I’ve just read The Ballad of the Sad Cafe again after more than half a lifetime. The town hasn’t changed. The intense feelings and moods are as I remember; the grotesqueries, the eroticism which is inverted into a thrilling sense of dread are the same. The book is the stuff of dreams. It’s wetly lyrical, swamp stinking and dry, horrible and very, very funny. Biting in its demolition of cherished character types, a distorting mirror of the absurd upon the southern mythologies. The cafe, of course, is sad because it’s character-ised by sad people whose idea of happiness is sad. I have this weird idea that Mcullers and Strindberg both worked from a palimpsestic Borgsian prototype to produce the Ballad and Miss Julie. The novel does encourage weird ideas.
It’s written precisely. It is essential to hear every comma. The glissando of relationships (between words, characters, times) are accompanied by pizzicato. The whole rolls seamlessly and beautifully along, yes, like a piece of music. In a story accompanying the Ballad (there are six others), The Sojourner, we have this:
She began with a Bach prelude and fugue. The prelude was as gaily iridescent as a prism in a morning-room. The first voice of the fugue, an announcement pure and solitary, was repeated intermingling with a second voice, and again repeated within an elaborated frame, the multiple music, horizontal and serene, flowed with unhurried majesty. The principal melody was woven with two other voices, embellished with countless ingenuities – now dominant, again submerged, it had the sublimity of a single thing that does not fear surrender to the whole. Towards the end, the density of the material gathered for the last enriched insistence on the dominant first motif and with a chorded final statement the figure ended.
That would seem to me a refraction of the musical sense of composition in McCullers’ writing. Then, too, because she writes of dreariness, ennui, alienation, the shabby violences between people (too, the mysterious love that rises in the mysterious counterpoint that can only be experience in the reading, not the writing about), that sense of the existential dilemma of being oneself and not absorbed by the collective, the community, the other (or the weary narratives of the past, dead as the tumbling down ruin): this most beautiful of the chain gang, black and white chained together:
One dark voice will start a phrase, half-sung, and like a question. And after a moment another voice will join in, soon the whole gang will be singing. The voices are dark in the golden glare, the music intricately blended, both somber and joyful. The music will swell until at last it seems that the music does not come from the twelve men on the gang, but from the earth itself, or the wide sky. It is music that causes the heart to broaden and the listener to grow cold with ecstasy and fright. Then slowly the music will sink down until at last there remains one lonely voice, then a great hoarse breath, the sun, the sound of the picks in the silence.
And what kind of gang is this that can make such music?
Just twelve mortal men, seven of them black and five of them white boys from this county. Just twelve mortal men who are together.