Review – The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

I had been looking forward to reading this ever since 2014, when some friends and I went on a girly road trip through the Deep South and I fell in love with Dixieland.

Well. Carson McCullers’ novel, written when she was 23 (23! I find that irritating, to say the least) wasn’t quite what I was expecting. But let’s start at the beginning. This is the story of the misfit inhabitants of a town ‘in the middle of the deep South. The summers were long and the months of winter cold were very few. Nearly always the sky was a glassy, brilliant azure and the sun burned down riotously bright. Then the light, chill rains of November would come, and perhaps later there would be frost and some short months of cold. The winters were changeable, but the summers always were burning hot.’

I say ‘the story of’, but actually, if anything this felt more like a collection of short stories than a novel. I think a lot of that is down to how disconnected the characters are with each other (and themselves). The main character, although it feels odd to describe him that way, is Singer, a deaf mute towards whom a number of the other characters gravitate. His inability to speak inevitably draws other people out of themselves; he communicates little, allowing each of them to fill in the blanks and project a little of themselves onto him. They are not alone in this; the Turks in town are convinced that he’s Turkish, the Jews think he’s Jewish, and so on and so forth. ‘His eyes,’ McCullers tells us, ‘made a person think that he heard things nobody else had ever heard, that he knew things no one had ever guessed before. He did not seem quite human.’

Nobody else in the novel, though, seems to be able to connect with each other. There is one scene in particular where Singer, the deaf mute on whom the story hangs together, is visited by all four of his regular visitors at once; used to speaking only to him, they ignore each other awkwardly, until it’s time to leave again. This never improves; if anything, the sense of alienation gets worse, not better, and characters are driven through the book by their desires, rather than their relationships.

The writing is spare and precise and in places simply stunning – like the quote in the second paragraph above, which was one of my favourites. The sense of geography in particular, both in time and space and also in terms of the characters’ place in the natural world, is strong. McCullers (perhaps unsurprisingly, given her age at the time of writing) is also very good on the fizz of adolescent longing; ‘Her face felt like it was scattered in pieces and she could not keep it straight. The feeling was a whole lot worse than being hungry for any dinner, yet it was like that. I want – I want – I want – was all that she could think about – but just what this real want was she did not know.’

There’s politics, too, and anger. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter has been read as anti-Fascist, which I can definitely see. A couple of the characters are preoccupied with fighting injustice in different ways; there is a doctor who struggles with racial injustice, and a violently self-destructive Communist, trying to open the eyes of the world to everything he finds to be wrong with it. In the end, though, the novel left me feeling a little flat. There was a lot that was good about it, but its vaguely nihilistic world view was a little too much for me – like a teenager trying a little too hard to be cool, I just couldn’t quite believe that someone with such a gift for observing the world could be quite so disillusioned with it. I haven’t read any of McCullers’s later work, but I really hope she grew out of it.

*** 

 

Review – Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

No, really, I did. This book will get into your head. For that reason, this is going to be a difficult review to write without spoilers, but I’ll do my best…

For anybody who, like me, has somehow managed to avoid this particular piece of British culture until now:

Our unnamed narrator seems doomed to a harried and unfulfilling life as a paid companion to a brash American (the frankly hilarious Mrs van Hopper), until she meets and falls in love with the tragic, brooding Maxim de Winter. After a whirlwind courtship (including, it must be said, one of the worst marriage proposals in literature), the newly-married de Winters return to his familial home, the incredibly atmospheric Manderley. And this is where the trouble starts. Manderley, in the great British Gothic tradition, is haunted. Not literally – although once or twice we may have our doubts – but emotionally, the whole estate is still saturated by the memories of the first Mrs de Winter, the eponymous Rebecca.

This had been on my TBR pile for years. I don’t know why it never made it to the top until now (I’m sure me buying a beautiful Little, Brown hardback edition had nothing to do with it…). Maybe I was slightly put off by a vague association of Daphne du Maurier with ‘romance’, by which I mean ‘romance’ in the awful, sniffy, prejudiced sense that associates the genre (falsely, in so many cases) with bad writing and unbelievable characters and events.

Well. I could not have been more wrong. I mean, there is romance, yes, and melodrama (in spades), and the characters are occasionally annoying. There’s a stretch in the middle, in particular, where I could quite cheerfully have slapped our narrator in the face for being such a bloody wet blanket. But something happens, and she gets over it, and besides, there’s so much else about the novel that’s good. I’m a fan of anything Gothic, and this novel has the Gothic in spades (remote country estate, characters communing with nature, unexplained phenomena – you name it, it’s there). There is also one of the strongest senses of place I’ve ever felt in a novel – Cornwall is never actually mentioned, but it’s everywhere, woven through the fabric of the story; apparently du Maurier wrote most of the novel while she was in Egypt and homesick for Cornwall, and it really shows.

The structure of the novel is intriguing, too. After a few pages at the beginning which make it clear that something terrible has happened, the rest is split broadly into thirds – the courtship in Monte Carlo, the tension-building introduction to Manderley and its residents, and then the breathless denouement, which has so many plot twists it’s like a cross between Downton Abbey and Eastenders.

But what really struck me were the parallels with another Gothic ‘romance’ with a troublesome first wife. I am, of course, talking about Jane Eyre. The character of Rebecca, unlike Bertha Rochester, is never seen, but she is everywhere, driving the narrative throughout – and in increasingly malevolent ways, through her own sinister presence or through the – frankly terrifying – agency of her own Grace Poole figure, Mrs Danvers. Maxim de Winter is, at once, both better and worse than Rochester; suffice it to say that they both play on our sympathies in comparable ways. Our narrator is like Jane Eyre mainly in the things that happen to her, rather than in who she is and how she reacts to them. She is younger than Jane, and less emotionally independent, and her own internal journey is all the more fascinating for that; her imagination gets her into a decent amount of trouble, and we’re never quite sure how much of what she tells us is really true. This adds a fascinating psychological dimension to the story, and kept me gripped, right to the end.

****

Review – Bleak House by Charles Dickens

A few weeks ago, I went to the Gothic exhibition at the British Library. As well as a lot of the titles I remembered from school – Mysteries of Udolpho, Northanger Abbey, Jane Eyre – were a lot of books I’d never thought of as Gothic before. One of the most memorable parts was turning a corner and being confronted with a three-minute clip of Gillian Anderson in the 2005 BBC adaptation of Bleak House.

Spookily enough, I already had a copy in my bag, although I hadn’t started reading it yet. Dickens and I have always had a somewhat troubled relationship, which I’ve written about elsewhere (see my comments on Great Expectations, which I read last year after a ten-year Dickens hiatus), and whilst Great Expectations was awesome, my copy of Bleak House runs to 989 pages without appendices and I wasn’t quite sure about spending so much time in his company.

And I’m not going to lie, it was not a walk in the park. It was a bit of a slow start, despite one of the chilliest first pages I’ve ever read (‘Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas, in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud…Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green its and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city.’ Ah, London. Plus ca change.). Similarly to Great Expectations, it took me a couple of weeks to read the first 90 pages, although after that I – well, I didn’t exactly race through the rest, but it did get quicker.

Bad bits first. I didn’t like it as much as Great Expectations, and I’m not sure I’d be as quick to recommend it. I’ll admit that there was a little bit of skim-reading. I mean, I loved the plotting, and the way all of the disparate characters and strands kept coming together, but it could have done with some serious editing. I know, I know, if he’d taken ten words instead of a hundred, then it wouldn’t be Dickens. But in this, much more than in Great Expectations, I was very aware in certain episodes that they were ‘padding’. And Horace Skimpole was just plain annoying.

Splitting the narration with Esther was interesting. It’s a common criticism of Dickens that he doesn’t write women well, and I was worried at first that I was going to find her an unbearable sap. It was OK, though. I’ll admit that her modesty and passivity did grate occasionally; for example, to Mr Jarndyce: ’I am quite sure that if there were anything I ought to know, or had any need to know, I should not have to ask you to tell it to me…I have nothing to ask you, nothing in the world.’ Yeah, right. If that level of incuriousity is the model of female perfection, then I’m in all sorts of trouble. And – I won’t give too much away – but she’s a little too quick to forgive people, to my mind. Overall, though, I really did warm to her – helped mainly, I think, by the occasional snide remark which Dickens attributed to her, but in his own voice (the descriptions of Mr Turveydrop the elder, in particular, were hilarious).

But it was the Gothic elements of the novel, and how Dickens adapted them for his own ends, which engaged me the most. Esther is effectively an orphan, although that’s nothing particularly new for Dickens. The book is full of weather, fog and rain and darkness. There are plenty of spine-shivering moments of the uncanny – people recognising people they’ve never seen before, Civil War-era ghosts, and a picture of Lady Dedlock which exerts a bit of a creepy hold over more than one character. Lady Dedlock herself is introduced to us almost as the Wandering Jew – ‘the imperfect remedy is always to fly, from the last place where it has been experienced.’ (page 183) Bleak House is the typical crumbling Gothic pile, but the monster isn’t a ghost or a vampire or a villainous Italian count – the monster is the Court of Chancery, bleeding away the lives and fortunes of the characters in the 20-year saga of Jarndyce v Jarndyce (and plenty of other characters besides – who could forget the little old lady who attends court every day, having wasted youth and beauty and sanity waiting for a judgement which will never come?). Attention to detail when bringing to life minor characters is one of the things that makes Dickens a comic genius. When it comes to his comments on Chancery, though, the comedy is savage, and immediately makes us feel bad for laughing. (‘When my great Uncle, poor Tom Jarndyce, began to think of it, it was the beginning of the end!…He gave it [Bleak House] its present name, and lived here shut up: day and night poring over the wicked heaps of papers in the suit, and hoping against hope to disentangle it from its mystification and bring it to a close. In the meantime, the place became dilapidated, the wind whistled through the cracked walls, the rain fell through the broken roof, the weeds chocked the passage to the voting door. When I brought what remained of him home here, the brains seemed to me to have been blown out of the house too; it was so shattered and ruined.’ (p119) The imagery is violent, brutal, and contrasts sharply with the Latinate legalese (disentangle, mystification) brought to bear in the middle of the paragraph in the doomed attempt to slay the beast. Dickens is really angry about this, and wants people to know it – in a former house of state, ‘lawyers lie like maggots in nuts’; a (fictional) moneylender is the devil (‘The name of your friend in the city begins with a D, comrade, and you’re right about respecting the bond’, (p345)). It’s no wonder Terry Eagleton likes it. I was more surprised that I did, though. I don’t normally like my fiction ‘preachy’, and I did find myself skimming a little when it got too much. I’ve been trying to figure out why it didn’t annoy me more. I think it’s because I read Claire Tomalin’s awesome biography of Charles Dickens last year, and however much of a jerk Dickens-the-man may have been, it seems like he really did believe what he was writing about. I think that comes across and, in the end, that might have been my favourite thing.

****