Thursday, August 03, 2017

"The Sojourner" (1950)

Read story by Carson McCullers online.

This story by Carson McCullers is a nice meditation on time and loss. John Ferris, whose most recent residence is Paris, has returned to the US for the funeral of his father in Georgia. Now it is the last day before he returns and he is in New York, and by chance happens to see his ex-wife. He has not seen her for many years. At first he follows her, struck by the strange coincidence of seeing her again. But finally he catches up to her and greets her. She has since remarried and had children—she and John never did. John knew she had a family but still he is unsettled to meet them, as she invites him for an early supper. She and her husband are going to the theater that night and it's all the time they can spare on such short notice. This is a wonderfully done story, somehow involving and poignant from the start. John has a complex mix of feelings seeing his ex-wife's life. Her son Billy, a boy of about 8, is friendly until he learns John used to be married to his mother. Then he becomes edgy and confused and finally has to be sent to bed. John exaggerates the qualities of his life, claiming he will soon marry the woman he's been seeing, even as he realizes his life has been a long series of short relationships. (There's a terrific last scene in Paris after his return, when John is seen attempting to connect with the 6-year-old son of his present mistress. It doesn't really seem to take, though it makes the boy hopeful even as it makes John sad.) I like the way there is so little incident to the story but so much of life swirls around in it: death, loss, divorce, regret. We're just seeing the aftermath but also realizing how, in many ways, all of our everyday lives is aftermath to something. John is self-deluded, but he is more lost in the world than malevolent. He tells lies and exaggerates about himself, but not to hurt anyone. Only because it hurts him to view the realities of what he has become. They both still have feelings for one another, knowing they will never be acted on. When his ex-wife sits down to play the piano for him, while her husband is seeing to their boy, she plays a song that is meaningful to them. It's also significant that she knew John's father, and the news of his death pains her. This story is done so simply and with such clarity. This is how people behave, and this is how they behave with one another. There's not a single frill to the whole thing, and it's only 10 pages, yet so much is packed into it. It's remarkable.

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

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