Friday, August 12, 2011

The Lonely Hunter

Last weekend I finished reading Virginia Spencer Carr's 1972 biography of Carson McCullers, The Lonely Hunter. My understanding is that this is still considered the definitive McCullers study. I have no reason to challenge that, as all I knew about McCullers before reading this book was what I concluded about her sublime artistry after reading The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter earlier this year. Yet I can't say that I come away from The Lonely Hunter feeling that I have much new insight into McCullers as a person or artist.

No, that's too harsh. I do, of course, is some ways. I now know her life story, I understand something of how she approached writing, I have perhaps some slight sense of what it must have been like to be in a room with her. As in, she sucked all the air out of it. In a good way! Or not. See, if I come away with anything it's an appreciation for the largeness of McCullers' personality and the complexity of her character. I don't know that she had many dimensions but she certainly had more than the usual complement of contradictions.

Frustratingly, so does Carr's book. She straddles every possible fence. Page by page, paragraph by paragraph, sometimes sentence by sentence and sometimes even within sentences, Carr offers up so many clashing descriptions, analyses and judgments, her own and those of the many people she interviewed about McCullers, that the reader's head swirls not knowing which lead to follow, whose word to believe. McCullers was a prodigious drinker--she never really did anything but sip--she slurred her words--she was never really drunk. She suffered paralysis from a series of strokes--she faked paralysis for sympathy--it was real but psychosomatic. The portrait, overall, is deeply sympathetic which is fine, but it felt as if Carr at the same time tried terribly hard to maintain an evenhanded approach, as a result sometimes abdicating the biographer's responsibility to draw some conclusions.

Above all this applies to the question of McCullers', and to a lesser extent her husband's, sexual orientation. It's striking how quaintly, which is to say homophobically, discreet and judicious is Carr's handling of this issue throughout the book. It's a reminder of how little had yet changed even three years after the Stonewall rebellion that gave rise to the modern LGBT movement, when this book was published. On the one hand, she does not entirely shy away from the topic--how could she when everyone knows that McCullers had great female loves and her husband great male loves--and she even in some ways writes of this sympathetically. On the other hand, she was mired in all the old attitudes, and uses ugly old terminology like the word "invert" which I didn't realize anyone was still using in 1972. Most frustratingly, there are great swaths of the book given over to indirection--what no doubt was seen as discretion--when it comes to many of McCullers' relationships. She's passionately in love with a Swiss woman but it's all conveyed at such a remove that I couldn't see through the gauze to figure out what they really were to each other. Decades later she seems to be inseparably paired with a psychiatrist who's her therapist/friend/companion--huh? You may ask why any of this matters. Well, for a million obvious reasons. Even if one thinks, wrongly, her sex or love life irrelevant to her art, this is a big full biography, not merely a study of her as a writer, and the weird wobbly way that Carr at once addresses and shies away from the whole issue of who and how McCullers loved is very frustrating.

Then there's this. By all accounts, as related in Carr's book, Carson McCullers drank enormous amounts of alcohol pretty much constantly, and smoked three packs of cigarettes a day, starting when she was a teenager and on throughout the rest of her life. I found Carr's frequent attempts to discount the effects of all this substance use bizarre. More than once she asserts that McCullers was not an alcoholic. I'm no expert, but I don't know another word for someone who starts drinking in the morning and never stops, and does so every single day. For Carr to claim, as she does several times, that all this drinking had little to no effect on McCullers' behavior or, more interestingly, her creativity and creative output, strikes me as absurd. What's really incomprehensible is the biographer's failure to link the drinking and smoking to McCullers' continually precarious health. At the least, the writer must have destroyed her liver. Her heart, lungs and circulatory system had to be in awful shape too. Which leads to the other odd gap, Carr's strangely disingenuous and quite muddled reporting about McCullers' ongoing and increasingly complicated and debilitating medical ailments throughout her adult life. McCullers had her first stroke in her 20s, by which time she'd been smoking and drinking nearly a decade, and by the time she died of the final stroke at 50 she'd had several more in between, along with breast cancer, disabling pain and paralysis, and other serious illnesses. Carr never ever connects the writer's smoking to her health problems, nor does it seem anyone in her circle ever did or ever appealed to her to clean up her act. It's not as if the ramifications of all that drinking and smoking were unknown during her lifetime. They would certainly have been known, in 1972, to Carr.

Leaving aside this odd reticence from a fuller treatment of McCullers' lifestyle as related to her physical health, I was intrigued by the whole question of how she created what she created under the influence as she most assuredly always was. I've always discounted all the silly saws about writers and drinking, I've always thought that being drunk or high cannot ever really feed creative work and must always in the end impede it. I myself (not of course that I'm comparing myself to great writers like McCullers, just relating my own experience) could never write after drinking even a little. I must have a clear mind to come up with the words. I must be alert, as fully lucid as possible. In contrast, if Carr's portrayal is to be believed, McCullers felt herself too restricted, somehow, felt her mind too tightly bounded, to be able to enter the creative dream state necessary to write fiction when she was in full control of her faculties. She felt that only by drinking alcohol could she relax, loosen up, and open the portals to the half-trance state that fiction writers must enter. Fascinating. If true.