Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2008 (1940)

And freedom is only the right to contribute. (180-81)

The title of this book imprinted itself on my subconscious decades ago.  Something haunting about it.  But I didn’t register that it was a novel, or that Carson McCullers was the author.  Then recently it tapped me on the shoulder and asked to be read.

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This symphony grew slow like a big flower in her mind. (145)

Set in the American South in the 1930s, it grapples with the immediacy of segregation and intolerance close to home, shadowed by the rise of Fascism on a distant continent; another manifestation of segregation and intolerance.

McCullers combines a cartographer’s precision with a rounded generosity to map a great range of human emotions and thoughts, expressions and relationships.  This acuity combined with kindness is what must have prompted the writer Richard Wright to refer to her ‘astonishing humanity’.  The main characters are woven together through their interactions with the protagonist John Singer, a deaf-mute who manages to speak to all of them.

All the more astonishing is that McCullers was 23 when she wrote this book.  I am already humbled by the best novelists, but to have mastered such nuance in the human soul so young multiplies the achievement.  Added to which she dealt with serious illness from an early age, coping with three strokes before she was 30.

Of the many lovable, complex characters, my favourite is the girl Mick, with a bounding imagination and spirit, growing up in an environment where opportunities to give expression to her creativity were limited.   The book’s introduction poses it as a choice to be made by Mick, a choice of which she doesn’t seem consciously aware: ‘Will Mick be defeated by life on the costume jewellery counter at Woolworth’s, or will she hold on to her dreams and remain defiant?’ (xxvi)

The journey to that decision includes insights into her ‘inside room’ – the part of her mind where she is safe to give full scope to her dreams.

She sat down on the steps and laid her head on her knees. She went into the inside room. With her it was like there was two places – the inside room and the outside room. School and the family and the things that happened every day were in the outside room.  Mister Singer was in both rooms. Foreign countries and plans and music were in the inside room. The songs she thought about where there. And the symphony. When she was by herself in this inside room the music she had heard that night after the party would come back to her.  This symphony grew slow like a big flower in her mind. During the day sometimes, or when she had just waked up in the morning, a new part of the symphony would suddenly come to her. Then she would have to go into the inside room and listen to it many times and try to join it into the parts of the symphony she remembered. The inside room was a very private place. (145)

Half a century before Sony launched the Walkman, and writing this a month after the world’s longest land tunnel was completed at Gotthard, Mick was thinking about the things she would invent:

She would invent little tiny radios the size of a green pea that people could carry around and stick in their ears. Also flying machines people could fasten on their backs like knapsacks and go zipping all over the world. After that she would be the first one to make a large tunnel through the world to China, and people could go down in big balloons. Those were the first things she would invent. They were already planned. (34-35)

Not surprising that the first of her planned inventions was for listening to music.  Music entered this girl with no mediation from education, and fused with the maker in her.

But she had just drawn whatever came into her head without reason – and in her heart it didn’t give her near the same feeling that music did.  Nothing was really as good as music.  Mick knelt down on the floor and quickly lifted the top of the big hatbox. Inside was a cracked ukelele strung with two violin strings, a guitar string, and a banjo string. The crack on the back of the ukelele had been neatly mended with sticking plaster and the round hole in the middle was covered by a piece of wood. The bridge of a violin held up the strings at the end and some sound-holes had been carved on either side. Mick was making herself a violin. (43)

Hanging around outside the house of a wealthy family, she overhears Beethoven on the radio. Her whole-sense listening and its effect on her is one of the finest descriptions of how music, or any art, can touch a person. It’s a long quotation which you’ll find below – something to read slowly with your coffee, before you turn, or return, to listening to the Third Symphony and then to reading the book. I read it for the first time a couple of years ago and, writing this, I want to start again; I am sure I will find further sharp and kindly insights into the human condition.

One programme came on after another, and all of them were punk.  She didn’t especially care.  She smoked and picked a little bunch of grass blades.  After a while a new announcer started talking.  He mentioned Beethoven.  She had read in the library about that musician – his name was pronouned with an a and spelled with a double e.  He was a German fellow like Mozart. When he was living he spoke in a foreign language and lived in a foreign place – like she wanted to do.  The announcer said they were going to play his third symphony.  She only half-way listened because she wanted to walk some more and she didn’t care much what they played. Then the music started. Mick raised her head and her fist went up to her throat.

How did it come? For a minute the opening balanced from one side to the other.  Like a walk or march.  Like God strutting in the night.  The outside of her was suddenly froze and only that first part of the music was hot inside her heart. She could not even hear what sounded after, but she sat there waiting and froze, with her fists tight. After a while the music came again, harder and loud.  It didn’t have anything to do with God.  This was her, Mick Kelly, walking in the day-time 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.

She could not listen good enough to hear it all.  The music boiled inside her. Which?  To hang on to certain wonderful parts and think them over so that later she would not forget – or should she let go and listen to each part that came without thinking or trying to remember?  Golly!  The whole world was this music and she could not listen hard enough.  Then at last the opening music came again, with all the different instruments bunched together for each note like a hard, tight fist that socked her in the heart. And the first part was over.

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 held tight around her legs, biting her salty knee very hard. It might have been five minutes that she listened or half the night.  The second part was black-coloured – a slow march.  Not sad, but like the whole world was dead and black and there was no use thinking back how it was before.  One of those horn kind of instruments played a sad and silver tune.  Then the music rose up angry and with excitement underneath.  And finally the black march again.

But maybe the last part of the symphony was the music she loved the best – glad and like the greatest people in the world running and springing up in a hard, free way.  Wonderful music like this was the worst hurt there could be.  The whole world was this symphony, and there was not enough of her to listen.  (107)

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.  (108)

The smell of a tune

Mick, the young girl who for me is the heart of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, has a passion for music, which she sees and smells as much as hears.

‘In her mind she could remember about six different tunes from the pieces of his she had heard.  A few of them were kind of quick and tinkling, and another was like that smell in the springtime after a rain. But they all made her somehow sad and excited at the same time.’

Source: Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2008 (1940)), p. 37

Sleep and scimitars

What a keen metaphor for the bright light piercing of shut-eye night.  ‘Then he would drop bluntly into a sleep that lasted until the morning light struck suddenly beneath his opening eyelids like a scimitar.’

Source: Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2008 (1940)), p. 14

A chattering cataract

Carson McCullers captures, or creates, an astonishing range of nuance in how people communicate, with voices, faces, bodies. ‘Talk – talk – talk. The words came out of his throat like a cataract. And the thing was that the accent he used was always changing, the kinds of words he used.  Sometimes he talked like a linthead and sometimes like a professor.’

Source: Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2008 (1940)), p. 19

The worst thirst

May you be spared such thirst, let alone any marching army. ‘God, I’m thirsty,’ Jake said. ‘I feel like the whole Russian army marched through my mouth in its stocking feet.’

Source: Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2008 (1940)), p. 51

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