‘Words were boxes, they contained material that was alive’: The Words to Say It by Marie Cardinal

51zloc5jq9l-_sx331_bo1204203200_The Words to Say It is the story of a difficult birth, an ultimately triumphant odyssey through near-death and madness to life. Dedicated to ‘the doctor who helped me be born’, Marie Cardinal’s autobiographical novel recounts her birth and delivery from her mother—but the birth and delivery are not as we commonly understand them, and the doctor who delivers her is not an obstetrician. He’s a Freudian analyst and the psychological birth he oversees is as traumatic, bloody and physically demanding as any physical birth. In a seamlessly constructed narrative, Cardinal writes the rich layers of her character’s experience: her three-year unexplained haemorrhaging that no drug or doctor can cure; the regular visits to her analyst in a Parisian suburb; her growing recognition that he can help her despite her scepticism; the flow of words that replaces her flow of blood and revives her sun-drenched, jasmine-scented childhood under the blue sky of Algeria. The Words to Say It is about what it means to be a woman born into the constraints of middle-class, 20th century western Europe, about mothers, inheritance and madness, and about the alchemical potency of words. The Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, whose films plumb the depths of the psyche, called The Words to Say It ‘One of the most remarkable books I have ever read.’

Published in France in 1975 and translated into English in 1983, The Words to Say It became an international bestseller and a classic of psychoanalytical literature. The novel opens with a description of the damp, poorly lit cul-de-sac in a Parisian suburb that will become the narrator’s salvation. For seven years, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, the cut-de-sac is her life: ‘I know how the rain falls here, how the inhabitants protect themselves from the cold. I know how, in summer, a life which is almost rustic establishes itself with geraniums in pots and cats sleeping in the sun.’ The narrator has escaped from a sanatorium with a single desperate purpose: to enter one particular house on this street to see the doctor she hopes will save her life. Her psychological collapse so horrendously manifested  in physical symptoms—torrents of blood flow almost incessantly from between her legs—that she is forced to realise there are only two paths left for her to travel: analysis with this noted Freudian psychoanalyst or suicide. As a 30-something woman with three children, for their sake she chooses the former.

The rigorous, relentless analysis she undergoes is a strict, traditional Freudian one: she speaks into the silence of her doctor’s room while he sits listening behind her. He is not interested in her physical symptoms, her bleeding; he is interested only in her stories, her words: ‘Talk, say whatever comes into your head; try not to choose or reflect, or in any way compose your sentences. Everything is important, every word.’ Miraculously, without drugs or operations, through words alone, the doctor achieves what no other has been able to: her bleeding ceases immediately. But this is only the beginning.

No gynaecologist, psychiatrist or neurologist had ever acknowledged that the blood came from the Thing. On the contrary, I was told the Thing came from the blood. ‘Women are often “nervous” because their gynaecological equilibrium is very precarious, very delicate.’

She discovers that she’s ashamed not of the blood that had been flooding out of her, but of ‘what was going on inside of me, of this uproar, of this disorder, of this agitation; no one should look, no one should know, not even the doctor. I was ashamed of the madness.’ This is the Thing, the unknown force inside her that she must uncover and articulate in order to live—and to do so she must travel back on a wave of words to her troubled childhood in Algeria.

Several months into her analysis her doctor begins to interrupt her talk. His interventions are infrequent but their effect is mind-opening: ‘Such and such a word, what does that make you think of?’ he asks. And she discovers that the word he has picked out from the sea of words is ‘the key to open a door I had never even seen’. Through this painstaking process of picking through her words, she returns to life, utterly transformed into herself. The Words to Say It is remarkable for the skill with which Cardinal weaves together the two strands of her narrative: the ordinary chronology of her present, chaotic life in the muted light of Paris as she regularly attends her appointments with her doctor, struggling to survive her devastating symptoms while bringing up her three young children (her husband lives in Canada), and the uncontrollable associative chronology of the meandering path of her memories of her Algerian childhood in the 1930s and 40s.

The Words to Say It is astonishing for its story of the extraordinary healing power of words and the marvel of the ‘beautiful, complicated organisation of the human mind’. Because her analysis is Freudian, which is so focused on words, the novel is engaged at a profound level with the naming of things—with the finding of words—in order to delineate (and thereby diffuse the terrific power of) the unnamed, which she initially calls the Thing: ‘Words were boxes, they contained material that was alive.’ And it is words that are her guide through the labyrinth of her past and that become her road to life:

I began to speak of my mother, never stopping until the end of the analysis. Over the years I explored the very depths of her being, as though she were a dark cavern. Thus did I make the acquaintance of the woman she wanted me to be.

Marie Cardinal

Marie Cardinal

Born in Algeria in 1929, Marie Cardinal studied philosophy in Paris and taught at the universities of Salonika, Lisbon and Montreal. Her first novel, Ecouter la Mer, was published in 1962 and won the Prix International du Premier Roman. In 1983 a film adaptation of The Words to Say It was released in France, Les Mots pour le dire. Directed by Jose Pinheiro, it starred Nicole Garcia as Marie, for which she was nominated for a Cesar Award for best actress in 1984.

Marie Cardinal

Marie Cardinal

 

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To become oneself, with all one’s strength. Difficult.: The Quest for Christa T. by Christa Wolf

christa-tChrista Wolf’s second novel, The Quest for Christa T., is the story of a long-limbed, dreamy young woman, Christa T., recollected by a friend who first meets her at school during the dying months of the Second World War. The unnamed narrator is immediately struck by the self-contained individuality of the new girl—even her stocking retain their distinctness, defying absorption into the larger historical moment: ‘and her stockings, darned all the way up the calf, were ugly and clumsily darned stockings, not the proud sacrifice of a German woman in the war’s fifth year amid a textiles shortage …’

Published in East Germany in 1968, The Quest for Christa T. is also the story of historical upheaval. The novel moves from childhood in Nazi Germany and westward flight from the advancing Red Army, through to the birth of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1949—a brief moment of hopefulness in the promise of the new communist regime—then despair following the brutal Soviet attack on Budapest in 1956: ‘Nothing is so difficult as turning one’s attention to things as they really are, to events as they really occur, after one has spent a long time not doing so …’ When it first appeared in English in 1970, The Quest for Christa T. was widely acclaimed as one of the best novels in German published since the war. The Times reviewer wrote: ‘In a desert—and the [East German] literary scene is a desert—you have to look out patiently for any sign of life, but the sight of a beautiful flower may suddenly overwhelm you. Such a book is The Quest for Christa T.

The Quest for Christa T. is a profound, troubled meditation on life and words and destiny. ‘She was afraid of the imprecision and ineptness of words. She knew that they do harm, the insidious harm of bypassing life, which she fears almost more than the great catastrophes.’ Craving meaning, Christa T. has written diaries, notes, letters and scribble on scraps of paper, from which the narrator attempts to put her friend’s life into words, first abandoning then drawing on her own and others’ memories in order to see Christa more clearly.

Wolf’s powers are remarkable. Her writing, possessed of an almost brutal insistence, a penetrating rigour, searching, mistrustful, courageous, conjures scenes and emotions, silences and absences—those fleeting things glimpsed out of the corner of an eye—of such subtle delicacy that their accumulated effect is quite overwhelming. Through a gradual accretion of layers, a stripping away and baring, then a re-collecting, with abrupt shifts between past and present, Wolf recreates a life, a time, leaving the traces of her quest in words:

You haven’t understood a thing if you shrug your shoulders, turn away turn from her, Christa T., and attend to grander and more useful lives. My concern is to attend to her.

The narrator’s painstaking, determined search for her friend is prompted by her tragic death at too young an age. On the novel’s opening page, she tells us: ‘I feel she is disappearing. There she lies, in her village cemetery, beneath the two buckthorn bushes, dead among the dead.’ From this statement Wolf tells the story of an apparently ordinary life, of a girl who goes to school, university, drifts along, becomes a teacher, falls in love, marries a country vet—and dies aged 35. Yet through her relentless probing, her starting out and turning back, Wolf’s narrator gradually reveals the rare and extraordinary beneath the ordinary, and the inestimable value of a single life. And, while the valuing of this single life is particularly resonant, heretical even, in a socialist state whose ideology explicitly values the group over the individual, the story of Christa’s quiet refusal to conform to the expectations of society is a celebration of the individual in any society anywhere, whose quest, like Christa’s own, is ‘To become oneself, with all one’s strength. Difficult.’ Christa T. is ‘trying out the possibilities of life until nothing should be left …’

Christa Wolf

Christa Wolf

Christa Wolf was born in 1929 in Landsberg an der Warte (now the Polish town Gorzow Wielkpolski) in Germany. Here she lived until she was 16, when her family—fleeing the 1945 Soviet invasion of Germany—escaped to Mecklenburg, which became part of the new German Democratic Republic founded in 1949. Wolf joined the Socialist Unity Party (SED) and became a committed socialist. Although she was critical of the East German regime, it later allowed her the privileges of a successful writer, including the freedom to travel beyond its borders to the West. From 1949, Wolf studied German literature for four years in Jena and Leipzig universities. In 1951 she met her husband, Gerhard Wolf, with whom she had two daughters. Wolf then worked as a writer and critic for a literary journal, as a research assistant for the German Writers’ Union from 1953, and as an editor for the publishing company Neues Leben. In 1959 she moved to Halle where she worked in a factory for three years before moving to Berlin in 1962.

u3_christa4

Christa and Gerhard Wolf

Wolf’s first novel, The Divided Heaven—the story of a girl who chooses to remain in East Germany rather than flee to the West with her lover—was published in 1963. It won the Heinrich Mann Prize and in 1963 was made into a successful film directed by Konrad Wolf. Christa Wolf’s experience writing the screenplay influenced her approach to her next novel, the fragmented, intercut The Quest for Christa T. Published the year of the Prague Spring and its violent suppression of democratic expression, the novel’s subjective story of a woman unable to live within the bounds of the GDR was widely criticised in East Germany and attacked the following year at a writers’ conference. During the 1970s, Wolf was put under surveillance by the Stasi, and her account of this time, What Remains, was published in 1990. Following a trip to Greece, Wolf became fascinated by its ancient myths. Her book Cassandra: A Novel and Four Essays (1983), is based on this journey, and she returned to Greek mythology in her 1996 novel Medea.

Although critical of the GDR, Wolf argued for its continual existence as a separate state and against its absorption into the Federal Republic of Germany. Following the reunification of Germany in 1990, Wolf was attacked by West German critics for the support the former GDR had given her as a writer. Her moral authority was further questioned when it was revealed she’d cooperated with the Stasi from 1959 to 1961. In 2003 Wolf published One Day a Year: 1960-2000, a record of her experiences on 27 September over a period of 40 years, initially prompted by a request from a Moscow newspaper inspired by Maxim Gorky’s ‘A Day of the World‘ project begun in 1936. Of One Day a Year Wolf wrote:

the need to be known, even with our purely problematic features, our errors and mistakes, lies at the heart of all literature and is the motive force of this book. We shall see whether the time for such a venture has come yet.

Christa Wolf

Christa Wolf

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‘Though no honours came my way, those were the lovely years’: The Grass Harp by Truman Capote

thegrassharpLike his literary hero Gustave Flaubert, Truman Capote was passionately dedicated to his art. He wrote: ‘Flaubert’s attitude towards writing, his sense of perfectionism, is what I would like mine to be.’ Capote began writing at the age of eight and by the time he was 10 realised he wanted to be a writer. Every day he played with his pens and paper, like a musician practising an instrument, and through this rigorous, self-imposed training he developed one of the most exquisite, true writing styles in the English language. Capote’s mastery of the art of writing is everywhere manifest in his second novel, The Grass Harp, published in 1951. His childhood friend Harper Lee—who based the character Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird on Capote—aptly described him as ‘a pocket Merlin’, and such wonder did this mini magician weave into The Grass Harp that after reading the first five chapters his publisher Robert Linscott wrote to him that he adored every word ‘and had to stop every few paragraphs to hug myself with pleasure. If the last chapter is as good as the preceding ones, this is really going to be a masterpiece.’

Capote on the back cover of 'Other Voices, Other Rooms'

Capote on the back cover of ‘Other Voices, Other Rooms’

Following the commercial and critical success of his first novel, the haunted Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), Capote was feted across America—as much for the photograph on the novel’s back cover of a delicately beautiful Capote reclining seductively gazing up through a fringe of blond hair, as for his precocious talent and the stylish precision of his prose. Capote, who had long dreamt of fame and fortune, relished his new-found notoriety; but in April 1950, seeking the sun and a quiet place to work, he escaped America to travel to Sicily with his lover, writer Jack Dunphy. They rented an old stone farmhouse in Taormina with views over Mount Etna and the Ionian Sea (the house in which D.H. Lawrence had spent two productive years from March 1920) and here Capote devoted himself to writing each morning with a fierce discipline, ‘as calculating as an accountant checking receipts’. He soon tore up the novel he’d been working on for some years (Summer Crossings, a social comedy set in New York’s high society) and turned instead to his early childhood in Monroeville, Alabama, a small town surrounded by fields of corn and cotton where, in the summer of 1930, his parents had abandoned him aged 5 with his mother’s cousins: three elderly sisters and a brother.

View of Mt Etna from Taormina, Sicily

View of Mt Etna from Taormina, Sicily

The story Capote conjured from his Sicilian memories of his childhood in southern USA was The Grass Harp. Dedicated ‘In memory of affections deep and true’ to Miss Sook Faulk, one of the three elderly Monroeville sisters, the novel shimmers with the fragile power of Capote’s childhood memories, of those affections deep and true. The Grass Harp, narrated by Collin Fenwick, opens with a question:

When was it that first I heard of the grass harp? Long before the autumn we lived in the China tree; an earlier autumn, then; and of course it was Dolly who told me, no one else would have known to call it that, a grass harp.

Truman Capote in Monroeville with his mother's cousin Mary Ida Faulk Carter, 1963

Truman Capote in Monroeville with his mother’s cousin Mary Ida Faulk Carter, 1963

At the age of 11 Collin is sent to live with his father’s unmarried old cousins, Dolly and Verena Talbo, following his mother’s death (his father, who had run naked into the yard mad with grief, is unable to care for his son). Unexpectedly, the noisy prying boy finds a place in the reclusive Talbo sisters’ large rambling house, in the warm, sweet-smelling kitchen run by Dolly and her friend Catherine Creek: ‘Though no honours came my way, those were the lovely years.’ The central drama of the story is sparked when the severe, business-minded Verena betrays Dolly’s trust, and Dolly, Catherine and Collin take refuge in the only other house they know, a tree house in a China tree. Capote’s novel, as gentle as the grass harp that whispers the stories of all the people who ever lived, is remarkable for its beautifully drawn characters, lilting Southern rhythms and lucid prose, more remarkable perhaps because of the explosive personality that produced it.

Lee Radziwill and Truman Capote

Lee Radziwill and Truman Capote

Capote once said of himself: ‘I’m about as tall as a shotgun—and just as noisy.’ That is, a shotgun possessed by an extraordinary gift for writing prose of delicate precision and subtle depths. At its best, his prose has a sublime simplicity: ‘I prefer to underwrite. Simple, clear as a country creek.’ And yet Capote himself was prone to excess and boisterous high spirits; he was a social butterfly who knew everyone, from Tennessee Williams and W.H. Auden to Lee Radziwill, from European princesses and multimillionaires to Cecil Beaton and Andy Warhol.

Born Truman Streckfus Persons in New Orleans in 1924, Capote was an unwanted child from his conception. His mother was a Southern belle whose dreams of success were dashed soon after her marriage to Archie Persons, a big-talking adventurer who never made good, and she divorced him when Capote was seven and still living with her relatives in Monroeville. In 1932 she married a successful businessman, Joseph Gracia Capote, and decided to have her son back, so young Capote was sent from Monroeville to live with them in New York that same year, which was when he took his stepfather’s surname. His mother, now Nina Capote, drank heavily and accused her son of being a ‘sissy’. Tormented by Truman’s diminutive size (as an adult he was 5 feet 4 inches) and feminine appearance, Nina sent him to two psychiatrists in the hope they’d make him a man. In 1939, when the Capotes moved to Greenwich, Capote’s English teacher at Greenwich High School, Catherine Wood, recognised her new pupil’s extraordinary talent and valued his difference, which she tried to explain to Nina Capote, telling her that unlike the regular boys who would continue doing regular things all their lives, Truman would be famous.

Truman Capote

Truman Capote

When Capote left school at 17, he found a small job on The New Yorker, which he left abruptly in 1944 following a perceived insult to the poet Robert Frost. In 1945 after several attempts to get his stories published in The New Yorker, Capote finally went to the office of Mademoiselle with his story ‘Miriam’; and so began a series of lucky meetings, a chain of good fortune that would characterise his life, leading one friend to call him ‘a darling of the gods’. ‘Miriam’, initially read by Rita Smith, was published in 1945 and won the O. Henry Memorial Award the following year. Enchanted by Capote, Rita Smith introduced him to her sister, the writer Carson McCullers, who recommended Capote to Robert Linscott, a senior editor at Random House. In October 1945 Linscott signed a contract for Capote’s unfinished novel Other Voices, Other Rooms, telling him: ‘Now you’re going to be a writer and an artist, we’re going to support you, take care of you. You’re like a racehorse.’ Success and two further novels followed, with the publication of The Grass Harp in 1951 and Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1958.

Capote then began to consider a new approach to writing a novel, ‘something on a large scale that would have the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose, and the precision of poetry’. In 1959 he found his subject: an obscure murder in Kansas. For six years he immersed himself in the story, published in 1965 as In Cold Blood, which became an international bestseller. This revolutionary journalistic novel was to be the high point of Capote’s writing career. His last work, Answered Prayers, a non-fiction novel about his rich and famous friends (most of whom saw the few published chapters as an act of betrayal and dropped him), remained unfinished on his death in 1984 from drugs and alcohol.

A film version of The Grass Harp starring Piper Laurie, Sissy Spacek and Walter Matthau was released in 1995. The producer and director, Charles Matthau, first heard about Capote’s novel from the book agent Melanie Ray, who told him it was the best thing she’d read that had not been made into a film. Matthau read the book and agreed. But, like the unsuccessful stage adaptation of The Grass Harp written by Capote which premiered in 1952, film cannot capture the truth of this novel, for its essence is contained in Capote’s prose, as breathtaking and clear-cut as a diamond. As Capote himself said of The Grass Harp: ‘It is very real to me, more real than anything I’ve ever written, probably ever will.’ He told his editor while writing it that:

it keeps me in a painful emotional state: memories are always breaking my heart, I cry—it is very odd, I seem to have no control over myself or what I am doing. But my vision is clear, and if I can half execute that vision it will be a beautiful book.

Truman Capote by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Truman Capote by Henri Cartier-Bresson

 

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‘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.

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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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