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.
I can’t play chess, either, despite the considerable efforts of every man I’ve ever dated.
“Sometimes in the evenings the mutes would play chess. Singer had always greatly enjoyed this game, and years before, he tried to teach it to Antonopoulos. At first his friend could not be interested in the reasons for moving the various pieces about on the board. Then Singer began to keep a bottle of something good under the table to be taken out after each lesson. The Greek never got on to the erratic movements of the knights and the sweeping mobility of the Queens, but he learned to make a few set, opening moves. He preferred the white pieces and would not play if the black ones were given to him. After the first moves, Singer worked out the game himself while his friend looked on drowsily. If Singer made brilliant attacks on his own men, so that in the end the black king was killed, Antonopoulos was always very proud and pleased.”
Sparknotes (I always read the Sparknotes after I finish any kind of book that might listed there, it is quite often as close as I get to conversation about them) says that the chapter is indicative of the one sided nature of Singer’s friendship with Antonopoulos. I do not know that this is true. It is true that Antonopoulos is limited, and Singer is not, but I think of how Antonopoulos must be trying, as hard as he can try, to make his friend less alone. And, as it almost never does, it works. He is there, and he is appreciative, and that is more than most of us do for one another. They provide one another a kind of sanctuary, which is a good word, in every way. Maybe that is all we are supposed to do. We are supposed to provide one another sanctuary however we can.
At the end – well, at the end, I will not spoil it for you. It is a 13 page long chapter, and you can read it yourself.
Suffice to say, the end reminded me of a statue that I think is the saddest statue in all of Manhattan. I live near the Polish Consulate, and outside, there is a statue of Jan Karski sitting on a bench playing chess. He is playing by himself and staring off as if waiting for a friend to come back. Every time I walk by the consulate, I am tricked into thinking it is a real person, because I am an idiot with bad peripheral vision. “How nice that two old men are sitting on a bench playing chess,” I think, and then I realize that, being a statue, Jan Karski’s friend is never coming. He will be waiting forever for someone who is not coming, or not coming back. It seems unutterably unfair that they chose that moment to capture, a moment where he will always be looking off into the distance waiting for someone’s return. I hate that statue because it is like most of us, I suppose. I don’t think hell is other people, so much as hell means always remembering other people.
One of these days, I am going to fashion Jan Karski a friend out of Play-doh and prop it up by his side. I will name that friend “Godot.”
I’d avoid the Polish consulate more if it weren’t so near the Starbucks.
And then it was morning, so I went to work, fairly tired. There are infinite spaces between all of us, and everything aches, and no one will make it out of this alive, but you still go to work. You go, I think, in part, because, at best, it is one way of building a sanctuary for other people. There are miles to go before we sleep, after all.
Picture via The Heart is a Lonely Hunter