Carson McCullers: another in the long line of writers I’ve heard so much about that I feel I’ve read them. My sight-unseen impression of McCullers is a sort of gentler Flannery O’Connor: Southern Gothic, loners, absurdity, not so many gorings. What better opportunity to test my ignorance than with the reissue of three of her novels in Penguin Modern Classics this month: her most famous, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, her least famous (to me anyway), Clock Without Hands, and … this one.
The Member of the Wedding (1946) was McCullers’ third novel, and she was still only 29. I shan’t envy her that though, as by then she was half-paralysed from a series of strokes, and would die at the age of 50. Her sense of being an outsider, her simultaneous connection to and distance from her Southern homeland, and the blurring of sexuality which was epitomised in her choice of her genderless middle name as her professional title (her forename was Lula), are all present in this book.
Indeed much of it is there in the opening sentences:
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. She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world.
I was surprised to recognise these lines, or maybe they just have that instant familiarity of greatness. The tone is reprised later (“This was the summer when Frankie was sick and tired of being Frankie” … “It was the year when Frankie thought about the world. And she did not see it as a round school globe, with the countries neat and different-coloured. She thought of the world as huge and cracked and loose and turning a thousand miles an hour”), so that it becomes almost mythic.
In fact Frankie does belong – she has a family, and she is part of a trio along with the housekeeper Berenice and her friend John Henry – but in a very human way, she wants the belonging that she cannot have: to be part of the wedding of her brother and his fiancée which is to take place the next day, and not just of the wedding but of the marriage. It is her sense of what she feels she lacks that defines her, and this is another sense in which she belongs with her two companions. Berenice shows both that some people at that time – black people, like her – really know what it’s like not to belong; and also that the marriage which Frankie longs to belong to can be a source of pain as much as pleasure. Berenice has been married several times:
Ludie Freeman was a brickmason, making a grand and regular salary, and he was the man of all her husbands that Berenice had loved.
‘Sometimes I almost wish I had never knew Ludie at all,’ said Berenice. ‘It spoils you too much. It leaves you too lonesome afterward. When you walk home in the evening on the way from work, it makes a little lonesome quinch come in you. And you take up with too many sorry men to try to get over the feeling. … I loved Ludie and he was the first man I loved. Therefore, I had to go and copy myself forever afterward. What I did was to marry off little pieces of Ludie whenever I come across them. It was just my misfortune they all turned out to be the wrong pieces.’
Berenice is a voice of experience and understanding throughout the book, and the long conversations which she, John Henry and Frankie meander through on the long summer afternoon illuminate the themes of the book.
‘We all of us somehow caught. We born this way or what way and we don’t know why. But we caught anyhow. I born Berenice. You born Frankie. John Henry born John Henry. And maybe we wants to widen and bust free. But no matter what we do we still caught. Me is me and you is you and he is he. We each one of us somehow caught all by ourself.’
The Member of the Wedding presents itself too as a coming-of-age novel, though really that’s the least of it, but Frankie does try to accelerate her development into womanhood by beginning to refer to herself as “F. Jasmine Addams” as the story progresses. As mentioned above, the vexed question of womanhood is also in Frankie’s mind, and it’s not always clear whether she is in love with the idea of marriage as a place of belonging, or with her brother’s bride, or with the couple both. According to Ali Smith’s excellent introduction – a 25-page essay on McCullers and her books [edit: expired link removed] – McCullers herself was unclear on the issue. It is these ambiguities – along with everything else – which help the book resonate in the mind deliciously.
Smith’s introduction – included here with a separate chronology of McCullers’ life (all modern classics should be like this!) – also tells us that “she drank all day, from breakfast onwards, for most of her adult years.” This reminded me of Patrick Hamilton, who at his creative peak was getting through three bottles of whisky a day (how did he find the time to write?). McCullers shares with Hamilton a sense of place so acute – he inhabited London, she the American South – that after reading her, the locations will be forever viewed through the prism of her literature. Which is as transfiguring, and a lot less problematic, than viewing it through the bottom of a glass.