Geoffrey Fox's Reviews > The Ballad of the Sad Café and Other Stories

The Ballad of the Sad Café and Other Stories by Carson McCullers
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Sep 13, 2012

really liked it

This edition includes 7 stories: The Ballad of the Sad Café; Wunderkind; The Jockey; Madame Zilensky and the King of Finland; The Sojourner; A Domestic Dilemma; A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud.

“Ballad” is a strange love triangle in rural Georgia some time in the 1920s: Marvin Macy loves Miss Amelia who loves Cousin Lymon who loves Marvin Macy, and not one of these loves is reciprocated. Macy, a handsome but shiftless and mean orphan, woos Miss Amelia, the hard-hearted and hard-muscled owner of the town's general store, who consents to marry him when he agrees to sign over all his property but turns him out of the house when he tries to get amorous; then (to the town's immense surprise) she falls in love with a little hunchback who comes to town claiming to be a relative, Cousin Lymon. He gets her to transform her store into the town's first and only café and then presides over it as a mischief-maker, keeping things interesting for all the town's menfolk who come by to drink and watch what happens. But then the long-departed Marvin Macy, after a stint in prison, returns to seek revenge on the woman who has spurned him, and Cousin Lymon follows him around like a sick puppy. Finally, in a knock-down, drag-out fist fight (Amelia is bigger and stronger than Macy), Cousin Lymon suddenly and magically intervenes to give Macy the victory. Miss Amelia, betrayed, beaten and abandoned, boards up the café and the town returns to its former dreariness.

"Ballad" has the feel of a medieval European tale, with Cousin Lymon as the goblin with magical powers for mischief (at one point, in the final fight, he appears to fly through the air), Miss Amelia as a flawed larger than life hero(ine) and Marvin Macy a dark dragon-like force. What is wonderful and most memorable (besides the vivid portrayals of the dreary town & its characters) is its (disturbing) description of love as a dangerous pathology.

Often the beloved is only a stimulus for all the stored-up love which has lain quiet within the lover for a long time hitherto. … Let it be added here that this lover about whom we speak need not necessarily be a young man saving for a wedding ring – this lover can be man, woman, child, or indeed any human creature on this earth.

Now, the beloved can also be of any description. The most outlandish people can be the stimulus for love. …the value and quality of any love is determined solely by the lover himself.

It is for this reason that most of us would rather love than be loved. Almost everyone wants to be the lover. And the curt truth is that, in a deep secret way, the state of being beloved is intolerable to many. The beloved fears and hates the lover, and with the best of reasons. for the lover is for ever trying to strip bare his beloved. The lover craves any possible relation with the beloved, even if this experience can cause him only pain. (pp. 33-34)

“Wunderkind” is a vignette of a girl's emotional crisis when she comes to believe she is not a good enough piano student to live up to her teacher's and others' expectations. “The Jockey” reads like Hemingway, an all-male story of courage and anger at one's failing physical strength. “Madame Zilensky” postulates the existence of a person who is simultaneously a pathological liar and a responsible & productive member of a community (a music teacher & composer). "The Sojourner" is about the loneliness of a man who has missed, or messed up, his chance for a stable marriage & determines to try again. In "A Domestic Dilemma", a loving husband tries to understand, control & even forgive his wife's drinking problem, and in “A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud” a boy gets a lesson in the fundamentals of a kind of love much different from the variety in "Ballad of the Sad Café”, an appreciation and wonder at an object or a person even without a further relationship. 2008/08/17
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message 1: by Karla (new)

Karla Huebner I remember reading all of Carson McCullers c. 1984... one of those writers I should return to one of these days.


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