Sunday 24 February 2013

Returning from a long trip to the Salinas Valley...

East of Eden

John Steinbeck

It’s not often in a realistic novel that you find the author turning up as one of the characters. But in this saga about farming in the Salinas Valley at the turn of the century John Steinbeck is tracing his own family history. The plot focuses on two families: the Trasks and the Hamiltons. The poor Hamiltons, on a patch of earth with no water and 6 (I think) children, struggle by somewhat despite the incapability of the father Samuel Hamilton to earn any money. The Trask family, one brother Adam moving out to the Salinas Valley in the course of the novel leaving his hard childhood and scary brother behind, continues with twin boys, Caleb and Aron (biblical reference obvious).

Now I read Steinbeck’s most depressing work The Grapes of Wrath a few years ago, and really enjoyed the vision and the detail, but it is such a terrible, horrible novel about humans and greed. In contrast East of Eden has it’s horrible moments, but it is much more rounded. There is young love and exploitation, the severity of the land and the beginnings of accepting multiculturalism. Some people find a problem with Steinbeck’s preaching narrator; personally, I like it when the author lays out their cards as honestly as he does – you know just whose side he is on and don’t have to guess!

The language can also be perfect:

“It was a deluge of a winter in the Salinas Valley, wet and wonderful. The rains fell gently and soaked in and did not freshet. The feed was deep in January, and in February the hills were fat with grass and the coats of the cattle looked tight and sleek. In March the soft rain continued, and each storm waited courteously until its predecessor sank beneath the ground. Then warmth flooded the valley and the earth burst into bloom – yellow and blue and gold.”
(Opening of chapter 25)

One of the reasons I wanted to review East of Eden on here was to have the chance to revel in it a bit further. It’s only when I typed out that passage that I noticed all the subtleties of Steinbeck’s syntax. It can be so easy to describe something in prose in a way that means nothing because you’ve invested too many descriptors and no feeling for how a reader will read your sentences. For me, this passage is the opposite because it doesn’t look like it tries hard, but then you find such beauties as “each storm waited courteously until its predecessor sank beneath the ground”.

Because it is a family saga, the plot spirals around somewhat and sometimes could be accused of being overtly sensational. I won’t go into too many details here, with the hope that some of you might still read it, but the focus on the brothels in the second half of the book definitely descends down that path. That’s not to say Steinbeck does a bad job at it – I wonder if he were writing today whether he would have learnt his craft as a script writer on Eastenders or telenovellas? The character of Cathy/Kate is fascinating though, and well developed during the course of the novel. She clearly holds a great deal of power over John Steinbeck:

“I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents. Some you can see, misshapen and horrible, with huge heads or tiny bodies; some are born with no arms, no legs, some with three arms, some with tails or mouths in odd places. They are accidents and no one’s fault, as used to be thought. Once they were considered the visible punishments for concealed sins.
And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born? The face and body may be perfect, but if a twisted gene or a malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul?"
(Opening of chapter 8)

This prose may feel outdated, but the theme is still prevalent today. How can seemingly ordinary people act in ways completely alien to the majority of society? Is it genetic or is it learnt? What are they lacking? Steinbeck clearly comes down here on the side of genetical malformation – i.e. it is nobody’s fault. But it’s a thin line between that and the nature/nurture debate.

I hope I’ve given you a taste of what is so enjoyable about East of Eden. Admittedly it doesn’t have my favourite chapter in Steinbeck in it, the description of the tortoise on the side of the highway from The Grapes of Wrath, but the characters are its unforgettable part. I wouldn’t know which to name as my favourites; they are all so three dimensional – Sam Hamilton, Adam Trask, Tom Hamilton, Aron Trask, Caleb Trask, Charles Trask, Lee, Cathy/Kate.

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