The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

Only connect…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

John Singer shares his life with his one friend, Spiros Antonapoulos. They are both deaf mutes and, while Singer can lip read, only Antonapolous understands his sign language. With all other people, Singer can only communicate by writing short messages on slips of paper. So when Antonapolous is committed to an asylum, Singer is left profoundly alone. He moves from the small apartment the two men had shared to a boarding house and takes all his meals at a local café, and gradually he attracts to him a small group of broken and lonely people, each of whom finds his silence allows them to talk openly to him in a way they can’t to other people.

Biff Brannon owns the cafe along with his wife, Alice. Lonely in his unsatisfactory marriage and childless, Biff watches the people who frequent the cafe and offers a kind of rough kindness to some of the misfits who happen along. Jake Blount is one such misfit – a drunk with Communist leanings who longs to meet others who share his politics. Mick Kelly is the daughter of the owners of Singer’s boarding house, a young girl whose life is circumscribed by the poverty of her circumstances, but who secretly longs to write music. And lastly of Singer’s little group of disciples is Doctor Benedict Copeland, a black doctor who has devoted his life to leading his people out of ignorance but has failed, even with his own family from whom he is now mostly estranged. Each sees in Singer someone who seems to understand them and gives them the courage to face the obstacles in their lives. But Singer, though he listens, cannot speak and lives for the rare occasions when he can take a break from work and visit his friend Antonapolous, where he frantically pours out all his pent-up thoughts through sign, to a man who seems neither to understand nor care.

Nothing had really changed. The strike that was talked about never came off because they could not get together. All was the same as before. Even on the coldest nights the Sunny Dixie Show was open. The people dreamed and fought and slept as much as ever. And by habit they shortened their thoughts so that they would not wander out into the darkness beyond tomorrow.

For me, the stories of Biff and Jake didn’t work quite so well, though each had some points of interest. But Dr Copeland’s story is very well done, highlighting the poverty and cruel injustice experienced by black people, and the gulf between his ambition and the reality of what he could achieve within a system rigged against him. His character is also an excellent study of a man who is respected and even loved by the people he serves and leads in his wider community, but who fails utterly in his domestic life, taking his disappointments and frustrations out on his wife and children; a man so consumed with the desire to improve humanity that he fails to understand and connect with the individual needs of the humans around him.

Book 63 of 90

Mick is a wonderful character and the one who gives a small glimmer of hope amid the general bleakness. McCullers’ description of her sneaking around to listen to music through the open windows of those wealthy enough to own radios and record players shows the real disparity in this society where even the simplest cultural opportunities are available to only a fortunate few. Mick’s efforts to teach herself first to play piano and then to find a way to write down the music she hears inside her are beautifully written. Although the desperate poverty of her family means that her education has to give way to the need to earn money, there is the feeling that maybe she will somehow find a way to lead a more fulfilling life in time.

Why hadn’t the explorers known by looking at the sky that the world was round? The sky was curved, like the inside of a huge glass ball, very dark blue with the sprinkles of bright stars. The night was quiet. There was the smell of warm cedars. She was not trying to think of the music at all when it came back to her. The first part happened in her mind just as it had been played. She listened in a quiet, slow way and thought the notes out like a problem in geometry so she would remember. She could see the shape of the sounds very clear and she would not forget them.

And Singer himself, for much of the book a silent background against which the stories of the others are played out, gradually becomes more vivid as the true loneliness of his life is shown – a loneliness caused, in his case, by physical rather than emotional barriers. Seemingly stable, holding down a job and surrounded by people who read into the blankness of him whatever they need and lack and then value him for that, he just wants that simple thing they see in him – a willing listener, someone who seems to understand.

He came to be known through all the town. He walked with his shoulders very straight and kept his hands always stuffed down into his pockets. His grey eyes seemed to take in everything around him, and in his face there was still the look of peace that is seen most often in those who are very wise or very sorrowful. He was always glad to stop with anyone who wished his company. For after all he was only walking and going nowhere.

Carson McCullers

While the premise is a stretch, with Singer’s deaf-mutism a rather contrived vehicle to bring this disparate group together, and while some of the stories work better than others, overall this is a profound and moving study of the ultimate aloneness and loneliness of people in a crowd, and of the universal human desire to find connection with another. The writing is beautiful, emotional but never mawkish, with deep understanding of the human heart and sympathy for human fallibility – a book that fully deserves its classic status.

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Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….Why hadn’t the explorers known by looking at the sky that the world was round? The sky was curved, like the inside of a huge glass ball, very dark blue with the sprinkles of bright stars. The night was quiet. There was the smell of warm cedars. She was not trying to think of the music at all when it came back to her. The first part happened in her mind just as it had been played. She listened in a quiet, slow way and thought the notes out like a problem in geometry so she would remember. She could see the shape of the sounds very clear and she would not forget them.

~The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

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….Through the window of the bar parlour the short red face of Mr. Clark could be seen peering after the lorry. It carried some country policeman in uniform. As near the pond as it could get, it stopped. The policemen clambered down and hauled out a cumbrous apparatus of iron and rope.
….The Chief Constable strode up to the pond. “It’s not so big, Mr. Fortune. We’ll soon make sure one way or the other.”
….“Yes, yes.” Reggie walked around the bank and measured distances with his eye. “We’re going to make quite sure. They couldn’t throw him further than this. Begin from here and work towards that end.”
….The drags were put in and the constabulary hauled and the black water grew turbid and yellow. The ropes strained. “Got something,” the Chief Constable grunted. “Go steady, lads.” Out of the depths of the pond into the shallows came a shapeless mass of cloth. Policemen splashed in and lifted on to the bank something that had been a man.

~The Football Photograph by HC Bailey, in Settling Scores

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….“We want a cheap loaf, cheap bread and provisions cheaper!”
….From the back came a song, quiet at first then louder as we all joined in.

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common off the goose.

….All of us singing. I hadn’t known the words before I went in, but they were fixed pretty straight by the time I came out.
….I crossed the street, humming the tune and the thought of a good roast goose dinner in my head. I’d have it with sausages or a thick slice of bacon. I didn’t mind. Bacon. My tummy near collapsed at the thought. And peas. All the peas I could eat.
….It was punishing to think of.
….All the singing in the world couldn’t hide a thing. I was hard hungry. And I was no nearer to being fed.

~The Year Without Summer by Guinevere Glasfurd

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….When he writes of the siege of St Andrews Castle Knox can be pacily exciting, but here his tone is warmly hagiographical. He dramatizes Wishart’s words effortlessly. Knox’s plain prose is quickened by biblical phrasings, spiced by local and temporal details like the dyke at the edge of the moor and the pleasant sunshine. In such vignettes Knox writes like a proto-novelist. His wish to manipulate history seems to prepare the soil for the historical novel which would take strong root in Scotland centuries later in the age of Walter Scott. Elsewhere, as Knox delights in flourishing long transcripts of his own arguments and speeches, the reader is soon wearied by his hectoring egotism and realizes that for this man a three-hour sermon might have been on the short side.

~Scotland’s Books by Robert Crawford

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….At last we were at the cathedral. Its great grey front, embellished with hundreds of statues and boasting a pair of the finest oak doors in Europe, rose for the first time before me, and the sudden sense of my audacity almost overcame me. Everything was in a mist as I dismounted. I saw the Marshall and Sapt dimly, and dimly the throng of gorgeously robed priests who awaited me. And my eyes were still dim as I walked up the great nave, with the pealing of the organ in my ears. I saw nothing of the brilliant throng that filled it, I hardly distinguished the stately figure of the Cardinal as he rose from the archiepiscopal throne to greet me. Two faces only stood out side by side clearly before my eyes – the face of a girl, pale and lovely, surmounted by a crown of the glorious Elphberg hair (for in a woman it is glorious), and the face of a man, whose full-blooded red cheeks, black hair, and dark deep eyes told me that at last I was in presence of my brother, Black Michael. And when he saw me his red cheeks went pale all in a moment, and his helmet fell with a clatter on the floor. Till that moment, I believe that he had not realised that the king was in very truth come to Strelsau.

~The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

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So… are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 227…

Episode 227

Hurrah! The awful rise in the TBR has been reversed this week due to me finally finishing a few books – down three to 213! I’m sure success is finally within my sights…

Here are a few more I’ll be banging into soon…

Fiction

The Siege by Helen Dunmore

I’ve already been to Moscow for my Around the World challenge, but given the size of Russia and the fact that both Moscow and St Petersburg/Leningrad have been considered capital cities, sometimes simultaneously, with Moscow looking east while St Petersburg looked west, I wanted to visit both. Doctor Zhivago took me back to the Revolution; this one is set during WW2.  

The Blurb says: Leningrad, September 1941. Hitler orders the German forces to surround the city at the start of the most dangerous, desperate winter in its history. For two pairs of lovers – Anna and Andrei, Anna’s novelist father and banned actress Marina – the siege becomes a battle for survival. They will soon discover what it is like to be so hungry you boil shoe leather to make soup, so cold you burn furniture and books. But this is not just a struggle to exist, it is also a fight to keep the spark of hope alive…

The Siege is a brilliantly imagined novel of war and the wounds it inflicts on ordinary people’s lives, and a profoundly moving celebration of love, life and survival.

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Classic American Fiction

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

One from my Classics Club list. I must admit I’m dreading this one – the blurb and reviews make it sound quite awful. But I know many people love it so (despite the fact that many people also love Gone with the Wind and East of Eden, making me doubtful about whether many people were reading the same versions as me 😉 ) I’ll give it a go. If it surprises me, it can only be in a good way…

The Blurb says: Carson McCullers’ prodigious first novel was published to instant acclaim when she was just twenty-three. Set in a small town in the middle of the deep South, it is the story of John Singer, a lonely deaf-mute, and a disparate group of people who are drawn towards his kind, sympathetic nature. The owner of the café where Singer eats every day, a young girl desperate to grow up, an angry drunkard, a frustrated black doctor: each pours their heart out to Singer, their silent confidant, and he in turn changes their disenchanted lives in ways they could never imagine. 

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Historical Fiction

The Year Without Summer by Guinevere Glasfurd

Courtesy of John Murray Press via NetGalley. Hmm, this sounds good but early reviews have been very mixed. Still, maybe the many people who didn’t like it are Steinbeck fans, so there’s still hope…

The Blurb says: In 1815, a supervolcanic eruption led to the extraordinary ‘Year Without Summer’ in 1816: a massive climate disruption causing famine, poverty and riots. Lives, both ordinary and privileged, changed forever.

1815, Sumbawa Island, Indonesia
Mount Tambora explodes in a cataclysmic eruption, killing thousands. Sent to investigate, ship surgeon Henry Hogg can barely believe his eyes. Once a paradise, the island is now solid ash, the surrounding sea turned to stone. But worse is yet to come: as the ash cloud rises and covers the sun, the seasons will fail.

1816.
In Switzerland, Mary Shelley finds dark inspiration. Confined inside by the unseasonable weather, thousands of famine refugees stream past her door. In Vermont, preacher Charles Whitlock begs his followers to keep faith as drought dries their wells and their livestock starve. In Britain, the ambitious and lovesick painter John Constable struggles to reconcile the idyllic England he paints with the misery that surrounds him. In the Fens, farm labourer Sarah Hobbs has had enough of going hungry while the farmers flaunt their wealth. And Hope Peter, returned from Napoleonic war, finds his family home demolished and a fence gone up in its place. He flees to London, where he falls in with a group of revolutionaries who speak of a better life, whatever the cost. As desperation sets in, Britain becomes racked with riots – rebellion is in the air.

The Year Without Summer is the story of the books written, the art made; of the journeys taken, of the love longed for and the lives lost during that fateful year. Six separate lives, connected only by an event many thousands of miles away. Few had heard of Tambora – but none could escape its effects.

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Science Fiction

The Last Day by Andrew Hunter Murray

Courtesy of Random House Cornerstone via NetGalley. I don’t know anything about either book or author – I just took a fancy to try some contemporary sci-fi for a change…  

The Blurb says: The Last Day is set 40 years into the future after the planet’s rotation has slowed to a halt, resulting in half the earth facing the constant light of the sun while the other half lives in an endless, frozen night. The plot centres on a young scientist who is called back to London from the frozen Atlantic and begins to uncover a truth which could change the future of the human race.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?