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Carson McCullers - The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter Legolas Send a noteboard - 20/06/2011 10:27:05 PM
I'm sure we've all read some books, at some point during our education, that seemed weird and not particularly good when we were made to read them - but suddenly became a whole lot more interesting through the analysis and reflection that followed, thanks to some talented teacher. The opposite may also be the case, but let's keep things positive, shall we? :P For me, something like that happened with the first of Carson McCullers' books I read, The Ballad of the Sad Café. It certainly didn't wow me at first, but after analyzing it in a surprisingly interesting group work, I came to like it rather well, even if I had to read it in translation.

As a result, McCullers' most famous book The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter has long been on my to-read list, and a few weeks ago I finally got around to buying it. As it turns out, the book is eerily similar to The Ballad of the Sad Café, so it felt quite familiar. Not quite as cryptic, which can be good or bad depending on your point of view, but on the whole probably a better book, alright.

Carson McCullers (or Lula Carson Smith, to take a leaf from Camilla's book and go with birth names) was born in Columbus, Georgia in 1917, and published this novel in 1940, aged twenty-three, having turned to writing after her delicate health had prematurely ended her hopes of a career in music. It's always both a blessing and a curse for a young writer to have your first book be a huge (critical) success, I suppose, but it certainly is an incredible achievement to have written this book at that age.

McCullers' focus, in this book like in her other one I read, and I've no doubt in the rest of her work, is on the people who stand apart from society somehow, the loners, the disabled, the "freaks". The working title of this novel was "The Mute", after the deaf and mute protagonist, John Singer. Singer lives in an unnamed town in the American South in the late 1930s, where he becomes surprisingly popular for his ability to look wise and say nothing. Four characters - a somewhat eccentric and philosophical café owner, a music-loving teenager girl, a drunken loner with Communist sympathies and a rather pedantic black doctor who wants to improve the lot of his race - fall under Singer's thrall, each considering him a kindred spirit and the only one they can talk to. Around this simple enough central structure, McCullers builds a solid plot, though as one might expect, the characters and the themes are probably more important than the plot in this book.

The strongest storyline, in my opinion but I suspect many would agree, is the one with the black doctor, Benedict Copeland. The doctor is a tragic character, a highly educated man living in a time and a place where extremely few of his black peers were remotely near his level - and his white peers were cold at best. And, worse, a father whose dreams of raising his children to be highly educated professionals like himself, as his personal contribution to the improvement of the fate of the "Negro", ended in bitter disappointment and seriously strained relations with them. McCullers' novel is certainly nuanced in its treatment of the racial issues, and offers an interesting if cursory look at the different views among the black community on how to improve their fate, a quarter of a century before the end of segregation. And though the novel is not a political one at its heart, several other politico-economic topics are dealt with deftly, as characters reflect on the Depression, the New Deal and the fascism in Europe.

The central theme of the book is probably best described as passions, in the widest sense of the word, and how they can drive people apart instead of together. In that sense, the title certainly is well-chosen, even if it wasn't McCullers' original choice. As one might expect, the result is not a particularly cheerful novel, but the fairly open ending still leaves most characters with a fair shot at happiness, if they can take it.

I had high expectations for this book, and it easily met them. There have been some posts here by people looking for good American novels, good Southern novels and good westerns; the third category I'm afraid is even more of a stretch here than it was for To Kill a Mockingbird (sorry, Camilla :P ), but this certainly is a fine specimen of the former two categories. Highly recommended.
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Carson McCullers - The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter - 20/06/2011 10:27:05 PM 6049 Views
That sounds very interesting. I want to read it. - 26/06/2011 10:27:39 PM 888 Views
- 26/06/2011 10:43:28 PM 726 Views

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