Michael Malone

CARSON MCCULLERS: A Life. By Josyane Savigneau; transl. by Joan E. Howard. Houghton Mifflin. 370 pp. $30

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CARSON MCCULLERS: A Life. By Josyane Savigneau; transl. by Joan E. Howard. Houghton Mifflin. 370 pp. $30

I once heard Eudora Welty quote some advice Willa Cather had given her: "Let your fiction grow out of the land beneath your feet." It is advice southern writers have traditionally taken to heart, creating from their regional postage stamps of America our nation’s literary landscape. On that fictional map is a small, hot, dreary Georgia mill town where during the Great Depression a girl named Lula Carson Smith (known as Sister) grew into a tall, gangly misfit who fled from loneliness by playing Bach and reading Flaubert and making up stories. At 20, she married another would-be writer, the charming Reeves McCullers, a serviceman at Fort Benning, the first boy who ever kissed her.

Carson McCullers (1917–67) was 23 when her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940), made her famous overnight. Like This Side of Paradise before it and The Catcher in the Rye for a later generation, McCullers’s novel depicted a character—awkward, androgynous, swaggering adolescent Mick—in whom young rebels, with or without causes, saw themselves. She wrote another novel, The Member of the Wedding (1946), and then adapted it for the stage. Starring Ethel Waters and Julie Harris, her first play became a huge hit on Broadway.

Where could so fast a comet go but down? And down she went, into alcoholism, romantic despair, critical failures, debilitating illness. Like her fellow Georgian Flannery O’Connor (who didn’t think much of her), McCullers died fairly young. Unlike O’Connor, she is occasionally dismissed as a "minor" writer. But since her death in 1967, there have been half a dozen McCullers biographies, including several by French admirers such as Savigneau. (McCullers lived for a while in France, although she never spoke the language.)

No novelist could have a more passionate advocate than Savigneau, the author of a highly praised study of the French novelist Marguerite Yourcenar. Carson McCullers: A Life offers a critically persuasive and deeply sympathetic portrait of this troubled, shy, grandiose, and extraordinarily talented woman. While acknowledging a debt to the voluminous biography by Virginia Spencer Carr, The Lonely Hunter (1975), Savigneau offers a corrective to what she perceives to be Carr’s subliminally hostile and moralistic attitude and her refusal to grant McCullers the license of her genius and her unique childlike intensity of emotion.

Savigneau subtitled her book in the original French edition Un coeur de jeune fille, "a young girl’s heart," for out of that lonely heart, those "torments of the body and the heart," were born, she thinks, the novelist’s most memorable fiction. Frankie in The Member of the Wedding says, "I feel just exactly like somebody has peeled all the skin off me." It is in that raw sensibility, that luminous, eerie candor shared by Frankie’s creator, that Savigneau locates the peculiar genius of Carson McCullers.

A star from an early age, McCullers traveled the celebrity circuit—hopping from London to Paris to Rome—and we are as likely to find her in Ireland with John Huston, or in Key West with Tennessee Williams and Françoise Sagan, as we are to find her sitting at home on the porch with her housekeeper. A lasting place in American letters was vitally important to her, and she fought to hold onto hers. Despite shyness, illness, and at times suicidal depression, she committed herself to her public presence as a writer. International literary festivals and writers’ retreats such as Breadloaf and Yaddo were second homes. Wherever she went, she was greatly beloved—and greatly disliked. Gore Vidal once said, "An hour with a dentist without Novacaine was like a minute with Carson McCullers."

Undiagnosed rheumatic fever led to a series of strokes beginning in her twenties that took her in and out of operating rooms dozens of times. She had surgery to reconstruct a hand, so she could use at least one to type, and to replace tendons in a leg, so she could walk with a cane. Her drinking didn’t help, nor did smoking three packs of cigarettes a day. But through years of physical and emotional pain, as friends and family fell away (her caretaking mother died, her husband killed himself, allies such as Truman Capote became enemies), McCullers’s indomitable will kept her alive and writing. It took her 15 years to finish her final book, Clock without Hands (1961), but she did finish it.

Although she left behind only a few plays, stories, poems, and essays, and the four novels, they are legacy enough to ensure her home in the modern canon. To McCullers, moral isolation was the normative human experience, and the desperate longing to connect, to find "the we of me," was the strongest human desire. In her fiction, she found it for herself—and gave it to a world of readers.

—Michael Malone


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