Carson McCullers: The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951)

I remember reading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter years ago. What a special book but quite sad. All these people confessing to someone who is mute. I was very touched. Right after I also read The Ballad of the Sad Café which I have finally read again.
Carson McCullers was such a gifted writer. The way she tells this story of friendship, love and betrayal is so full of foreboding. Melancholic and gloomy at the same time. But also nostalgic. The narrator whose presence is very strong leaves no doubt as to the outcome of this story.  The title already gives away the tone, since ballads are not often joyful and one about a sad café is even less likely to be so.
Miss Amelia, the central character, is very unusual. She takes pride in things that are normally rather attributed to men like great physical strength. She can fight a man with her bare fists and often she will win. She is also a cunning  business woman and a healer. And an introvert who lives a lonely life on her own, although, as we are told, there was a ten-day marriage once. The setting, a small town in the rural South in the  forties of the last century, is described with a lot of detail. We are drawn into the story right away. We see, feel, hear and smell the place. We see the people sit together on the porch during the hot summer nights and sipping their drinks. I always idolized the South and the literature about it with its Gothic feel that can even be found in a lighthearted book like To Kill a Mockingbird. In this much gloomier tale the setting seems to have a life of its own.
If you walk along the main street on an August afternoon there is nothing whatsoever to do. The largest building, in the very centre of the town, is boarded up completely and leans so far to the right that it seems bound to collapse at any minute. The house is very old. There is about it a curious, cracked look that is very puzzling until you suddenly realize that at one time, and long ago, the right side of the front porch had been painted, and part of the wall—but the painting was left unfinished and one portion of the house is darker and dingier than the other. The building looks completely deserted. Nevertheless, on the second floor there is one window which is not boarded; sometimes in the late afternoon when the heat is at its worst a hand will slowly open the shutter and a face will look down on the town . . .However, here in this very town there was once a café. And this old boarded-up house was unlike any other place for many miles around. There were tables with cloths and paper napkins, coloured streamers from the electric fans, great gatherings on Saturday night. The owner of the place was Miss Amelia Evans. But the person most responsible for the success and gaiety of the place was a hunchback called Cousin Lymon. One other person had a part in the story of this café—he was the former husband of Miss Amelia, a terrible character who returned to the town after a long term in the penitentiary, caused ruin, and then went on his way again. The café has long since been closed, but it is still remembered.

The slow pace of the story changes when the hunchback arrives and pretends to be Amelia’s cousin Lymon. What unfolds is as incredible as touching. Amelia, who is no beauty,  falls in love with this being than seems to be even less fortunate than herself. With the influence of the chatty, lively cousin, her store turns into a café that soon becomes the center of this small town in lack of amusement.
We know from the beginning that the cheerfulness will end. When her ex-husband who was in the penitentiary for robbery reappears, he is announced like an evil spirit.
The cousin soon associates with this man whom he must have known before.
The ending is one of the saddest ever. I remember that I was really shaken by it the first time I read it.
I never knew much about Carson Mc Cullers but recently found out that apart from being a prodigy writer she led quite a sad life. She suffered from strokes, one of which left her paralyzed on the left side, since an early age. She had a tumultuous marriage, got divorced but married the same man again. She attempted suicide and he eventually committed suicide. As we know, she died at a relatively young age, leaving us her wonderful books that are so rich in unusual characters and  haunting intense atmosphere.
I know there is a Merchant Ivory film of this story. I would quite like to see it.

2 thoughts on “Carson McCullers: The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951)

  1. I read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter several years back as well and was struck by how good a writer she was. She’s very good at depicting loners and characters who feel a sense of isolation–she must have felt that in her own life. I didn’t know Merchant Ivory filmed this story–will have to read it first. I am hoping to read A Member of the Wedding some time this year still.

    • I found a trailer or a bit of the movie on YouTube. Unfortunately that did not look very promising. Some comments said it was not very good. Not sure now. It is not easy to come by anyway. Looking forward what you read abot The member of the wedding.

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