27.9 F
Sunday, December 4, 2022

My Autobiography of Carson McCullers review – identity parade | Biography books

Must read

This book, slight as a sapling, has its beginnings in 2016, in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, where its author was then working as an intern. It was Jenn Shapland’s job at the famous repository of writers’ archives to answer scholars’ queries, about half of which usually had to do with David Foster Wallace or Norman Mailer. One February morning, however, she was asked about some letters from a Swiss writer called Annemarie Schwarzenbach to Carson McCullers, the author of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Dating from the 1940s, these notes changed everything for Shapland. Reading them through their plastic sleeves, she saw they were love letters: intimate, suggestive, unambiguous in their meaning.

Shapland had not read McCullers’s novels. “Books seem to find me when I’m ready for them,” she writes, a statement that forewarns the reader, early on, of the Jenn-centred universe of her book. But now she was captivated – and something shifted inside her. Within a week, she had cut her hair short. Within a year, she had begun “calling myself a lesbian for the first time”. Asked what she wanted to do for her second-year project at the library, she chose the personal effects collections, where she catalogued McCullers’s extraordinary clothes: her embroidered vests, the nightgowns she liked to wear under a coat, a gold lamé jacket with a magenta lining that still had a Saks tag on it.

Objects, she found, offered her a McCullers that she could touch, even smell. This was love. Feeling possessive, Shapland dismissed those she saw as her rivals, otherwise known as McCullers’s biographers. With their genteel euphemisms (“companions”, “roommates”, “crushes”) and their obsession with McCullers’s husband, Reeves, whom the author married twice, those “burglars” had, she insisted to herself, effectively erased the writer’s sexuality. It would be up to her to put the record straight.

My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, as its too-clever-by-half-sounding title implies, is neither memoir nor biography. Shapland writes that it exists “in the fluid distance between the writer and her subject, in the fashioning of a self… on the page”, which sounds exciting; Katie Roiphe’s recent The Power Notebooks is on this territory and it’s brilliant. In the case of Shapland, however, such a declaration cannot disguise the fact that her (over) identification with McCullers takes us nowhere that is very productive. Yes, there is her stay in the McCullers house in Columbus, Ohio, where she spends a lot of time lying in a pink bath. Yes, she reveals what she found in the transcripts of McCullers’s therapy sessions with another lover, Dr Mary Mercer (though she is not permitted to quote them). There are mentions of McCullers’s friends WH Auden, Gypsy Rose Lee and Tennessee Williams and of the lunch she threw in 1961 for Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller and author Isak Dinesen. At Yaddo, the New York writers’ colony to which McCullers was also a visitor, she ponders the (almost nonexistent) connections between her subject and another of its guests, Patricia Highsmith. In the main, though, her focus is relentlessly on McCullers’s sexuality and the way that women who love women often go unseen, a hangover, she says, from the “romantic friendships” of the Victorians.

Jenn Shapland: ‘takes us nowhere that is very productive’
Jenn Shapland: ‘takes us nowhere that is very productive’. Photograph: Christian Michael Filardo

Shapland writes of having been in the closet herself; of her mother’s cruel attempt to out her and of a “roommate” she was sleeping with. She wants to name lesbians – to use the word, over and over – not only as a point of principle, but because it does her such good. I understand this. But there is a problem here. In all the pointing, McCullers’s work is lost; Shapland is keen on the novels’ queerness, but never gets too involved with their literary achievements. Like many of the other women in the book, she is seen almost entirely through the prism of her sexuality (Tove Jansson, the creator of the Moomins, is “the Finnish lesbian cartoonist”; Betty Parsons, supporter of Jackson Pollock and Robert Rauschenberg, is “the lesbian gallerist”). How reductive this is and how antiquated. It’s a diminishment that invites another kind of invisibility and I think McCullers (and all of them) would have despised it.

Still, I’m glad to have read My Autobiography of Carson McCullers. Its mere existence stands as a warning of the cul-de-sac into which publishing has lately wandered (I mean, run, blindfolded, at full tilt). It could not be more modish, from the floating paragraphs of its fractured narrative to its breathless quoting of Maggie Nelson (of whom, incidentally, I’m a fan). In the US, it was a National Book award finalist; Carmen Maria Machado calls it – preposterously, given the single note it sounds – “symphonic”. Why the dazzlement? Why won’t anyone take this book on? Because I’m here to tell you that it often makes no sense.

“For me, Carson’s words are her words,” writes Shapland, a tautologous statement that’s fairly typical for its assertion of something with which it’s impossible to disagree. In thrall to a certain kind of identity politics, she urges us to understand queer, outsider lives. Yet the whole thrust of her writing here – its engine and its soul – is that we cannot hope to understand a life unless it belongs to someone whose identity is exactly the same as our own. What’s funny about this is that before I read Shapland’s book, I’d no idea anyone believed McCullers was straight. What’s much less funny is its utter futility. What a dead end. For writing, for the imagination, for empathy.

My Autobiography of Carson McCullers by Jenn Shapland is published by Virago (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Source link

More articles


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Latest article