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01May

My Autobiography of Carson McCullers review – identity parade

Jenn Shapland’s insistence on reducing Carson McCullers’s life story to a modish account of her sexuality makes no sense

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.

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