Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Recent reads: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

Regular readers of this blog may realise that I've been on a Carson McCullers kick these last few months.  It began when I was blown away by the stunning prose in The Member of the Wedding.  After this, I had to re-read The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (and other stories), having first read this about 30 years previously.  Next, of course, I had to buy a copy of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

I've always admired the poetic title of this book (as with Ballad), so was glad to finally get round to reading it and, in doing so, learned that while Ms McCullers originally called the book The Mute, her editor insisted on replacing the title with this romantic line from a poem by Fiona McLeod ('But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts/ on a lonely hill.' - see Introduction to Penguin edition by Kassia Boddy).  While it's certainly a catchy title, I feel she did the book a disservice inasmuch as The Mute strikes me as more appropriate to the overall focus of the novel.  The characters revolve around him and share their stories in a light they believe is cast by him, and his presence helps them define who they are up until that point when they have to come to terms with his absence (and the manner of his departure).

As for the story itself, while it's necessarily introspective, it didn't grab my whole-hearted interest until almost half-way through, when Bubber accidentally shoots Baby Wilson.  Once upon a time, I could stomach a lot of navel-gazing and introspection in a book, but not anymore, and if The Member of the Wedding hadn't made such a big impact I may well have put this one down by page 80.  Nonetheless, I stuck with it and was pleased that the characters did begin moving out of their "inner rooms" more in the second half, but what really made me glad I persevered happened to be pretty much that same quality that attracted me to Member; namely, McCuller's frequent snatches of brilliant prose.

There is a very 'painterly' quality about many of her descriptions, as if she knew how to really see colours, how to mix them on a palette and apply them to a canvas.  And there's also a poetic quality about how she defined the world, drawing on all the senses, which leave her words still ringing several pages later.  Here are two passages I particularly enjoyed:
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.
(p.176 Penguin edition)

Out in the streets again he saw that the clouds had turned a deep, angry purple.  In the stagnant air there was a storm smell.  The vivid green of the trees along the sidewalk seemed to steal into the atmosphere so that there was a strange greenish glow over the street.  All was so hushed and still that Jake paused for a moment to sniff the air and look around him.  Then he grasped his suitcase under his arm and began to run towards the awnings of the main street.  But he was not quick enough.  There was one metallic crash of thunder and the air chilled suddenly.  Large silver drops of rain hissed on the pavement.  An avalanche of water blinded him.
(pp.299-300 Ibid)
Here's the post about The Member of the Wedding, here's the very brief post about The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, and here's a link to the Carson McCullers Center in Columbus, Georgia (although I'm having problems getting it to open at present).


Dmetri said...

Interesting to read this, Paul. I've been contemplating McCullers for years but have yet to read her. Possibly because I have been more than a little obsessed with her contemporary southerner, Flannery O'Connor. Maybe it's time to give O'Connor a rest and read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. It's been gathering dust on my bookshelf for years. My current obsession is Jean Giono. Do you know him at all?

Paul said...

Similarly, I've been waiting to read Flannery O'Connor. I'm not at all familiar with Jean Giono, and wonder which of his novels might provide a good starting point? I'm following up on one of your previous recommendations, Dmetri, and will be ordering Ryu Murakamis's Audition shortly.

Dmetri said...

Paul, Audition is not Murakami's best. I recommend Piercing or In the Miso Soup. Audition is one of those odd things. It makes a better film than a novel.

Jean Giono is a French writer with Italian background. I haven't read very many of his novels, but the one that got me started was The Song of the World. I recently finished the astounding war novel To the Slaughterhouse, and the environmental novella The Man Who Planted Trees. I plan to read Joy of Man's Desiring next.

I did this with Flannery O'Connor a few years ago. In one summer I read all the short stories and the two novels. Giono has a larger ouvre though.

Paul said...

Right you are, Dmetri, I'll try Piercing or In the Miso Soup. Will see what's on offer out of the Giono titles you mention too. Thanks.