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.

*** 

 

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Literary pilgrimage – City Lights bookstore, San Francisco

I’ll start with a confession; I don’t know that much about the Beats. I can throw around enough references to Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg to bluff my way through, but my school report here would be a resounding could-do-better.

I have, however, wanted to go to City Lights for years, ever since I first read Lewis Busbee’s awesome The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop. Even though this was the third time I was lucky enough to go to San Francisco, it was the first time I’d managed to carve out enough time to visit. It was an inauspicious beginning. It was Sunday afternoon. I was tired and hungover. I had to pick up my boss from the airport in a little over two hours. And, as I started walking through Chinatown from Union Square, it started raining. Being from the UK and assuming (despite all evidence to the contrary) that it’s always sunny in California, I was cold and getting colder.

And then I stepped into the welcoming embrace of City Lights, and all was forgotten. Everything, from the shelves, to the staff picks, to the wide and eclectic stock selection, screamed ‘home’. I turned every corner expecting to see Joan Didion or Tom Wolfe (I know, wrong coast, but it was that kind of place). I left again too-short-a-time later, clutching my paper bag of books, with a big grin on my face and feeling much cooler than I have any right to.

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Literary pilgrimage – Margaret Mitchell’s House, Atlanta

Gone With The Wind is easily in my top 10 books of all time. I feel a little nervous saying that, in case anybody asks me what the others are. The answer changes on almost a daily basis, but GWTW would pretty much always have a spot. I first read it in 2007 on a trip to China; I’m a nervous flier and there were lots of internal flights on airlines I didn’t altogether trust, so its thousand-plus pages really helped me to stay calm. Well, calm-ish. I re-read it the year before last and found so many subtleties of character and plot that I’d either forgotten or missed the first time around, and then I started it again this summer in preparation for a trip to the South (my first).

Imagine my joy, then, at rocking up here:

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As you can see, it was a beautiful summer’s day in Atlanta, and I was beyond excited to be at the home of the great Margaret Mitchell. I only had half an hour before I had to go and meet my friends (as usual, we were trying to cram far too much into our one day in Atlanta), but I’m so glad I got to go there and learn a little more about the life of the woman who created such remarkable characters. And who kept me calm on Chinese aeroplanes in 2007, of course.

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