The Ballad of the Sad Café could come with an accompanying subtitle, The Anatomy of Human Longing, as though Carson McCullers was writing not with a pen, but with a scalpel. The novella guarantees to keep us alert and awake for a few long winter days.
Day 1 (January 28) pp3-12 (through "Soon the premise above the store were dark as the rest of the town.")
Day 2 (January 29) pp12-26 (through "even if this experience can cause him only pain.")
Day 3 (January 30) pp26-44 (through "and only after a long time went to sleep.)
Day 4 (January 31) pp44-62 (through "a little longer than the night before.")
Day 5 (February 1) pp62-71 (to the end.)
Day 1 | January 28
pp. 3-12 (through "Soon the premise above the store were dark as the rest of the town.")
"Her marriage had been unlike any other marriage ever contracted in this country."
"I am hunting for Miss Amelia Evans."
Contracted, hunting––McCullers's word choice is efficient and thrilling.
Miss Amelia's store carries "feed, guano, and staples..."
Guano: a fertilizer containing the accumulated excrement of seabirds or bats.
One nearly wishes for a McCullers novel about guano harvesters or guano dealers.
The description of Miss Amelia's whiskey and its soul revealing effect is just perfect. Who doesn't want to feel as the spinner with a flower in his palm–"a sweetness keen as pain" or the weaver looking at the sky–"a deep fright at his own smallness stop his heart"?
Day 2 | January 29
pp. 12-26 (through "even if this experience can cause him only pain.")
"There is a type of person who who has a quality about him that sets him apart from other and more ordinary human beings. Such a person has an instinct which is usually found in small children, an instinct to establish immediate and vital contact between himself and all things in the world."
Articulating the most inarticulable is McCullers' special talent: here's an ode to dogs and children and all the instinctual beings who have no use for the ordinary language to process an ordinary life.
"A most mediocre person can be the object of a love which is wild, extravagant, and beautiful as the poison lilies of the swamps."
The alarming qualities of love: one nearly wants to fit every couple into that mode of the lover vs the beloved and feel the chill.
"The wild crows flew down close to the fields, making swift blue shadows on the earth."
McCullers makes the fleeting into the everlasting: the crows leave an imprint on a reader as gloriously as the sea birds and whales in Moby Dick.
Day 3 | January 30
pp26-44 (through "and only after a long time went to sleep.)
Marvin Macy's wild love letter to Miss Amelia: "party written in pencil and partly written in ink."One could almost see the words in ink fading and then replaced by pencil–the sad futility of using up the ink yet still having more things to say.
"Though the outward facts of this love are indeed sad and ridiculous, it must be remembered that the real story was that which took place in the soul of the lover himself."
A love story is always an approximation: nobody can create or dissect a soul.
Miss Amelia likes to "contemplate problems which could be worked over for decades and still remain insoluble." In that sense, she is not different from Tolstoy.
Day 4 | January 31
(through "a little longer than the night before.")
"One day she sat down to her typewriter and wrote a story–a story in which there were foreigners, trap doors, and millions of dollars."
Miss Amelia as a writer: a poignant moment. Even the most omniscient narrator falls short in reproducing a mind feeling poetic.
"Like most people in such a position of uncertainty, she did the worst thing possible–she began following several courses at once, all of them contrary to each other."
Miss Amelia, however peculiar, can still be a good and terrifying mirror for us to see ourselves.
"No value has been put on human life; it is given to us free and taken without being paid for. What is it worth?"
An astonishing statement in any book, but it is breathtakingly chilling in this one.
Day 5 | February 1
pp62-71 (to the end.)
The half painted porch, one side bright green and one side dark and dingy, reminds one of the Marvin Macy's love letter to Miss Amelia, half in ink and half in pencil.
"This was not a fight to hash over and talk about afterwards."
And what words could anyone have found, afterward, about the fight? Who could have told a good tale of hearts killing hearts?
“I always felt Carson was a destroyer, for which reason I chose never to be closely involved with her,” Elizabeth Bowen said of Carson McCullers. What a thrilling destroyer, cutting open human hearts, sparing no one, leaving no false hope.