none of us pure crazy and aint none of us pure sane until the balance of us talks him that-a-way.’ Faulkner’s vital prose captures in a few phrases the life of his characters, such as Anse, who comes alive in all his niggardliness: ‘If He’d aimed for man to be always a-moving and going somewhere else, wouldn’t He have put him longways on his belly, like a snake? It stands to reason he would.’

William Faulkner

William Faulkner

William Faulkner, born the oldest of four sons of Murry and Maud Falkner (Faulkner later added the ‘u’) in New Albany, Mississippi, came from an illustrious Southern family whose fortunes had waned. His great-grandfather Colonel William Clark Falkner had fought in the Civil War, made a fortune from railways after the war and bought a plantation. He had also written the bestselling novel The White Rose of Memphis. Faulkner’s father eventually settled in Oxford, Mississippi, where he became the business manager at the University of Mississippi. Here Faulkner was able to indulge his passion for riding, shooting and hunting—and reading. Although he left school early, Faulkner was a voracious reader his whole life. He joined the British Royal Air Force in July 1918 and trained in Canada, but the war ended before he flew a plane. When he returned home he devoted himself to drawing and to writing poetry, and by 1925, when he travelled to Europe, had devoted himself to writing. In Europe Faulkner spent most of his time on the Left Bank in Paris, at the time the centre of Modernism, where he saw the paintings of Cezanne, Picasso and Braque. Faulkner, a talented drawer and painter, brings a Modernist painter’s eye to his writing: ‘The front, the conical facade with the square orifice of doorway broken only by the square squat shape of the coffin on the sawhorses like a cubistic bug, comes into relief.’

MGM, Culver City, 1930s

MGM, Culver City, 1930s

Faulkner’s first novel, Soldier’s Pay, was published in 1926, but he did not become established as a writer until the publication in October 1929 of The Sound and the Fury (which he’d written in despair and regardless of questions of commercial appeal). He found commercial success two years later with the publication in 1931 of the controversial, bestselling Sanctuary, about the rape of a college student. In 1929 Faulkner married his childhood sweetheart Estelle Oldham following her divorce from her first husband. Hoping to support his new family as a writer—Estelle already had two children and in 1933 had a daughter with Faulkner—Faulkner embarked on the novel he intended would be a tour de force, As I Lay Dying. In 1932 MGM offered Faulkner a job in Hollywood and, needing the money, in May 1932 he moved to Culver City, California, to work as a screenwriter. Like Picasso, Faulkner was extraordinarily productive and innovative in realising his vision—his creative output was enormous (including 19 novels) and he constantly experimented with form.

In 1949 Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for Literature. In his dignified and impassioned acceptance speech he spoke about the numbing post-war preoccupation with physical danger and the urgent need for writers to engage not with fear but the problems of the spirit, of the heart. Among other things he said:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed—love and honour and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man.

William Faulkner, Hollywood, early 1940s. (Photo by Alfred Eriss)

William Faulkner, Hollywood, early 1940s. (Photo by Alfred Eriss)

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