Carson McCullers

 

Heartlonelyhunter

 

"Our pride must be strong, for we know the value of the human mind and soul. We must teach our children. We must sacrifice so that they may earn the dignity of study and wisdom. For the time will come. The time will come when the riches in us will not be held in scorn and contempt. The time will come when we will be allowed to serve. When we will labor and our labor will not be wasted. And our mission is to await this time with strength and faith."

– The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

 

Finished reading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter a few days ago. Have you read it? What a gut wrencher. It starts out so deceptively simple but as it progresses so does the complexity.

One of the main characters is John Singer, a Christ-like deaf-mute everyone in this small, southern town instinctively trusts, without quite understanding why. They're drawn to him by a force stronger than themselves. Though he can't hear, he can read lips and perhaps that's why they trust their secrets will go no further. It's comparable to praying to an almighty figure, one assumed to be listening with undivided attention, never giving a direct, verbal answer but absolving all. But who is he, save a man willing to sit still as long as they need to vent? And what relieves their minds, aside from expressing their pain?

What the other characters reveal about themselves is their sadness, heartbreak and desperate yearning for the one thing that's their passion. They feel free to express themselves without reservation, pouring out the most intimate of details, all because something in his eyes is almost hypnotizing, how he gazes with absolute compassion. Like gazing into a mirror reflecting another mirror into infinity, his eyes see into their souls.

John Singer lives in a boarding house owned by the family of a young, budding adolescent tom boyish girl named  Mick Kelly. Passionately moved by  music, Mick hopes to become a famous composer, brushing off the dirt of this small Georgia town, moving away to New York – mecca of opportunity for dreamers. She comes to sit in Mr. Singer's room, perched on a chair next to his radio with her ear to the speaker, absorbing symponies into her soul.

 

"This was her, Mick Kelly, walking in the daytime and by herself at night. In the hot sun and in the dark with all the plans and feelings. This music was her—the real plain her…This music did not take a long time or a short time. It did not have anything to do with time going by at all. She sat with her arms around her legs, biting her salty knee very hard. The whole world was this symphony, and there was not enough of her to listen… Now that it was over there was only her heart beating like a rabbit and this terrible hurt."

 

Another character, Biff Brannon, is the proprietor of the New York Café. Brannon is a sort of enigma. Married to a shrew, he's manipulated by her will, considering small things like holding onto 20 years-worth of old papers, documenting the history of this small town, as brave rebellion. Like John Singer he stands back and sees all. Unlike Singer others find him an isolating person.

His feelings about Mick baffle me, though. He treads the line between a possibly carnal lust and the desire to be a fatherly figure to her, his thoughts discomfiting. There's a sense, though, that he legitimately cares for her deeply. Honestly, I can't say what's behind his character. He's complex and I couldn't get to the heart of him.

Then there's Jake Blount, a drunkard who wanders into town one day and just never leaves. Obnoxious and abrasive, at heart he's possessed by politics, or the theory behind politics. In curious opposition to another character, Benedict Mady Copeland – an African American doctor dying of a tuberculosis-like disease – the two approach each other like boxers in the ring, carefully circling. Though some of their beliefs seem compatible, neither can stand the other.

Copeland's dream is to advance the lives of black people, to grab what he thinks rightfully theirs, shaking off oppression. His great sorrow is his children. Named after rebellious figures such as Karl Marx, his intense insistence they take up his cause drives them away. He feels they're failures and they know his disappointment. But no matter how he tries he cannot hold off lecturing whenever he sees them, driving the wedge more and more deeply though his love for them is limitless.

The only character John Singer himself feels deeply about is another deaf-mute, Spiros Antonapoulos, his roommate and closest companion early in the book. The other man loses his sanity, following an unnamed illness, carted off to an asylum by his cousin, where he remains for the rest of the novel.

Why the deep kinship formed between Singer and the less-enamored Antonapoulos puzzles me. The shared disability and life on the outskirts of society could certainly act to pull them together but Antonapoulos is a grasping character, described as obese, oily and smelly. McCullers makes him as unlikeable as possible, yet Singer never loses his deep love for his "friend," even when Antonapoulos's mind slips away, becoming completely self-involved and oblivious to his friend's generosity and the purity of his love. Though John Singer is kind and welcoming to everyone who crosses his threshold, it's as if his life is dependent upon Spiros, the one person who cares least about him. The one person he's unable to save.

As a whole, the book is a treasure, a masterpiece. I could read it over and over and still not unravel  all the nuances. What makes it more impressive is this was McCullers's first novel, written at age 23 and now ranked by the Modern Library as one of the Top 100 Books of the 20th Century.

Clearly, the author's own passion was writing her heart out in the short time she had, dying at 50 after a life plagued by illness. And this book, the only of her novels I've yet read, has waltzed itself into one of my favorite books of all time.

For more on the author:

Carson McCullers Project

 

"I live with the people I create and it has always made my essential loneliness less keen."

– Carson McCullers


Bleak House, Various and sundry.

My hands were itching to talk books with you all week but my wishes were thwarted due to a Typepad glitch. Seems the goodly blogging platform had quite a taste for all things Bluestalking. Not only would it not let me save new posts, it ate the last two I wrote as well and of course I hadn't backed them up because nothing like this has happened in forever. And I hope it had galloping indigestion to match my level of irritation.

Appealing to them via Twitter did me no good, a tactic that's served me well in the resolution of other consumer complaints, most recently in the replacement of a brand new sofa with a mangled underside. If there's one thing you never want it's a mangled underside and I was certainly having no part of that, especially when it's literally just been brought through the door. The store refused to replace it, offering instead to "fix" it. Unacceptable. Telling over a thousand followers of my woes got immediate attention. The store tweeted me within minutes and I had a phone call to schedule a re-delivery/switch the next business day. Now that is customer service, even if I had to lean on them to get it. Let them push me around? I think not.

That explains, in more detail than you needed, my relative internet silence over the past few days. But today I'm having another go, cautiously optimistic my computer won't blow up or my underside become mangled. If it does, I'm relying on all of you to Tweet it to the world.

 

In Progress:

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Yes, yes I was supposed to have finished it for last Wednesday's book discussion but that didn't happen. It was nearly impossible reading Dickens at the galumphing pace required, but luck was with me and no one else save our brave facilitator had finished, either. In fact, I'd gotten the furthest of us all, save the one person who finished but was unable to attend. Victory! Well, of sorts.

Consensus was the book was very, very long. A wise conclusion considering how much paper is between the covers. As to the story itself, opinion was a bit more mixed. Keeping all gazillion characters and plotlines straight proved a difficulty not worth the effort for some, roughly half I would say. One gentleman, after reading only the first few pages, saw fit to pick up the Cliff Notes instead, eschewing the original for the shortcut. What's discouraging is he seemed to have as good a grip on things as I did, having finished roughly 85%. Then again, he wasn't obliged to read the vast quantity of words with which I grappled. So there.

 

Bleakhousecliffnotes

We spent an awful lot of time asking each other, "What was the name of the _____ family's friend's servant?" and trying to untangle everyone with a similar name to another character. Partly because of this, if you haven't read Bleak House (or have but still aren't sure exactly what was happening) it's almost impossible spoiling the plot for you. The question would be, which plot are you even talking about, since there are so many. Of course they all funnel into the main plot regarding Esther Summerson (and cousins Richard and Ada), Lady Dedlock and the ongoing court case Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, in one way or other. It's always baffling how Dickens will manage to bring it all together by the end, yet always he does, minus a few characters who wander off but in some ways that's for the best, for the sanity of the reader.

 

So, what does BH say about Dickens and the Victorians? Jarndyce v. Jarndyce illustrates opinion about lawyers and court cases hasn't changed at all since the Victorians. Lawyers are generally nasty, self-serving creatures and court cases convoluted and dull. Shock horror!

As for the innocents, they so often suffer, sometimes losing their lives in unjust and unnecessary circumstances. Innocents include those with mental disabilities, children and those from the lower social order in general. BH is particularly sharp in the anger it directs at do-gooders, Mrs. Jellyby being a prime example, the woman so concerned with a village in Africa she doesn't notice anything happening in her own home. And I do mean anything. And Mr. Jellyby! If there's a better example of deep clinical depression in all of Victorian fiction I haven't read it.

Poor Mr. Jellyby, forever sitting with his head against a wall.

So, what of charity, to Dickens? Certainly not much of merit, extending past temporarily alleviating the suffering of those at hand. But even in that case, using Jo and his illness as an example, charity can backfire, leaving the best-intentioned permanently blemished. Going out of your way to help take care of your fellow wo/man doesn't fare well at all in BH.

Dickens has been called out before re: his depiction of women as either saints or whores. BH is filled with examples of saints – the "angels" in the house – with only one true "whore" in Lady Dedlock. She pays the price of her transgressions, in cruel ways. To be fair, so does the man who was the other half of that relationship, but he's largely shrouded in mystery. We know how he dies – destitute and alone – and there's a suggestion it was intentional, but Dickens shows us every bit of Lady Dedlock's agony.

 

Ladydedlock

The saint above all saints in BH is Esther Summerson, a character who may – I'm warning you – drive you barking mad by mid-book. She's exaggeratedly kind (and I really don't think it's intented ironically). Her interaction with Ada made me feel vaguely nauseous. There's friendship, then there's over the top and saccharine. But even the saints don't escape some very steep trials.

 

 

Did Dickens hate women? Oh, I don't know. There's lots written about it. I can tell you he treated his wife with callous indifference and almost surely had an affair with a beautiful actress. He also had a sort of crush on his dead sister-in-law, practically throwing himself in her grave when she died. Not sure what all that proves, if anything.

Ask me more later in the year. I'll know better by then.

Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, BBC – 2005

 

Dickens at 200

Serendipitous Bleak House was the January read in our classics book group, considering the Inimitable's 200th birthday is coming up February 7th.

Martin Chuzzlewit is next up for me, in my personal celebration of all things Dickens. MC and the recent Claire Tomalin bio. This will be my first foray into MC and I know nothing about it – one reason I'm looking forward to the experience.

After MC I honestly can't say I'll have the luxury to fit in another Dickens novel in 2012, since I am attacking Ulysses starting Bloomsday this year (June 6). I'm allowing the rest of the year to read that one properly, relying heavily on true Irishman Frank Delaney and his podcasts on Ulysses to minimize my inevitable confusion.

To celebrate properly I'd need to take a trip to Dublin. I'm cheating myself by not doing so and I think I'll put that on my official Bucket List. There's a pub out there, somewhere, that has a stool with my name on it, and a few barrels of Guinness to get together a good drinking game to go along with a public reading of the book. One swallow for every swear should have me under the table in less than two hours. Change that to every sentence longer than a page and I'll be out in half that time. Of course it's likely I'd wake up with a shamrock – or worse – drawn on my forehead and my hair matted in who knows what.

Yes, onto the Bucket List it goes.

 

 

Bloomsdaydublin

From an article in The Guardian

 

 

A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry

Heartrendingly gorgeous and I'm in no hurry to finish, as Sebastian Barry hasn't written all that many novels. I do so love his writing and this in no way involves a massive crush of an adolescent nature, mixed with a great appreciation of his lyricism and unfailingly gorgeous writing.

I'm further along but reluctantly so. It's difficult reading about the horrors of war and I've grown so fond of Willie Dunne it's hard seeing inhumane events through his eyes. Right now I'm just past the point at which he realizes his last letter offended his father, though he's not positive why. And as for the lovely Gretta… I just don't trust that one. Great looking or not, I have a feeling Willie could have chosen better than herself with the green eyes.

 

 

Samsavage

Author Sam Savage

 

Glass by Sam Savage – Currently reading for review.

I have loved Sam Savage's writing since his first novel, Firmin:

"Savage's sentimental debut concerns the coming-of-age of a well-read rat in 1960s Boston. In the basement of Pembroke Books, a bookstore on Scollay Square, Firmin is the runt of the litter born to Mama Flo, who makes confetti of Moby-Dick and Don Quixote for her offspring's cradle."

Publishers Weekly

I interviewed him following the publication of that novel, now that I think of it. Such a dear man.

Glass is about a widow asked to write a new introduction for the re-issue of her late husband's book but actually more about her life, memories and adjustment to being alone. What's sweetly poignant is there's a rat in this novel, as well, though the standard mammal who isn't able to read and express himself in words. Loads more than this is poignant but it was the rat that really got to me.

Between Firmin and Glass there was The Cry of the  Sloth:

"Living on a diet of fried Spam, vodka, sardines, cupcakes, and Southern Comfort, Andrew Whittaker is slowly being sucked into the morass of middle age. A negligent landlord, small-time literary journal editor, and aspiring novelist, he is—quite literally— authoring his own downfall. From his letters, diary entries, and fragments of fiction, to grocery lists and posted signs, this novel is a collection of everything Whittaker commits to paper over the course of four critical months."

– from Amazon.com

I love books that rip out my heart, dice it to bits and toss it onto a plate. Even better are those with a wicked dark sense of humor involving books, readers and/or writers. Sam Savage manages to hit my soft spots in every, single book he writes. He's not nearly as well known as he should be.

Read him. Do.

 

Restoring Grace by Katie Fforde – Reading for librarian group.

Nope, I'm not one for conventional romance and my last reading round up covered the reasons I chose this when forced to read outside my genre comfort zone: British, ancient home and single women living together, making a go of it sans men. Oh, and the Irishman, coming to woo the owner of the ancient home…

 Shush.

 

Losing It: In Which An Aging Professor Laments His Shrinking Brain by William Ian Miller

From the good people at Yale U.P. and it's basically about what it says. It makes a good NF read to pick up while the rest of the family's watching t.v.  I can read NF with noise going on around me but not fiction. Not without a rise in blood pressure that's not worth it, I should say.

 

Coming Soon:

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers – next read for classics group.

Love this book, can't wait to re-read, so you know it must be a heart-ripper. Also planning to squeeze in McCullers's unfinished autobiography, an Amazon purchase I allowed myself last week, though my fondness for the Amazon Daily Deal eBook has me well on my way toward addiction. Funny how I managed to side-step making an actual resolution about book buying this year. Or, not so much funny as frightening.

 

Reviews:

In between reads for BookBrowse, LibraryJournal and Booklist. Then there are the various and sundry review books, otherwise known as The Great Horde, including Barry Unsworth's latest The Quality of Mercy.

Also checked out from the library: How it All Began by Penelope Lively and Secrets of the Sea by Nicholas Shakespeare. Re: the latter, right now I can't recall what it's about or why I ordered it. Must have had some good reason. Funny, the ILL books that wind up on my desk are usually of this ilk. I either can't remember requesting them or why.

 

As usual, I'm obviously bereft of great reading material. All my time is wasted on breathing, eating and sleeping until such time as I can find my way back to reading. They say Americans are reading less and less every year, though whether that includes Tweets and McDonald's game pieces I don't know.

I smell another government study that needs funding! Perhaps I'll drop past Twitter and mention it.

 

 

Twitterbird