Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Last night I settled in to finish Carson McCullers’s The Ballad of the Sad Café. What a curiously dark and strange novella. So brooding and unusual. And yet, it really only tells the story of an ordinary love triangle. But the language and the visuals, the eccentric characters and the dreary misery of the town turn everything about that commonplace theme into something remarkable. 

The narrator opens by describing a bleak little town and its boarded up buildings, its miserable dullness and desperate surroundings. Then the reader is invited to consider what used to be a café. Here is where the real story begins.  

The back of my Penguin edition summarizes things so nicely, I’ll just quote it here: 

For this is the tale of Miss Amelia, gaunt and lonely owner of a small-town store; and how she squandered her love on Cousin Lymon, the little strutting hunchback who turned the store into a café; and how her rejected husband, Marvin Macy, the meanest man in town, came back and stole the hunchback’s heart; and of the gargantuan fight that followed. 

Sounds a bit grotesque, doesn’t it? A hunchback, a lonely, eccentric woman and an ex-convict. And there was something definitely fantastic about it – Miss Amelia in her swamp boots carrying Cousin Lymon on her back, and Marvin Macy greasing himself up for the fight like a hog. The chocolate and sugar snuff that Cousin Lymon kept packed between his teeth or the outlandish remedies Miss Amelia practiced on her willing patients.

But despite the fantastic quality of the situation, the overall aesthetic was both melancholy and sad. Miss Amelia’s initial hardness wears away, revealing the anxious lover beneath. Cousin Lymon loses his magical aura and becomes pathetic and weak, willing to do anything for the attention of Marvin Macy. And Marvin Macy just wants his revenge. The ending is ugly and desperate, a truly sad ballad.  

McCullers is rapidly becoming one of my favorite writers. She has four novels in total, several short stories and a collection of poetry. All of them are purported to exhibit her tragicomic vision of existence. It doesn’t surprise me in the least to learn that she wrote poetry, as all I’ve read of her writing until now is strongly infused with what I would consider a poetic sensibility – a certain rhythm in the sentences and a dependence on unexpected visual imagery. Engaging and thoughtful, with a real sympathy for misfit-type people, she’s a pure delight to read.

11 Responses to “Carson McCullers – The Ballad of the Sad Café”

  1. jeane

    I have read and thoroughly enjoyed McCuller’s Member of the Wedding and Heart is a Lonely Hunter. They both have a similar dreary fascination. Must give this one a try, too!

  2. Eva

    I’m planning on reading this soon (for the upcoming Novella Challenge)-you’ve made me more excited! 🙂

  3. LK

    Oh, I love Carson McCullers, and this one is very sad and melancholy. One of the weirdest characterizations ever, don’t you think? I recommend her collection of short stories, if you can get your hands on them.

  4. verbivore

    Jeane – I am definitely going to try Member of the Wedding one of these days. I loved The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and of course, this one too.

    Eva – Will loveto hear what you think of it 🙂

    LK – I remember you mentioning her before. She’s just wonderful and I am so glad I finally discovered her. Absolutely one of the strangest bunch of characters I’ve ever met. But all of them worked – they were weird but yet just normal enough.

  5. Litlove

    I really enjoyed A Member of the Wedding. I don’t think I could read too much McCullers in one go, but I do think she is a terrific stylist.

  6. ravenous reader

    When I was a teenager, I was completely hooked on Carson McCullers – her southern heritage and melancholy bent just fascintated me.

    I haven’t read her books in a long, long time, but your review made me want to go digging through my stacks for those old, worn Penguin paperbacks.

  7. Stefanie

    I have never read McCullers before. Your description of her sounds a bit Flannery O’Connor-like and I love her. Hmm, guess that means I should try McCullers one of these days.

  8. Logophile

    Your review really makes me want to try McCullers. She’s totally unknown to me, but she sounds like a writer I’d enjoy.

  9. verbivore

    Litlove – She definitely is a terrific stylist. I understand your comment about not having too much of her in one dose. She requires savoring so I prefer to space out my reading of her as well.

    Ravenous Reader – So glad! She is definitely a writer I will go back to again and again.

    Stefanie – If you like Flannery O’Connor I do think you would enjoy Carson McCullers. Same tradition, similar style (tragicomic) but I get the sense that McCullers is a bit darker. I’d have to read more of both to make a definitely judgment on that…

    Logophile – I’d love to know what you make of her!

  10. Ann Darnton

    Until she was suggest for our reading group I didn’t know the name McCullers at all, although I had heard of ‘The Heart is a Lonely Hunter’ (didn’t they make a film of that?). Anyway with what you’ve said here and the comments I’ve heard from the members of the group who already know ‘The member of the Wedding’ I suspect we’re looking at the same style. I shan’t be reading it until the end of the month, but I really looking forward to it.

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