A last Ir­ish pil­grim­age

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - MARTIN DYAR


The Amer­i­can writer Car­son McCullers, the cen­te­nary of whose birth oc­curred last year, made a trip to Gal­way in March 1967, five months be­fore she died. Given the poor state of her health, it was an un­likely un­der­tak­ing. But she was determined to visit the film di­rec­tor John Hus­ton at his es­tate, St Cler­ans, near Loughrea. And Hus­ton, who had just the year be­fore adapted McCullers’s novel,

Re­flec­tions in a Golden Eye, was will­ing to at­tempt to make, of a man­i­fest lo­gis­ti­cal night­mare, a mag­i­cal and restora­tive hol­i­day to re­mem­ber.

Hus­ton brought on board the Loughrea GP Martin Dyar (this reviewer’s grandfather and name­sake), who in ad­vance of the trip re­ceived a de­tailed his­tory from one of McCullers’s doc­tors in New York. There were nu­mer­ous com­pli­ca­tions and risk fac­tors, stem­ming for the most part from un­di­ag­nosed rheumatic fever in the pa­tient’s child­hood.

McCullers had had sev­eral strokes, and she’d ex­pe­ri­enced re­cur­rent pneu­mo­nia. She’d had a fall three years be­fore which had caused a bro­ken hip. She was paral­ysed down her left side, and she had an ema­ci­ated ap­pear­ance. There were ques­tions too around al­co­hol, and, de­spite the best coun­sel of her car­ers, she was an im­mod­er­ate smoker.

But the same let­ter in­cluded a re­as­sur­ance that the pa­tient was alert and co-op­er­a­tive, and it was signed off with a note of ide­al­ism. The St Cler­ans adventure would surely lead to a boost in McCullers’s writ­ing: “The con­tem­pla­tion of this trip is as­sum­ing the pro­por­tions of one of the great mo­ments in her life.”


To mark her 50th birth­day and, on doc­tor’s or­ders, as a test run for Gal­way, McCullers spent a week in the Plaza Ho­tel in New York. Sure enough, this seemed to improve her en­er­gies and her con­fi­dence. At the Plaza, she told a jour­nal­ist that she had at least two more book projects in mind. An au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, in­tended partly as a writer’s hand­book on the com­plex­i­ties of in­spi­ra­tion and the dou­ble-edged sword of early suc­cess; and an ex­plo­ration of the ex­pe­ri­ences of artists and per­form­ers who, like her­self, had con­tin­ued to work in the face of ill­ness and ad­ver­sity. She was at the time think­ing a lot about the am­putees Sarah Bern­hardt and Cole Porter, and her work­ing ti­tle was In Spite Of.

These two books would not be writ­ten, per se; McCullers lacked the en­ergy now. But they were, on her re­turn from Ire­land, painstak­ingly dic­tated as a kind of amal­gam text to what Car­los L Dews, the ed­i­tor of Po­ems Plays and

Other Writ­ings (and a for­mer di­rec­tor of the Car­son McCullers Cen­tre at Colum­bus State Uni­ver­sity) refers to as a corps of friends and as­sis­tants. The re­sult was a man­u­script called and Night Glare, first brought to light by Dews in 1999, and re­pro­duced again here. De­spite its ori­gins, Il­lu­mi­na­tion is read­able and in­di­rectly beau­ti­ful. Along with the Il­lu­mi­na­tion pro­found es­say McCullers wrote as an out­line of her first novel, the en­dur­ingly pop­u­lar The

Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, it pro­vides a wealth of happy rid­dles and glosses for the McCullers en­thu­si­ast.

McCullers’s un­doubtable courage seems to have been partly based on a form of muse com­plex. Se­vere health up­sets could strike at any time, im­pos­ing sud­den mora­to­ria on her imag­i­na­tion, and then she’d be sen­tenced to the night glare, wait­ing for words and im­ages, some­times for years. But time and again she found that she needn’t re­cover fully in or­der for her mind and her work, if not al­ways her phys­i­cal self, to be redeemed by il­lu­mi­na­tion. Men­tored­byTen­nesseeWil­liams In this beau­ti­ful vol­ume, no mere sec­ond fid­dle to the Com­plete Nov­els (published in the same se­ries back in 2001), the last­ing fruit of that vac­il­lat­ing luck and gritty per­se­ver­ance is very much in ev­i­dence. The play adap­ta­tion of The Mem­ber of the

Wed­ding is a won­der­ful thing, a kind of al­chem­i­cal ad­vance­ment of the clas­sic novel of the same name. The pro­ject came about in 1946 when Ten­nessee Wil­liams, elec­tri­fied by the book, of­fered friend­ship and men­tor­ship; he even went so far as to hot­house McCullers in Nan­tucket while she worked on the first draft. Ill­ness in­ter­rupted the play, and threat­ened its prospects, but it was fi­nally com­pleted and staged to great ac­claim, run­ning for 501 per­for­mances on Broad­way, and bring­ing McCullers the big­gest com­mer­cial suc­cess of her ca­reer. Sto­ries like A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud and The

So­journer as­sume here a fi­nal and much de­served canon­i­cal sta­tus. The for­mer is a qui­etly vis­ceral ac­count of a half-drunk man ex­plain­ing to a boy in an all-night cafe his means of trans­form­ing the re­gret he car­ries as a re­sult of a lost love, namely, a quasi-re­li­gious sys­tem of med­i­ta­tion. The nouns in the story’s ti­tle have a kind of rosary func­tion, a heart’s means of count­ing on the very pres­ence of the world in the ab­sence of un­der­stand­ing. In

Il­lu­mi­na­tion, McCullers re­calls how the story came to her: “af­ter a long pe­riod of ill­ness, in which I’d ac­tu­ally picked up a stone, looked at a tree, and sud­denly the magic il­lu­mi­na­tion came.”


In The So­journer, John Fer­ris, an ex­pa­tri­ate re­turned to the States from Paris for his fa­ther’s fu­neral, spends an aim­less last day in New York, killing time be­fore fly­ing back to France to be with his new part­ner and her son. Ran­domly, he sees his ex-wife on Fifth Av­enue and fol­lows her for a time, each step a provo­ca­tion to me­mory. McCullers is on a the­matic home ground of yearn­ing here: “He could not un­der­stand the wild quiver of his heart, nor the fol­low­ing sense of reck­less­ness and grace that lin­gered af­ter she was gone . . . He knew only that his clouded heart was oddly dis­so­nant with the sunny, au­tumn day.”

It has been eight years, and the sep­a­ra­tion is re­mem­bered as trau­matic, but Fer­ris quickly yields to poignancy and phones his ex-wife, who in­vites him to her apart­ment for din­ner. The in­ter­mit­tent gusts of self-doubt and self-knowl­edge that are worked into the awk­ward visit, the en­ergy and the lies that Fer­ris musters when re­gal­ing his ex-wife and her new hus­band, the ef­fects of the en­counter, and the bur­nished ef­fi­ciency of the telling, are McCullers at her un­beat­ably prob­ing best.

There is ge­nius in the im­agery and in the cool syn­tax of McCullers’s po­etry. When neg­a­tiv­ity eats into unity, there’s still a lovely fin­ished strange­ness to the writ­ing. But she revered the form more than she was pos­sessed by it, and seems to have ap­proached po­ems more as com­forts than as in­stru­ments of ex­pres­sion. Her book of po­ems for chil­dren,

Sweet as Pickle, Clean as a Pig, has not been in­cluded.

Hol­ly­wood ex­trav­a­gance

If not quite restora­tive, McCullers’s time in Gal­way brought her joy. Though bed­bound, she was im­mersed in a kind of re­treated Hol­ly­wood ex­trav­a­gance, in a fan­tasy of Ir­ish coun­try liv­ing, in vis­its and kind­ness and talk. Mem­o­ries of her time in lesser splen­dour with the nov­el­ist El­iz­a­beth Bowen in Cork years be­fore, and her love of Joyce and Beck­ett, helped to bol­ster the dream­scape, and en­hance what Ter­ence de Vere White, in­ter­view­ing her at her bed­side for The Ir­ish Times, thought “an ex­pe­di­tion of al­most reck­less courage.”

The fol­low­ing month, when she was back in New York, Hus­ton urged McCullers to be brave and go through with a pro­posed leg am­pu­ta­tion. He tried to boost her spir­its by telling her that their shared horse, Busted, had won an­other race, with a £50 prize. Dr Dyar sent his own good wishes, and re­marked on his pa­tient’s ac­cept­ing na­ture: “She is still very much cap­tain of her soul.” The prospect of cre­at­ing a “phan­tom”, he ad­vised, was in this case no grounds for fear. ■ Martin Dyar is the au­thor of the Pig­gott Prize-short­listed po­etry col­lec­tion Maiden Names (Arlen House). He holds the 2018 Arts Coun­cil writer in res­i­dence fel­low­ship at the Uni­ver­sity of Lim­er­ick


Car­son McCullers with John Hus­ton at his home in Loughrea, Co Gal­way, in April 1967.

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