Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Tomorrow starts the very first discussion of the newly established Dead Writer’s Book Club—a discussion I’m very much looking forward to—and so I thought I would write out some of my thoughts on this first book, Reflections in a Golden Eye by Carson McCullers, as a way to organize my thoughts before the lovely chaos of a Twitter and Facebook and blog discussion.

What strikes me first and foremost about Reflections in a Golden Eye is how contemporary it feels, especially in terms of language and style. Without some of the older dialogue formulations, I would have had to continually remind myself it was written 70 years ago, and not last week. Even the subject—a bizarre love triangle (actually a love hexagon or heptagon, depending whether you count the horse) set on an army base and leading to a murder is as classic as it is contemporary. There is obviously a reason that McCullers has continued to speak to contemporary writers and readers. She engages with timeless elements of human nature.

And yet there is something wonderfully particular about her writing. For me this comes from her fascination with loneliness and how it brings out the unusual, even the freakishly bizarre, in a person. McCullers makes loneliness as destructive and devastating as any kind of real disease. Her first novel, and probably her most famous, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, features five such desperately lonely people. I’ll never forget how McCullers renders each of those five characters, especially the young girl Mick Kelly and all that music floating around in her head and making her nearly crazy. Or Jake Blount who loses himself completely in an enraged attempt to communicate his understanding of the world to anyone who will listen. Of course no one does. This kind of loneliness portrait is done more quietly in Reflections in a Golden Eye, but it’s extremely sinister. Just look at these lines from early in the book, after Private Williams sees Leonora Penderton walk naked through her house before a dinner party:

The four people at the table had not been alone. In the autumn darkness outside the window there stood a man who watched them in silence. The night was cold and the clean scent of pine trees sharpened the air. A wind sang in the forest near-by. The sky glittered with icy stars. The man who watched them stood so close to the window that this breath showed on the cold glass pane.

There is a lot of paralyzed surveillance in the novel. Private Williams goes every night to the Pendertons, Captain Penderton follows Private Williams around during the day, Alison Langdon stares out of her window every night instead of sleeping. For different reasons and with varying levels of self-awareness, these three individuals are almost completely cut-off from all normal human interaction and McCullers reveals how painfully they suffer.

The different reasons for their isolation are fascinating to me. Captain Penderton and Alison Langdon seem to share a similar heartbreak; they both love and want something from life that they cannot have. Private Williams is infinitely more mysterious. Indeed, if I’m not mistaken, McCullers does not let her narrator go into his mind. She details his often peculiar actions—like riding a horse naked in a hidden meadow or sneaking into Leonora Penderton’s room to watch her sleeping—but doesn’t give the reader the satisfaction of an understandable motivation. It’s almost as if he has suffered an enchantment and the sensual has taken over the rational.

Thinking about the book in terms of McCullers’s thematic development as a writer is interesting as well. It was her second novel and she followed it with The Member of the Wedding. However, she stopped in the middle of that third novel to write her novella, The Ballad of the Sad Café. Thematically, there is a lot to connect these four works: the loneliness as physical and psychological destructor, the troupe of social misfits with unfulfillable wants, the idea of jealousy and vengeance, and finally, the problem of gender and sexual orientation.

For its publication date, Reflections in a Golden Eye is extremely forthcoming about sexual orientation. The word homosexual doesn’t appear once in the book, but McCullers asks some very direct questions about the painful nature of loving someone that society tells you it is wrong to love. Captain Penderton feels only disgust for his wife’s body and a passionate but painful longing for the other men in the book, especially Private Williams. Looking at this relationship with a view to the ending shows where the real tragedy lies.

I haven’t read her autobiography, Illumination and Night Glare, or what appears to be an excellent biography of McCullers, The Lonely Hunter by Virginia Spencer Carr, but from what I’ve gathered online and in articles about McCullers, she knew first-hand what she writing about. Reflections in a Golden Eye is actually dedicated to Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach, a Swiss writer and photographer, who was openly gay. (N.B. I would highly recommend The Cruel Way by Ella Maillart—a famous Swiss adventurer and travel writer—it’s about her trip through the Middle East with Schwarzenbach and it details Schwarzenbach’s struggle with drug addiction as the two women traveled alone from Geneva to Kabul in 1939. It is a fantastic book.) McCullers and Schwarzenbach must have met sometime in 1940 and McCullers apparently fell in love, but Schwarzenbach didn’t. This is all I know and I’m curious what her autobiography and any biographies of her have to say further.

So without further ado, I’ll stop here knowing that tomorrow’s discussion of Reflections in a Golden Eye will bring me back in a few days with more thoughts.

Cross-posted at: Dead Writer’s Book Group


10 Responses to “Carson McCullers – Reflections in a Golden Eye”

  1. Helen

    I’ve read some of McCullers’ other novels but hadn’t even heard of this one. I like the connexions you draw between the four you mention, did she write any more?

    • Michelle

      I’d have to double check, but I believe she only wrote four novels – The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Reflections in a Golden Eye, A Member of the Wedding (all in the 40s) and then a fourth one much later. I consider her novella The Ballad of the Sad Café much like a novel. She also wrote poetry, one play and some other short stories. She died very young; it’s tempting to wonder what she might have written if she’d lived longer.

  2. Lilian Nattel

    It sounds fascinating and so does The Cruel Way. I’ve always been admired and been intrigued by women travelers, partly because I’m such a homebody.

    • Michelle

      The Cruel Way was a fascinating book – that these two women traveled completely on their own in such places back in the 40s was simply amazing to me. And Maillart writes really well.

  3. Sarah (Semi-fictional)

    I’ve just finished reading Reflections in a Golden Eye – I was a bit late for the discussion but have enjoyed reading your thoughts and the Twitter discussion today and it’s helped me understand the book better. I liked all the thoughts about reflections and the way certain characters were voyeurs. Thanks!

  4. litlove

    I loved The Member of the Wedding when I read it (back when my blog was new and young!). I really must read more of her, and I hadn’t heard the title of this one either. Lovely review, as always.

    • Michelle

      I think you’d really enjoy it – and it’s one of those books you can read in an afternoon but leaves you thinking for some time after. At the moment, this is my favorite kind of reading experience.

  5. cbjamess

    I’ve read McCullers “big three” but not this one. Someday I really should. I have loved everything I’ve read of hers. Your review really has me thinking about reading this one soon. Excellent review. by the way.

    • Michelle

      Thank you, I’ve also loved everything of hers that I’ve read. I’d really like to read her last novel and make sure I’ve read all her short fiction.

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