“An intellectual carrot! The mind boggles.” (The Thing (From Another World), 1951)

This is my contribution to the 1951 Club, hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book – do join in!

Firstly, A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor. I loved Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont so once I saw Taylor had a novel published in 1951 this was an easy choice for me. Like Mrs Palfrey, it is a finely observed portrait of a life lived quietly, with its sadness not shied away from but without being depressing.

One summer after World War I, as she is on the brink of adulthood, Harriet falls in love with Vesey. I’ve no idea why as he seems proof that it’s possible for jellyfish to take on human form and he is wholly self-centred, but fall for him she does. It’s testament to Taylor’s writing that the male love-object being determinedly unheroic does not detract from the story at all. People fall for all sorts of unsuitable types and this is one example. Also, Taylor is a nicer person than me and does not judge him as harshly:

“The streak of cruelty which Lilian had perceived in him was real enough, but used defensively. He would not have wished to be cruel to Harriet, who had not threatened him. Indeed it had begun to seem to him that only she was set against the great weight of disapproval he felt upon him. His mother treated him, at best, with an amused kindliness. Among her friends she drew attention to him as if he were a beloved marmoset on a chain, somehow enhancing her own originality, decorating her.”

Their love affair is marked by very little happening. It is a series of minor misunderstandings, things unsaid, feelings unexpressed. This is absolutely Taylor’s strength: she is brilliant at depicting small devastations.

“All through the long winter and the spring, she would not have him near her; yet now, standing so close beside him, the moment which should have been so precious was worse than useless: it shrank, and stopped and curdled. These blue flowers she carried in her hand she would surely hate for the rest of her life.”

The novel then jumps forward fifteen years. Harriet is married to Charles, they have an adolescent daughter who is in love with her teacher, and Harriet has learnt to be a good wife:

“When she married Charles, she had seemed to wed also a social order. A convert to it, and to provincial life, and keeping-house, she had pursued it fanatically and as if she feared censure. No one had entertained more methodically or better bolstered up social interplay. She had been indefatigable in writing letters of condolence, telegrams of congratulation; remembered birthdays and anniversaries; remembered bread-and-butter letters and telephone messages after parties…”

When Vesey reappears, so do Harriet’s long-buried feelings. They embark on an affair, but again, it’s strangely uneventful. Given that Harriet’s mother was a suffragette and is best friends with Vesey’s aunt, the next generation of their families lack volition.

A Game of Hide and Seek is a wonderful novel filled with Taylor’s unblinking observations, humour and compassion. The supporting characters of Harriet’s husband, daughter, work colleagues and dreadful mother-in-law are all brilliantly drawn. There is ambiguity around some fairly major points in the novel, not least the ending. This is not a novel to read if you want answers and ends tied up neatly.  But if you want to have your heart broken just a little bit by a portrait of lives lived in quiet desperation, this is for you.

“Against him, against his calm and decision, she felt confused and incoherent; and, looking back on her married life, it seemed a frayed, tangled thing made by two strangers.”

Secondly, The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers. This is a collection of short stories, of which the titular story makes up half,  which I’ll focus on.  This was my first foray into both McCullers and Southern Gothic and I found it compelling. The Ballad of the Sad Café tells the story of Miss Amelia, a lynchpin in her local community despite being wholly unsympathetic to those around her. She runs the store and brews the alcohol and practices effective folk remedies.

“…when a man has drunk Miss Amelia’s liquor. He may suffer, or he may be spent with joy – but the experience has shown the truth; he has warmed his soul and seen the message hidden there.”

A hunchback arrives in town professing to be a distant relation of Miss Amelia and she adores him.  He is manipulative and untrustworthy, but things tick along.  He persuades her to turn the store into the café and she gives him all he desires, and probably a few things he doesn’t, such as her kidney stones set in a watch chain.

“For the lover is for ever trying to strip bare his beloved. The lover craves any possible relation with the beloved, even if this experience can cause him only pain.”

Things change when Miss Amelia’s estranged husband is released from jail. He adored Miss Amelia and has taken her rejection of him badly. He arrives back in town and tensions begin to build.

“Any number of wicked things could be listed against him, but quite apart from these crimes there was about him a secret meanness that clung to him almost like a smell. Another thing – he never sweated, not even in August, and that surely is a sign worth pondering over.”

McCullers increases the tension throughout this short tale expertly, and her cast of characters are idiosyncratic but never caricatures.  Similarly, the gothic elements are not overwrought and fit well within the heady, tense atmosphere.  A short portrait of a small town tragedy.

The cultural significance of The Ballad of the Sad Café has been recognised through that most prestigious of accolades: a Sesame Street parody. If I was McCullers I’d be overjoyed 😀

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32 thoughts on ““An intellectual carrot! The mind boggles.” (The Thing (From Another World), 1951)

    • Yes, I’m most definitely an ardent Taylor fan now, she’s just brilliant.

      I wasn’t sure how I’d get on with McCullers, I thought I might find Southern Gothic a bit overblown, but I really enjoyed it. She tends to tell whereas Taylor definitely shows and leaves you to make your mind up, but it still works. She’s an excellent observer of people and creates place really well too.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Rose from Rose Reads Novels and I decided last week that we hate Carson McCullers, because she published a bestseller that is now a classic when she was only 23, making us both feel elderly and decrepit. However perhaps I should read one of her books before I come to a final judgement… I wonder if Sesame Street has parodied The Heart is a Lonely Hunter… 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha! I’ve got others you could add to the list – Jeanette Winterson published Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit at 24, and Gwendoline Riley who has been shortlisted for this year’s Baileys Prize published her first novel at 23. Haven’t these people heard of embarrassing juvenilia?! They probably have, but for them its their first scrawlings in nursery school 😉

      Sesame Street should definitely do more literary parodies 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Lovely review of Elizabeth Taylor’s A Game of Hide and Seek, Madame Bibi. ‘She is brilliant at depicting small devastations’ – yes, I couldn’t agree more!

    The Ballad of the Sade Cafe sounds wonderful too. I’ve only read one of Carson McCullers’ works – Clock Without Hands – but I liked it a great deal.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Jacqui! I’m already planning which Taylor I want to read next 🙂

      This is the first McCullers I’ve read but I definitely want to read more – I think I have The Heart is a Lonely Hunter buried in the TBR somewhere….

      Like

  3. Two for the price of one! Lovely reviews Madame B and so glad you could join in! A Game of Hide and Seek is probably my favourite Taylor – love it! As for Sad Cafe, I have a copy somewhere and I’m pretty sure I read it and liked it decades ago. Had I more time, I should have done a re-read for this week…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Karen, and thanks for running the 1951 Club, it’s great to see what everyone’s reading for it!

      There’s never enough time for re-reads is there? I’m always trying to get the TBR down which means I neglect re-reading. My utter failure to reduce the TBR means I should probably give up and re-read as much as I want!

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  4. I’ve read these both and loved them too. A Gane of Hide and Seek might be my favourite Elizabeth Taylor novel. I’m reading The Grass Harp, one of only a few novels from 1951 I wanted to read and hadn’t read yet. Btw The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is an outstanding book as well. I liked it much more than Ballad.

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  5. If only there were Sesame Street videos for every good book – wouldn’t that be fun? Although, you might not be able to get me off the internet…
    I love your choices for 1951. Elizabeth Taylor seems to be a real favourite – I really have to try one of her books sometime. And The Heart is a Lonely Hunter has been on my list for a looong time.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Any book by Elizabeth Taylor goes straight on my wish list, and your review confirms that I must read it soon. As to the McCullers story, well, an endorsement by Sesame Street is good enough for me! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I really hope you enjoy it Sarah! I’ve 2 more Taylors staring at me from the TBR, I’m sure I’ll be reading them very soon…

      Surely a Sesame Street endorsement is greatest endorsement of them all? Definitely works for me 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Elizabeth Taylor is so underrated, or rather, under-known-about, as I hate to sound like Donald Trump and act like if I don’t know about something, no one else will have done either, but until about three years ago I didn’t know she existed, and now I wonder how I managed to survive 40+ years without coming across such a wonderful writer. And now I try to get other people to read her, and so far, everyone has assumed I’m speaking of the actress. And I totally agree, a Sesame Street tribute is the highest of them all!

    Liked by 1 person

    • She’s really under-known, isn’t she? At least now you see her in mainstream bookshops, but I discovered her through charity shop green Viragos, and it was the name that caught my eye!

      What she needs to increase awareness of her work is a Sesame Street tribute 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Lovely picks (and I was so afraid you weren’t going to include a gif or a video – you did us proud there!) I loved Mrs Palfrey too, I’m not sure whether I ever read Hide and Seek or not, but you make me want to see.but, oh I LOVED Carson McCullers when I found her some years ago, and am sure it would be worth blowing dust off her covers and re-reading…..

    Liked by 1 person

    • If I didn’t include at least one moving image I would feel I had very much failed with the post 😀

      Mrs Palfrey was gorgeous, I still think about it. It’s definitely worth dusting off any Taylors or McCullers you have, I’m sure they both reward multiple readings! This was my first McCullers and I’m totally convinced of the need to read more of her 🙂

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  9. Her kidney stone set in a watch chain?! THAT is enough to get me interested! I have made a note of The Ballard of the Sad Cafe on my to-read list.
    I love coming to your blog and getting book ideas, as I’ve normally never heard of them! I have been heinously awful with my reading recently, so thanks for the suggestions! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  10. You write so well about what makes Taylor good! It always takes me quite a while to get into Taylor, but usually it clicks halfway through and I realise how brilliant her writing is. I wish it could fall into place a bit earlier each time!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Oh thank you so much for making me laugh this morning. I used to adore watching Sesame Street with my mother-I was in my teens then and we thought the creators were so clever. We used to howl with laughter…just fabulous stuff. I started the Ballad of the Sad Cafe but kept get distracted by other books last year…I really must finish it. I’ve read a few Elizabeth Taylor’s but not this one. Back on to the TBR pile it goes. I’m very late to the 1951 party but have finally written my post.

    Liked by 1 person

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