A star of our time?

carson laughing

The American poet Robert Lowell is quoted as saying that if a writer lives long enough, he will see his reputation rise and fall – twice. In the case of Carson McCullers, an American writer of the deep South, Lowell’s thesis was never proved because she didn’t live long enough.

McCullers (born Lula Carson Smith) celebrated a double anniversary last year, 2017 – she was born 100 years ago – February 19, 1917 – and died 50 years ago on September 29, 1967 – and it’s probably a measure of her reduced standing now that not much has been written on this significant anniversary. Not least by me, an avid fan, who failed to post in time on this milestone!

McCullers is often twinned with Flannery O’Connor (a fellow Georgian, and close contemporary, born 1925) though O’Connor’s reputation has survived much better, particularly among the writing fraternity.  Despite the fact they were contemporaries, O’Connor was scathing about McCullers – in a 1963 letter, she declared how “intensely” she disliked McCullers’ work and she greeted the publication of her final novel, Clock Without Hands (1961)  as the worst book I have ever read. It is incredible. . . It must signal the complete disintegration of this woman’s talent”.

That said, McCullers had a meteoric literary trajectory.  Her first and most celebrated novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, came out in 1940 when McCullers was only 23. She followed up with Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941) and The Member of the Wedding (1946).  She wrote a play – The Square Root of Wonderful – and produced a novella and short stories – The Ballad of the Sad Cafe.  She also dictated an unfinished autobiography – Illuminations and Night Glare – which was published in 1999.

All of her major works were filmed which added to her “starry” quality.  It was the 1968 film of  Hunter, starring Alan Arkin as John Singer, a deaf mute who becomes a pivotal figure in the lives of a group of misfits in a small and segregated Southern town and Sondra Locke (future squeeze of Clint Eastwood who appeared with him in those chimp movies – Trivia Department) as teenager Mick Kelly who befriends Singer, that brought me first to McCullers’ work when I was in my late teens.

The age is significant – I was wide open to be carried away by McCullers’ brand of southern Gothic and I was totally enchanted. Superstitiously, I have never revisited McCullers’ novels because I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have the same “mind-blowing” effect on me now.

The young adult tag is often used to denigrate McCullers’ oeuvre, perhaps because she was so young herself when literary fame came knocking.  Joyce Carol Oates has remarked that “McCullers may be remembered as a precocious but unevenly gifted writer of fiction for young adults whose work has failed to transcend its time and place”.

But her work has always divided critics. Gore Vidal, usually not an easy man to please, described McCullers’ work as “one of the few satisfying achievements of our second-hand culture” while Graham Greene rated her over that other giant of southern writing, William Faulkner.

Other film adaptations of McCullers’ work  include Reflections in a Golden Eye directed by John Huston and starring Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando and Fred Zinnemann brought The Member of the Wedding to the screen in 1952 with Julie Harris and Brandon de Wilde (the boy actor from Shane – Trivia Department again). Vanessa Redgrave appeared in a Simon Callow-directed version of The Ballad of the Sad Cafe in 1991.

Like many writers – including her nemesis Flannery O’Connor – McCullers suffered ill-health throughout her adult life. Rheumatic fever when she was 15 led to a number of severe strokes in her 20s and by the age of 31, she was paralyzed on the left side of her body.

Despite this she smoked and drank heavily and lived a colourful and varied sexual life, including several rumoured relationships with women, including Gypsy Rose Lee and the Swiss writer and photographer Annemarie Schwarzenbach (formerly the lover of Erika Mann, daughter of Thomas Mann).  She counted among her friends Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams.

There’s also an Irish connection – through Carson’s mother, Marguerite Waters.  McCullers visited Ireland twice, firstly in 1950, where she stayed at Bowen’s Court, the Cork ancestral home of Elizabeth Bowen, another of her unrequited lesbian attachments. (Earlier, she’d had a crush on Katherine Anne Porter.)  McCullers admired Bowen’s reserve,  but Bowen reportedly found her a “handful”.  McCullers was similarly disappointed in Bowen’s Court – its heating and general comfort  and her reception there fell well below her expectations.

She returned to Ireland in April 1967, months before her death, to visit film director John Huston’s Connemara home.  By this stage, she was severely paralyzed and had to be transferred by ambulance from Shannon.   Huston later said the trip had probably shortened her life, but she was determined to come.  During this time she was interviewed by Irish Times literary editor, Terence de Vere White, who was granted a bedside audience with McCullers. She smoked while talking to him and, like others, he was impressed at the contrast between her physique and personality.  He had never met anyone “so frail and alive”.

She was married twice to the same man, Reeves McCullers, who committed suicide in the Paris hotel where they lived, in 1953.  After her first divorce from Reeves in the early 1940s, McCullers moved into a celebrated commune in Brooklyn called the February House.  In its time it attracted luminaries like fiction editor George Davis, W H Auden, Chester Kalman, Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, Gypsy Rose Lee, Paul and Jane Bowles.

This is perhaps the curse of McCullers’ life.  Any description invariably peters out into a who’s who catalogue of the famous and influential.  But her sexually-fluid identity, her androgynous pen name, her love affair with fame, her “wunderkind” early career, make her seem like an early prototype of a 21st century literary celebrity.

Is that all there is?

The late great Peggy Lee

Having had a book published (Prosperity Drive)in the last couple of months I’m at the end of a writing cycle – the come-down, the post-partum anti-climax, the post-post production; call it what you will. You spend several years writing the damn thing, followed by a short burst of attention when the book is reviewed, and then. . .?  As Peggy Lee sang – is that all there is?

Not that I’m complaining.  No siree!

I’ve been through two publishing droughts in my writing career (though I don’t like to use that word because I don’t consider writing as a “career”.  Banking is a career); one at the beginning when I was trying to get into print,  and another, after three books, when I found myself once again in the publishing wilderness.

I was reminded of that time (and, of course, there’s no guarantee that this won’t happen again) at an event, The Lightening Bug, in Cork last Sunday, when someone asked a question about the effects of rejection.

For a period of 13 years (2000 – 2013), I didn’t have a book published. I found myself shut out, first from the publishing world, when my editor rejected not just the next novel I produced, but the next one after that.  Then there was a parting of the ways with my agent of 15 years.  Suddenly, I found myself right back at the beginning again.

And it’s worse second time around.   Because at the beginning you have hope; you have the dream of being published to sustain you.  You haven’t “come out” as a writer. When you have been through the grinder once, your hope is not as robust. Also there’s a kind of suspicion of the writer who’s been published and then dumped – are they damaged goods? Not up to it, in some way.

It wasn’t that in this 13 years I wasn’t writing; no, I just wasn’t published, though these days there often isn’t a distinction made between the two.  In that period I wrote two novels and a collection of short stories. But if your work can’t be seen, it equates to not existing.  And if you’re a writer, it calls into question your existence.  Are you a writer if you’re not published?

Now that’s a question everyone asks before they’re published.  But it wasn’t a question I expected to be asking, having already published three books. I had made the mistake of believing that once you broke through the publishing barrier that you were set, if not for sudden overnight success then, at least, for a steady arc of progress.  I thought I would write and I would be paid a a little bit more for each successive novel, maybe win some big prize as the icing on the cake.  I wasn’t asking for much.

(As it is, the financial rewards for writers who do get published, have been seriously diminished.  The advance for my current book of short stories is a third of what I was paid for my second novel in 1999.)

I don’t mean for this to turn into a self-pity fest. This has happened to lots of writers – good writers. Mike McCormack whose most recent novel, Solar Bones, is – deservedly – getting rave reviews at the moment, described a similar publishing hiatus and its effects on morale.

“I nearly went fucking crazy. . , ” he told The Irish Times, “for those five years I couldn’t give my work away.  It was tough on me and for people around me.  But as my wife, Maeve, said to me, it isn’t my job to get published. . . it’s my job to write.”

In the decline of mainstream publishing, this sort of thing is happening to many mid-list authors, whose work is being judged solely on commercial terms.   But when you’re going through the experience, it feels like it’s just you.

All sorts of questions run through your head.  Was it something you did?  Were you ungenerous in your success? Did you deserve the success in the first place?  Did you not appreciate the success enough?  Did you take it for granted? Has your work suddenly become terrible?  Have you lost the capacity to judge your own work? Is there anybody interested in your kind of writing anymore?  Is your writing relevant?  Is it worth continuing? What good is a writer without readers?

You are taunted by the manifest success of your peers at every hand’s turn.  I think it was Gore Vidal who said whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.  I found myself secretly identifying with those words.

There is not much positive to say about this experience except this: – when you write and you don’t get published, it absolutely clarifies the reasons why you’re writing.  Thirteen years without a book on the shelves returned me to a purer relationship with the work than I’d ever had. First time round there was all that striving to make it, to get published; now it was writing for the sake of it.

During this period when people asked what I was doing (a loaded question – what they really meant was why haven’t we seen a book of yours out?) I would say I’m writing for my posthumous reputation and that was true.  I had given up on the prospect of being published.  This was not easy to do; it was a stage I reached after a lot of striving and self-laceration. I considered trying to write a pot-boiler, to tailor my writing to what the market would find acceptable but I didn’t have the heart for it. I went through despair – which, for me, consisted of considering giving up writing altogether.  But I’m too old to do anything else.

But I did consider declaring I had stopped writing if only to be shut of those persistent questions. In fact, I think I couldn’t give up writing – it’s the way I negotiate with the world.   The world doesn’t make sense to me until I’ve written it down. (Also, I’ve a terrible memory so if I don’t write down experiences, it’s as if they never happened.)

But dealing with not being published meant going back to first principles. I wrote for its own sake, to do it, to have a body of work even if no one wanted to read it.  You could say I was writing for myself.  It didn’t make going to those literary functions where you met more successful peers any easier; it didn’t make answering those questions about what you were working on or when was your next book due any less painful, but it made it possible for me to go on, to justify to myself the worth of what I was doing.

I changed my attitude to publication in those years, looking on it as a by-product of writing, not the be all and end all.  Because once you believe that, you’re at the mercy of all the whims that govern the publishing world – the rule of the men in suits, the insatiable appetite for celebrity publishing, the commercial bottom line.

Here’s what I learned. (Because, of course, you have to learn something from it!) All you can do is your own work, in your own time.  If you don’t believe in it, how can you expect anyone else to?  This is the hardest thing to hold onto in the face of rejection. And I’ve come to realise that publication doesn’t mean anything but itself.  Publication is not transformative.  My life is not going to change because of it. What it means is that someone else has seen the value in the work, that it has struck a chord with its first readers and that my voice is being heard again.