Good Reading : November 2007
NOVEMBER 2007 ı goodreading 21 classics 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 fiancée, 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, for her new place in the world as a member of the wedding, far from home and alongside her brother and his fiancée, 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 as an African-American in the South, 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 through all their lives ...’ When at last Berenice realises the full depth of F. Jasmine’s need and emotional turmoil, and takes her in her arms, McCullers, with the lightest, most delicate of strokes, draws one of the most beautiful, heart-rending scenes of the novel. By the time 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 twenty-three years old; it became a best- seller and McCullers became a literary star. Born Lula Carson Smith in Columbus, Georgia, in 1917, 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 fifteen, 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 thirty. McCullers became a talented pianist and, at seventeen, she was sent to New York City to study music at the Juilliard, but instead she enrolled in evening classes in creative writing at Columbia University. Her first story, ‘Wunderkind’, was published in 1936 in Story magazine. McCullers, passionate, selfish and petulant, met and fell in love with the writer Reeves McCullers, a corporal in the US Ar my, 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 with George Davis, the editor of Harper’s Bazaar, and became friends with WH Auden, Tennessee Williams (who became her lifelong friend) 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 war m. Her voice had the same quality, the same gentle heat ...’ After the publication of her second novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye, in 1941, 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 tor ment, having fallen in love with American writer Katherine Anne Porter (1890–1980), who rejected her obsessive attentions. McCullers married Reeves again in 1945 and the following year The Member of the Wedding was published. At the sugges- tion of Tennessee Williams, McCullers turned her novel into a successful play, which was adapted for the cinema in 1952.The film, which became a classic of American filmmaking, was the director Fred Zinnemann’s favourite of all his films. McCullers spent the last months of her life before her death at fifty 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.’ The paperback edition of Classics: Books for Life by Jane Gleeson- White (Knopf Australia 2005, rrp $34.95) is being published this month by Vintage Australia as Classics: 62 Great Books from the Iliad to Midnight’s Children, rrp $24.95. Jane Gleeson-White’s latest book, Australian Classics: 50 Great Writers and their Celebrated Works, is published this month by Allen & Unwin, rrp $29.95. What Cullers 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 meta- morphosis from girl-hood into womanhood.
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