I’ve been waiting a long time to read The Heart is A Lonely Hunter. I’m sure we all have books lingering on the bookshelves that we are waiting to read. You know how it is. You pick them up every so often and ruffle through a few pages, so the typeface can breath, as though there are semicolons in there politely asking to see light, like the kids in that Ray Bradbury story. You skim these books and say, “well, one day it will be the day to read this, but today is not the day.” Then you put them back on the shelf, and the semicolons live in darkness for another year or so. You feel slightly guilty about this, but semicolons are notoriously resilient.
You do this not because you do not actually want to read the book, although there are many books like that. You do it because you know that sometime you will be in a state where the words will hit you directly in the chest like Norman Mailer’s pen-knife. You know you should wait for that time. George R.R. Martin, funnily, says that is the one thing we say to death – “not today” – and maybe it is like this. Maybe these books that we wait for are a little like death, insofar as we know they are an adventure we are not yet ready for.
Yesterday, around four o’clock in the morning, it was the day for The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. For me. Probably not for you. I can’t tell you when your appointment with books is any more than I could tell you your appointment with death.
It was the right time, but I did not read much of it. I read the first chapter. I made myself a cup of tea and toast with honey. I read the first chapter again. And I kept reading it until morning.
It is about two mutes, Singer and Antonopoulos, and, as the first sentence runs “In the town there were two mutes and they were always together.”
You would think this would be a difficult prospect, this muteness, but it doesn’t seem to be.
“These cotton mills were big and flourishing, and most of the workers in the town were poor. Often in the faces along the streets there was the desperate look of hunger and loneliness. But the two mutes were not lonely at all.”
What a thing it must be not to be lonely. I read this and thought, “oh, gee, I wish I were mute.”
I really do believe that they are not lonely, or as not lonely as it is possible to be. Partly because I trust that Carson McCullers is not a liar, and they are her creatures. But also because there is a moment where, every day, before he goes to work, Singer lays his hand solemnly upon his friend’s arm, and this seems as though it might be enough. It might be much better than all the misunderstandings and quarrels and total misinterpretations that are patched together to make up daily life for most of us. All of those terrible things are gotten to through words. If Singer and Antonopoulos do not understand one another perfectly, well, who does? They understand what is important.
There is a line by Tennyson’s In Memoriam that reads:
For this alone on Death I wreakThe wrath that garners in my heart;He put our lives so far apartWe cannot hear each other speak.
And that seems true. Many conversations, really, are just a monologue performed in front of someone, or a kind of play where you are constantly preparing your next line. This isn’t true all the time, but it is true a great deal of the time. This isn’t bad, of course. It’s quite fun to look at discourse as a kind of verbal chess match which you can win.
There might be a lot more to be gotten out of sitting in silence with someone and holding their hands. At old age homes, you sometimes see that, when one member of a couple is clearly ready to go off on that last adventure. Their spouse sometimes holds their hand, and it always seems very gentle, as though they were holding something very rare and precious. That is not something healthy, quick minded people do very much of, perhaps because we can’t, not for long anyway.
But then. At their best, words can make us feel like someone else is holding our hand, very carefully, as though it were a baby bird.
No, I couldn’t be mute. I love words too much, and you surely do, too. I remember digging through the dictionary as a kid muttering “that’s a good one” as though I’d pulled a particularly plump specimen of earthworm out of the dirt. There are so many good ones. I could try being mute, but at some point I’d begin muttering, as much to myself as anybody. Fichu. Demimondaine. Belletrist (this may be my favorite word). Sesquipedalian.