Carson McCuller’s Clock Without Hands

There is a vanity which is done upon the earth; that there be just men, unto whom it happeneth according to the work of the wicked; again, there be wicked men, to whom it happeneth according to the work of the righteous

– Eccl. 8:14

Before there was Marilynne Robinson, before there was Harper Lee, there was Carson McCullers. McCullers is one of the great unsung geniuses of American Literature – a writer who combines exquisite prose with a quick eye and a lyrical sensibility. Graham Greene once compared her, favourably, to Faulkner; Tennessee Williams applauds her work for possessing “an understanding beyond knowledge, a compassion beyond sentiment”. McCullers’ literary output is not large – three novels, a handful of luminous short stories, a play – but every piece is a miracle of aching precision, of gentle and heartbreaking beauty.

Clock without Hands, McCuller’s last novel, is no exception. Set in the town of Milan, Georgia, the novel is an exploration of the American South on the brink of desegregation – a book about the difficult and lonely ways that the Old South comes to deal (and not deal) with its ghosts. The story is told from the perspective of four characters: Malone, a storekeeper who has been diagnosed with leukemia and is trying to make sense of the “tedious labyrinth of his life” in the last summer that is left to him; Judge Clane, a bigoted ex-congressmen, a senile and powerless man trying to fill the lonely days of his dotage with the memories of past glory; Jester Clane, his grandson, a sensitive young adolescent trying to find an identity for himself in the cross-fire of ideas that his world has become; and Sherman Pew, an angry, aggressive black man, seeking desperately for acknowledgement from the world around him. Together, these characters make up a powerful allegory of the South in the days when the civil rights movement was still nascent; in the microcosm of their Georgian hometown they are like stage hands, setting the scene for the greater drama that is inevitably to follow. The novel does not actually take us into this drama – the book ends at the point when the Supreme Court decision to desegregate schools is announced, but the certainty of that revolution is a living presence in the story, making this McCullers most overtly political novel.

And yet a political novel is precisely what Clock Without Hands is not. McCullers greatest gift as a writer is her almost boundless capacity for empathy – her ability to not only see things from the point of view of each one of her characters, but to show these points of view directly and simply to the reader, so that you are able to find understanding in your heart for every one of her many players. McCullers’ insight is that it is possible to be kind without being partial, to judge without condemning, to be sympathetic without being forgiving. There is no false sentiment here – not for a moment does McCullers waver in her vision of right and wrong – there is only the recognition that to disagree with someone does not mean that you cannot feel sorry for them, cannot see where they are coming from. In a sense, this is what makes McCullers the most American of writers – the spirit of her books is the spirit of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address – “let us judge not, that we be not judged”, Lincoln said, and that is, I think, McCullers’ greatest, most generous recognition.

And it is in that recognition that McCullers true genius is born. More than any other writer since Chekhov, McCullers understands that the idea of ‘character’ is a myth. Very few of us are truly good or evil, very few of us have any real talent for either heroism or villainy. These are things that are thrust upon us, not things we are born with. Behind the masks of champion and bigot, of saint and murderer, lie the same tired and intensely human faces, the same confused, tentative and inconsistent souls. There is no reason, in McCullers’ book, that a bigoted and corrupt judge cannot also be a senile and laughable old fool who quotes Shakespeare and believes he could have written Gone with the Wind (only better); and no reason why both these people cannot also be an estranged and dying old man struggling to come to terms with the deaths of his beloved wife and son, desperate for love, for admiration. Acts of great horror and acts of great nobility are not committed by men of exceptional parts, but by people like you and me – the Nanny is also Tybalt, Caliban is also Ferdinand. For any other writer managing this duality would be a challenging, even impossible task – McCullers not only manages it effortlessly, she makes these different parts of the character’s personality feed upon each other, so that they combine to form a incredibly life-like whole. Her characters are created from the inside, sketched out for us with such crystal clear precision that recognition is immediate and unavoidable. Moreover, McCullers has Shakespeare’s facility for combining the tragic and the comic – even at their most tortured her characters are ridiculous, even at their most joking there are serious emotions at play. Laughter and tears are deeply intertwined in McCullers, they are the two sides that make up the coin of every situation.

Add to this the sheer thrill of McCullers sublime prose [1]. Consider the following: “Looking downward from an altitude of two thousand feet, the earth assumes order. A town, even Milan, is symmetrical, exact as a small grey honeycomb, complete. The surrounding terrain seems designed by a law more just and mathematical than the laws of property and bigotry: a dark parallelogram of pine woods, square fields, rectangles of sward. One this cloudless day the sky on all sides and above the plane is a blind monotone of blue, impenetrable to the eye and the imagination. But down below the earth is round. The earth is finite. From this height you do not see man and the details of his humiliation. The earth from a great distance is perfect and whole.”

Bottomline: Clock without Hands is a powerful and sublime book – a novel of delicious humour and tender irony, a book that combines searing, passionate outrage with a deep well-spring of compassion. If sympathy is a virtue, McCullers seems to say, then it is inevitable that the good will suffer unkindness while the evil will seem to prosper; but to deny the enemy his humanity will make us the very thing we oppose. Our only hope is to find a way to love our opponents without agreeing with them, to forgive the lapses of others without losing our own integrity. This is a hard road, and it is the ease with which McCullers helps us to travel it that makes her one of the purest, most moving writers in the language.

[1] The title of the book is a reference to a passage where Malone examines the “alien emotions that had veered so violently in his once mild heart.” Faced with the certainty of his own death, but uncertain as to its exact timing, Malone is gripped by a feeling of dread and despair that he cannot quite understand or explain. He feels like a man watching a clock without hands. Soch a glorious line, and such a telling allegory for the larger political climate.

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