The Gentry Reader: Stories of longing

Sometimes we all need a helping hand when perusing the vast expanses and endless possibilities of the local bookstore. It’s not always easy to make a smart choice when each and every publication boasts quotes of “Brilliant!” and “A modern classic”. Thus, Gentry have devised an informed guide to some of the most provocative and arousing books to  give you endless nights of literary pleasure.

This week we look at those crushing, heart-wrenching stories that concern themselves with longing. This most beguiling of emotions is a staple of many a great novel, traversing the borderlands of romance and tragedy, a nomadic sentiment exiled from passion.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (Carson McCullers, 1940)

Carson McCullers’ typically beautiful (sorrowful) tale is set in a small Georgia town in the late 1930s. At its heart is John Singer, who lodges in the Kelly house after his fellow deaf friend, Spiros Antonapoulos, is banished to an asylum. The pleasant Singer takes befriends four of the town’s misguided misfits — Mick Kelly, a lonely teenage girl who longs to become a trained musician; Benedict Mady Copeland, the town’s black doctor, thus an outcast by default;  Jake Blount, a mechanic (and socialist alcoholic); and Biff Brannon, the muted and pensive owner of the local café. They all regularly visit the amiable Singer, telling him about the tumult and pain in their lives.

Each lonesome soul assumes that only the equally afflicted Singer can understand their predicament, although Singer reveals nothing of his true self to them. He does, however, miss Antonapoulos dearly, saving his hard-earned money to buy a movie projector for his troubled friend. They all take advantage of Singer to some degree and it is not until the novel’s startling climax do any of these lonely souls fully appreciate Singer’s importance in their lives.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a definitive tale of longing and desperation, perfect for the long hot summer nights.

Moby Dick (Herman Melville, 1851)

The infamous story tells the adventures of the wandering sailor Ishmael and his voyage on the whaling ship Pequod, commanded by the monomaniacal Captain Ahab. Ishmael soon learns that Ahab seeks one specific whale more than life itself, Moby Dick, a quasi-mythical white whale of tremendous size and ferocity. Only a few whaling ships know of  Moby Dick, and fewer yet have encountered him. In a previous encounter, the whale destroyed Ahab’s boat and bit off his leg. Ahab intends to exact revenge and spear the whale, putting and end to his torment.

Melville’s story is one of the most particular and powerful stories ever told, so complete and monstrous is it in its vision. The enclosed world of the Pequod is meticulously recreated, an horrific microcosm heading toward oblivion. Ahab is the grandest of creations, alongside Conrad’s hideous Colonel Kurtz and Jack London’s devilish Wolf Larsen. The tale itself illustrates themes so grand as the limits of knowledge, the deceptiveness of fate and the insatiable lust for revenge. However, Melville’s tale is also obsessed with the deep longing to understand and confront the fears and wonders that lurk beneath the surface. A terrific and thrilling take like no other, Moby Dick is the book you wish you had read, even as you turn the final, brilliant page.

Lolita (Vladmir Nabokov, 1955)

The shocks that Lolita offers are not only ethical or moral. Humbert Humbert kidnaps and seduces his fourteen-year-old stepdaughter, Dolores Haze; estranges his victim from her family and friends and relinquishes her of her childhood; conceives one murder and successfully carries out another. However, how much can we believe of what we read? There are too many coincidences and wishes fulfilled in this warped vision. Memory and imagination mingles in the indulgent reminiscences. One feels that the author, whose powers of control and fabulation are seemingly without bounds, is toying with what the reader finds outrageous and unacceptable.

Considered somewhat unsavoury, even today, Lolita is a masterpiece of psychological fiction. Humbert Humbert’s overt needs and lust are presented nakedly before the reader in an act of cruel self-examination. It is hard to think of a more intelligent, sophisticatedly constructed tale than this. Lolita is a fiction within a fiction, where only the central desire and longing can be considered authentic.

Dracula (Bram Stoker, 1897)

The classic tale of repressed sexuality needs little introduction. Who does not know the basic plot in some form? It is one of the most adapted and filmed texts, reworked and reimagined endlessly. Jonathan Harker’s visit to Count Dracula’s decaying, Dracula’s seduction of Lucy and romancing of Mina, the disgusting slavish Renfield, the deathly ghost ship Demeter, the wild vampire-hunter Van Helsing – all of these elements have been disseminated into the public domain in one form or another again and again.

Yet, what remains, what always resonates, is the longing and desire at the heart of the tale. The sexual thrill that pimples the flesh of the characters, the eternal yearning of Dracula for his lost love, the lusty-appetite of the corseted Victorian woman, the need to bleed and taste. Bram Stoker forged an unforgettable and captivating tale in the fires of the human spirit in this wonderfully inventive novel. Told primarily through journal entries and letters, the sheer ingenuity is amazing.

If you think you don’t need to read Dracula, if you think you are already familiar with it, think again. Stoker’s book, on repeated reading, retains its seductive bite.

The Go-Between (LP Hartley, 1953)

The story takes place in 1900, and is told fifty years later by the elderly Leo Colston, a lonesome man who has spent his life cataloguing books. The wheat fields glisten in the English sunshine and the temperature burns when the thirteen-year-old Leo is invited by a classmate to spend part of the summer at Brandham Hall. There, a poor boy among the wealthy, he is put at his ease by his friend Marcus’s older sister, Marian, with whom he quietly falls in love. As the days go by, Leo comes to feel increasingly wary of the intimidating lady of the house, Mrs. Maudsley; to admire the kindly and easygoing Viscount Trimingham, who was wounded in the Boer War; and to identify with a muscular young tenant farmer named Ted Burgess. Above all, he rejoices with almost pagan delight in the hot weather and the fertile landscape. Then, one afternoon, Ted Burgess cautiously asks Leo to take a letter without telling anyone — to Marian. The reader, of course, guesses the truth immediately. But Leo does not. Slowly the sensitive boy finds himself increasingly confused by complex emotions and conflicting obligations. As he carries messages back and forth between the illicit lovers, the summer advances: croquet on the lawn, visits to the local church, the big Hall-versus-Town cricket match, a concert, roughhousing with Marcus, the prospect of a ball, the announcement of Marian’s engagement to Trimingham.

This slow-burning, perfectly crafted tale swells with a muted, understated longing at its tortured core. Hartley’s book is a classic of quiet desperation silent regret.

If you cannot wait to run your eyes over the books above, check out JD Salinger’s remarkable short story ‘The Laughing Man’ online, perhaps the greatest short fiction of all time and a wonderfully crafted evocation of a longing for youth, the past and the resolution of a tormentingly compelling narrative.

If you have any particular recommendations, do let us know in the comments section.

Mr Paolo Cabrelli

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