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domenica 4 dicembre 2011

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers

When I got this book I knew nothing about Carson McCullers. I was just very intrigued by the plot of the novel, and I was not disappointed. On the contrary, I'm determined to read other works by the same author.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is set in a small town in the South of the US, and events take place within one year, between two hot summers just before World War 2. It is a complex book, and the amazing thing is that Carson McCullers was only 23 when she wrote it. Her sensitivity and understanding of human loneliness are unbelievably deep. The novel is about people whose lives accidentally intermingle, and about the changes and feelings their encounter brings about. It is also about life in the south of the US back in the 30's, when racism was still part of everyday life and when rumours of the Nazi horrors were starting to flutter about. The book starts describing the lives of John Singer and Spiros Antonapoulos, the only two deaf mutes living in town. They share a flat, walk to work together, walk back home together, never mix with other people. Their existences unfold following such regular patterns that they feel more like rituals rather than plain habits. Singer works in a jewelry and Antonapoulos in a candy shop. They both work at the back of the shops, one repairing things and the other preparing candies. Singer is very devoted to his friend, he speaks a lot to him with his hands, using the sign language. Antonapoulos is a fat, dull guy who hardly listens, only cares about eating, and never seems to react to Singer's attentions. He's a rather annoying character. At some point, after having to diet for a while due to bad health, he freaks out, doing very rude and embarrassing things, so he is taken to an asylum. Singer is left alone.
He starts to wander the streets late at night, and even moves out, unable to inhabit the same place he had shared with his beloved friend (Antonapoulos is described as such an unpleasant and irritating person that it feels very strange that anyone can like him so much, but still). Singer moves to a boarding house run by the Kelly family: mother, father (based on the author's father), and many children: Bill, Hazel, Etta, Mick, Bubber and baby Ralph. Mick is a twelve-year-old girl who dreams about composing music and who is going through the brittle time between childhood and early adolescence. She's a tender mixture of child-like attitudes and big thoughts and dreams. She's without a doubt my favourite character in the book.
Singer finds a small restaurant nearby, the New York Café, and decides to have his meals there every day. Mr Brannon, the owner of the café, is somehow attracted to Singer, which is basically what happens to everyone who meets him. The novel is about the struggles of four of these people: Mick, Mr Brannon, Doctor Copeland, an idealistic African American doctor, and Jake Blount, an alcoholic labour agitator. As time passes, their lives will be changed forever by their encounter with Singer. I won't go into the very details because I hope people will read the book. I will just say that I think the main theme of the novel is the impossibility to communicate one's deepest feelings and needs. All the characters lay their souls bare to Singer, share with him thoughts they would never think to share with anyone, and feel desperately close to him, as if they were sharing the most precious secret. Singer can make them feel in peace, can soothe their troubled minds with his silence and calm smile. The fact is that they unconsciously interpret his silence as they please, while Singer is just puzzled. He is simply trying to fill the time gaps between his rare visits to Antonapoulos at the asylum.
If, in the beginning, it seems that Singer's presence is positive, in the end we understand it isn't, because the people who were attracted to him are left alone with the longings and struggles his presence has triggered.
Carson McCullers is great at creating characters and at calling into being atmospheres and minute states of mind, those sharp feelings that strike us like painful revelations, yet are too quick and sheer to be grasped. Here are some passages:

The place was still not crowded - it was the hour when men who have been up all night meet those who are freshly wakened and ready to start a new day. The sleepy waitress was serving both beer and coffee. There was no noise or conversation, for each person seemed to be alone. The mutual distrust between the men who were just awakened and those who were ending a long night gave everyone a feeling of estrangement.

That was when she realized about her Dad. It wasn't like she was learning a new fact - she had understood it all along in every way except with her brain. Now she just suddenly knew that she knew about her Dad. He was lonesome and he was an old man. Because none of the kids went to him for anything and because he didn't earn much money he felt like he was cut off from the family. And in his lonesomeness he wanted to be close to one of his kids - and they were all so busy that they didn't know it. He felt like he wasn't much real use to anybody. [...] That night she sat down in a chair by his bench and they talked a while. He talked about accounts and expenses and how things would have been if he had just managed in a different way. He drank beer, and once the tears came to his eyes and he snuffled his nose against his shirt-sleeve. She stayed with him a good while that night. Even if she was in an awful hurry. Yet for some reason she couldn't tell him about the things in her mind - about the hot, dark nights.

Carson McCullers was born in Georgia in 1917. Her father was a watch maker and jeweler of French descent. He gave her her first type writer when she was 15. She started taking piano lesson when she was 10. Her grown-up life was rather hard. At a young age she began experiencing strokes, so that by the age of 31 the left side of her body was completely paralized. She suffered from depression and had problems with alcohol. She married the aspiring writer Reeves McCullers in 1937, divorcing him in 1941. They remarried in 1945 and were together for some more troubled years, during which she attempted suicide. Reeves tried to drag her into a double suicide but she fled. He killed himself in 1953 with an overdose of sleeping pills, in a hotel room in Paris. She died in 1967 after a brain hemorrhage.

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