A New Year’s Eve Addendum

I’m a longtime fan of the fiction podcast presented monthly by The New Yorker. In each podcast, Deborah Triesman, the fiction editor at The New Yorker, asks writers who have recently published fiction in the magazine to select a short story from the magazine’s archives and to read it aloud and consider their reasons for admiring it. Not every podcast is a gem, of course, but more often than not the stories are great, the readings are exceptional, and the discussions are quietly appreciative in a way that I think is all too rare in contemporary literary discourse. Among my favourites: Louise Erdrich reading Lorrie Moore, Jeffrey Eugenides reading Harold Brodkey, Tobias Wolff reading Stephanie Vaughn, T.C. Boyle reading Tobias Wolff, Aleksandar Hemon reading Bernard Malamud, and Richard Ford reading John Cheever.

This month, though, the podcast has completely outdone itself with Cynthia Ozick offering a beautiful reading and impassioned discussion of Steven Millhauser’s ‘In the Reign of Harad IV.’ The story must be one of the best ever to appear in The New Yorker, and Ozick’s vocalisation of it perfectly conveys the otherworldliness of its metafictional monomania. But what really sets this podcast apart from the others is the discussion between Ozick and Deborah Triesman before and after the reading. Triesman usually remains aloof or politely inquisitive, offering very little of her own thoughts on a given story while prompting the writer in the studio to disclose theirs in detail. This time, however, she lays out her own views on the story alongside Ozick’s views, revealing, to my surprise, a palpable appreciation of the story that matches Ozick’s appreciation of it even as she challenges Ozick on points of literary interpretation. Their discussion won’t revolutionise current thinking on Millhauser’s work, of course, but it’s still great to be able to hear such careful and intelligent readers give serious consideration to a fiction that — despite the faux whimsy of its premise — wants and deserves to be taken seriously.

How Did It Come?

The radio was on as usual. For a second she stood by the window and watched the people inside. The bald-headed man and the gray-haired lady were playing cards at a table. Mick sat on the ground. This was a very fine and secret place. Close around were thick cedars so that she was completely hidden by herself. The radio was no good tonight — somebody sang popular songs that all ended in the same way. It was like she was empty. She reached in her pockets and felt around with her fingers. There were raisins and a buckeye and a string of beads — one cigarette with matches. She lighted the cigarette and put her arms around her knees. It was like she was so empty there wasn’t even a feeling or thought in her.

One program came on after another, and all of them were punk. She didn’t especially care. She smoked and picked a little bunch of grass blades. After a while a new announcer started talking. He mentioned Beethoven. She had read in the library about that musician — his name was pronounced with an a and spelled with double e. He was a German fellow like Mozart. When he was living he spoke in a foreign language and lived in a foreign place — like she wanted to do. The announcer said they were going to play his third symphony. She only halfway listened because she wanted to walk some more and she didn’t care much what they played. Then the music started. Mick raised her head and her fist went up to her throat.

How did it come? For a minute the opening balanced from one side to the other. Like a walk or march. Like God strutting in the night. The outside of her was suddenly froze and only that first part of the music was hot inside her heart. She could not even hear what sounded after, but she sat there waiting and froze, with her fists tight. After a while the music came again, harder and loud. It didn’t have anything to do with God. This was her, Mick Kelly, walking in the day-time and by herself at night. In the hot sun and in the dark with all the plans and feelings. This music was her — the real plain her.

She could not listen good enough to hear it all. The music boiled inside her. Which? To hang on to certain wonderful parts and think them over so that later she would not forget — or should she let go and listen to each part that came without thinking or trying to remember? Golly! The whole world was this music and she could not listen hard enough. Then at last the opening music came again, with all the different instruments bunched together for each note like a hard, tight fist that socked at her heart. And the first part was over.

This music did not take a long time or a short time. It did not have anything to do with time going by at all. She sat with her arms held tight around her legs, biting her salty knee very hard. It might have been five minutes she listened or half the night. The second part was black-colored — a slow march. Not sad, but like the whole world was dead and black and there was no use thinking back how it was before. One of those horn kind of instruments played a sad and silver tune. Then the music rose up angry and with excitement underneath. And finally the black march again.

But maybe the last part of the symphony was the music she loved the best — glad and like the greatest people in the world running and springing up in a hard, free way. Wonderful music like this was the worst hurt there could be. The whole world was this symphony and there was not enough of her to listen.

Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

Howling Into the Silence, Yearning for a Reply

In 1972, Dale Edmonds of Tulane University published what is, to the best of my knowledge, the first and still the longest of only a handful of scholarly studies of Carson McCullers’ “Correspondence.” Entitled “‘Correspondence’: A ‘Forgotten’ Carson McCullers Short Story,” Edmonds’ study runs to a scant 2,200 words at the end of which he declares:

I would be reluctant to say as much as I have about “Correspondence,” since the story succeeds so well on the immediate level, except for the fact that it has been virtually forgotten. “Correspondence” is no stunning achievement, but it is a unified and effective minor work of short fiction. It deserves to be redeemed from the obscurity of the pages of an early wartime New Yorker to amuse — perhaps delight — readers who are still capable of being touched by the universal plight of adolescence.

There are three things to say in response to these comments.

First: if Edmonds decided to write about this “forgotten” story in order to somehow revivify it, his efforts unfortunately amounted to little. “Correspondence” is today relegated to the back pages of McCullers’ Collected Stories and occupies a place in the McCullers oeuvre nowhere near as prominent as any of the stories collected in The Ballad of the Sad Cafe.

Second: “Correspondence” is an achievement. It is easily the sharpest and yet the most opaque short story McCullers ever wrote, and it has lingered with me for months now ever since I began digging around in McCullers’ “minor work” during the first half of this year. I can no longer remember anything else I found, but I remember this story in crystalline detail.

Third: despite my admiration for “Correspondence,” I was neither amused nor delighted by it. Maybe that’s my fault; maybe I’m just no longer “capable of being touched by the universal plight of adolescence.” Or maybe the qualities of the story that make it interesting are not intended to generate amusement and delight in its readers, although Dale Edmonds did not recognise those qualities because he did not allow himself to read “Correspondence” as anything other than a light-hearted sketch of adolescent angst and awkwardness.

“Correspondence” consists of four brief letters written by a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl named Henrietta ‘Henky’ Evans and posted to her penpal, a Brazilian boy named Manoel García. “Dear Manoel,” she begins: “I guess seeing the American address on this letter you already know what it is. Your name was on the list tacked on the blackboard at High School of South American students we could correspond with. I was the one who picked your name.” Henky tells Manoel all about herself and even goes so far as to conjure fantasies involving Manoel before he has had a chance to write a reply: “I thought a long time about you, Manoel, before writing this letter. And I have this strong feeling that we would get along together. … I feel like I have known you for a very long time and that we could discuss all sorts of things together,” and she concludes with an invitation: “Would you like to come and spend your summer vacation with me next summer? I think that would be marvelous. Also other plans have been in my mind. Maybe next year after we have a visit together you could stay in my home and go to High School here and I could swap with you and stay in your home and go to South American High School…”

Manoel, however, never responds, leaving Henky discouraged but not so discouraged as to cease writing. Instead, she takes Manoel’s silence as a de facto reply and proceeds to write him a second letter in which she considers the implications of his silence and discloses more of herself in order to draw from him a more articulate response. “Three weeks have gone by and I would have thought that by now there would be a letter from you,” she begins. “I had not thought I would write to you again until I heard from you… [but] it must take a long time these days for things to reach foreign countries.” Then, after a one-page elaboration on the fantasies contained in her earlier letter, she signs off: “Every afternoon I wait for the postman. I have a strong feeling or a kind of hunch that I will hear from you on this afternoon’s mail or tomorrow. Communications must take longer than I had figured on even by air mail.” But again Manoel does not respond, and his obstinate silence stirs up a simmering rage within Henky that flourishes in proportion to her rapidly declining enthusiasm and good cheer.

Noting this in his article on “Correspondence,” Dale Edmonds wonders what Manoel García would make of it all. “One can imagine [his] consternation,” writes Edmonds, “as he reads that the unknown American girl is unpopular with her classmates, that she has a bad case of hives, that she believes in reincarnation — and all the rest.” But, in so saying, Edmonds seems to me to disturb the story’s artistic integrity. “Correspondence” offers no hint that Manoel García even receives Henky’s letters, nor, indeed, any hint that he even exists. It is a feature of the story that Manoel García is entirely absent, since the story takes the form of Henky’s letters to Manoel and since those letters are generated by her failure to accept his absence qua absence.

When Edmonds joins Henky in speculating on the character of Manoel García, however, he transforms the aesthetic feature of Manoel’s absence into a fault in need of correction or, at least, amelioration. Henky’s refusal to accept Manoel’s absence and thus her inability to tolerate his silence together furnish the story with its dramatic foundations, and the drama (such as it is) emerges when Henky’s inability to tolerate Manoel’s silence leads her to write to him again and, in doing so, to take his silence as a sign of his presence, to interpret it as an aspect of his character, and thus to effectively assemble Manoel from within herself and to place him in greater opposition to herself as one letter gives way to the next. From start to finish, “Correspondence” is Henky’s interiority brought onto the page by virtue of her irrepressible urge to understand an absence in the world as its own expression of interiority. To approach the story as such and is to watch it betray its own title: far from engaging with a “co-respondent” at all, Henky Evans is herself the sole but repeated respondent to a silence she cannot fathom. Approach the story instead in search of Manoel García, though, and very quickly its title extends beyond the page and into the real world: the “correspondence” in question applies less and less to Henky’s letters as the drama unfolds, and more and more to the emergent kinship between the girl and the reader who shares her purpose.