Remembering Steinbeck

John Steinbeck died on this day in 1968 at the age of 66, six years after he won the Nobel Prize, which even he himself didn’t expect.

Critical scorn

When asked by a reporter whether he believed he deserved the prize, he responded, "Frankly, no,” says Robert Gottlieb. In a New York Review of Books article published in April this year, he writes about Steinbeck:

When to everyone's surprise, including his own, he won the 1962 Nobel Prize, the reaction was startlingly hostile. "Without detracting in the least from Mr. Steinbeck's accomplishments," ran a New York Times editorial, "we think it interesting that the laurel was not awarded to a writer …whose significance, influence and sheer body of work had already made a more profound impression on the literature of our age."

Of Mice and Men

But Steinbeck still sells “well over a million copies a year,” says Gottlieb, “with Of Mice and Men accounting for more than half of them. (It's short, it's easy to follow, and it's full of feeling—a perfect assignment for junior high school readers.)”

Note the words Gottlieb puts in brackets. He sounds so dismissive. But he finally has to praise the book.

It begins, as so many Steinbeck novels do, with a loving evocation of its natural setting:

“A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green…. On the valley side the water is lined with trees—willows fresh and green with every spring.”

And he loves his central characters, too, the pair of itinerant ranch hands—"bindlestiffs"—named George and Lennie. George is the smart one, the leader; Lennie is the massive semi-idiot, worshiping George, dreaming of the little bit of land they might one day own, and—his most powerful fantasy—the rabbits he might one day be able to tend and caress.

We know that this isn't going to happen, and on some level George knows it too, but he needs to believe in it as strongly as Lennie does: it's the illusion they live by. And then, catastrophe. Yes, the pathos is laid on thick; yes, everything is foreshadowed and manipulated. (Edmund Wilson called it "contrived with almost too much cleverness.") But Steinbeck's sympathy for these decent, forlorn men is so intense that it carries us along with it. Uninfected by moralizing, ingeniously if stagily constructed, and credibly populated, Of Mice and Men—far from Steinbeck's most ambitious book—is the closest he came to a fully satisfying work of art.

The snapshot here from Google Book Search shows George and Lennie’s first appearance in the book, just after Steinbeck has described the banks of the Salinas River.

Of_mice_and_men

I was moved to tears when I read the book a long time ago. Imagine Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid without the wisecracks and the horseplay. Of Mice and Men describes a relationship similar to that except that one man is totally dependent on the other.

Writer for hard times

In my younger days in Calcutta (now Kolkata), Steinbeck was popular with our parents’ generation. The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, Cannery Row, they were all popular books. While The Grapes of Wrath was considered a classic – Calcutta has always been a leftist city – East of Eden was apparently a very popular movie, too, though I have not seen it myself.

Steinbeck is relevant again today because of the economic downturn, says the Millions blog:

With Of Mice and Men (1939) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940), John Steinbeck embodied the Great Depression in fiction. It would be a small silver lining if this moment produced an epic on the order of Steinbeck…The world needs an exhaustive look at what happened in 2008 and why.

Steinbeck may suit people who like folk music – songs like This Land is Your Land, Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, Prison Trilogy…

Maybe I am over-romanticising Steinbeck. I haven’t him read him for a long time.

But I was moved by Of Mice and Men.

And a man has to have his heart in the right place to say, as Steinbeck did:

"Try to understand men. If you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and almost always leads to love."

"All war is a symptom of man's failure as a thinking animal."

"I wonder how many people I've looked at all my life and never seen."

Amit Chaudhuri on Calcutta

Real Time by Amit Chaudhuri

What a surprise! Dakkhinee, the bookstall I used to visit in my younger days in Calcutta (Kolkata), is mentioned by the Indian writer, Amit Chaudhuri, in his Real Time collection of short stories.

“The Dakkhinee Bookshop, at the turning crossing of Lansdowne Road and Rashbehari Avenue – it was really no more than a pavement bookstall,” begins the short story, Beyond Translation. “It stands even now, though with more than half its books gone, still doing business, but a shadow of its former self.’

Even in my time, it was just a hole in the wall – with a long bookshelf jutting on to the pavement from a glass bookcase built into a wall. But I used to love standing there, browsing through the Penguins and Faber and Fabers.

That’s where I used to buy the weekly New Statesman. Anthony Howard was the editor then and it used to cost six Indian rupees. The reviews by AJP Taylor, EH Carr et al and the funny First Person column by Arthur Marshall were marvellous.

The magazine had no connection with my life in Calcutta. But that was Calcutta, where people used to be insatiably curious about everything happening in the world. From Mao to Milton Friedman, Shakespeare to Brecht, Chaplin to Fellini, Plato to Krishnamurthy, every big gun had his fans.

Amit Chaudhuri, who has lived in Calcutta, lovingly describes the arty nature of the city. In the short story, Portrait of an Artist, which is autobiographical I guess, he writes:

Going to England blurred certain things and clarified others. I realised that a strange connection between this small, cold island and faraway Bengal had given rise to the small-town world of Calcutta… from a distance, I saw it gradually in perspective – a colonial small town, with its trams and taxis, unknown to, and cut off from, the rest of the world, full of a love for the romance of literature that I have not found anywhere else…

Indeed, it used to be said every Bengali writes poetry in his youth. Even the current Marxist chief minister of the state, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, is an accomplished poet who was praised by the Economist magazine last year. He must have been pleased.

Bengalis have this thing about England. I have outgrown it myself, I think. 

I wanted to review Real Time and ended up reminiscing about Calcutta!

But that is because most of the stories are set either in Calcutta or in Bombay (Mumbai).

Most of the stories are about people we Indians call “boxwallahs” – senior executives and their wives and children. A boxwallah’s son, Chaudhuri writes intimately of them. But he is at his best when he describes the shabby gentility of the literary world in Calcutta in Portrait of an Artist and his own schooldays in Four Days before the Saturday Night Social. He went to Cathedral and John Connon School in Bombay. I don’t know why the story reminded me of La Martiniere in Calcutta.

Paul Theroux revisits Asia

Ghost Train To The Eastern Star by Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux has written an immensely readable sequel to The Great Railway Bazaar, repeating that railway journey from Europe to Asia and back which earned him fame and fortune more than 30 years ago. It is bursting with people and places, rich in indelible portraits. I can’t forget the Korean monk Theroux meets in Myanmar who carries all his possessions in a little cloth bag and the English-speaking urchins in Amritsar, India, who can’t read or write.

There is drama too. A government agent sneaks into a talk by Theroux at the US embassy in Turkmenistan and photographs a dissident before an American  official seizes the film and turns the agent out of the building. But the agent files a report and Theroux has to leave the country in a hurry as a suspected troublemaker.

Not everyone will be pleased with Theroux’s accounts of the countries he revisits. He describes Bangalore, India’s IT capital, as a high-tech sweatshop. Singapore, in his account, is rigid with rules and taboos, a virtual one-party state with licensed brothels. Myanmar is ruled by fear, Sri Lanka drained by insurgency, Cambodia yet to recover from the Khmer Rouge nightmare, China dispatched in a couple of paragraphs as ugly beyond words, the Central Asian republics — formerly part of the Soviet Union – are primitive, polar opposites of Western democracies.

Only Vietnam gets a glowing treatment. Even its prostitutes are more colourful –- biker chicks in Hanoi screech to a halt in the writer’s path and ask: “You want boom boom?” And there is Japan –- kinky, high-tech, like no other country in the world but rich, peaceful, stable –- where, Theroux claims, the police actually prefer organised crime to the unorganised variety because it is organised. Japan certainly seems like paradise compared with Siberia, where Theroux travels next, taking the dirty, unkempt Trans-Siberian Express with Russians who spend days and nights making the long journey in a drunken haze.

A writer’s journey

But Ghost Train is not just a travelogue. It’s also a writer’s journey –- Theroux is revisiting old places to connect with his past and see how he himself has changed.

“Memory is a ghost train too”, he writes and explains why he made the journey:

“Older people are perceived as cynics and misanthropes –- but no, they are simply people who have at last heard the still, sad music of humanity played by an inferior rock band howling for fame. Going back and retracing my footsteps… would be for me a way of seeing who I was, where I went, and what subsequently happened to the places I had seen.”

He reflects on the price of his literary success. The Great Railway Bazaar brought him success -– at the expense of his first marriage. He returned to London at the end of that long journey in the 1970s to find his wife was having an affair. He recalls his emotional torment as he wrote that book.

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A New World by Amit Chaudhuri

A New World by Amit Chaudhuri

Amit Chaudhuri is one of the finest but possibly less known Indian authors writing in English. His language can verge on poetry and be as vivid as a movie. But nothing much happens in his stories.

That didn’t matter very much in his early novels, A Strange and Sublime Address and Freedom Song. Both were critically acclaimed. I can think of no better books in English about my hometown, Calcutta (Kolkata), except Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, my favourite novel, but there only part of the story is set in Calcutta; most of the action takes place in the Hindi belt.

To get a feel of Calcutta, what it looks like and understand us Bengalis, the natives of Calcutta, A Strange and Sublime Address and Freedom Song are invaluable. They portray our ideas, attitudes and lifestyle. And the writing verges on poetry, which is something we Bengalis love.

A New World unfortunately lacks that poetry. The writing is fluid and flawless. But as I turned from one page to the next, it felt like a lazy summer afternoon. It’s uneventful by deliberate design.

The story

Jayojit, a Bengali economist teaching in America, visits his parents in Calcutta during his college holidays with his seven-year-old son, Bonny. He has recently divorced his wife, also a Bengali from Calcutta, who has left him to live with her lover -– and gynaecologist — in America. The story describes his stay in Calcutta. In the process, we see his interaction with his parents, his parents’ relationship and his own relationship with his parents. There are also flashbacks to his broken marriage and his parents’ abortive attempt to arrange a second marriage for him with a Bengali divorcee. He had met her on his previous visit but they had got nowhere. She had backed out, he now learns from his father, because he had seemed to be looking not so much for a wife as a governess for his son.

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On Chesil Beach: Life (and sex)

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan.

A relationship formalised when her stroking his penis elicits a marriage proposal from him ends on wedding night when her grasping his penis again makes him come all over her, sending her fleeing in revulsion first to the bathroom and then out of the hotel. She is frigid, Edward tells Florence, running after her. And when she tells him she loves him and that if he really wanted –- she doesn’t say what -– she would never be jealous as long as she knew he loved her, he spits out in cold fury: “You want me to go out with other women!…

“Do you realise how disgusting and ridiculous your idea is?”

Humiliated, Florence leaves the hotel the same night — and Edward doesn’t try to make up with her. Her parents set in motion a divorce on the grounds of non-consummation of marriage.

Unusual as it sounds, Ian McEwan brings this short novel to life with his exquisite prose, which verges on music and photography. He describes scenes and feelings vividly from the act of “self-pleasuring” — “a self-made spoonful, leaping clear of his body” — to the virgin Florence’s dread of any kind of physical intrusion. She does not like even French kissing, so when out of a sense of duty she starts foreplay with her newly-married husband, it ends in disaster. They have been engaged and fondled and kissed before, but they have never had sex.

Early Sixties

This is England in 1962, memorably described by Philip Larkin in the poem Annus Horribilis:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP

Edward adores his beautiful wife, and she loves him too -– but she is not prepared for this. She has other interests. As a trained classical musician, she is engrossed in her music and her career and has had girlfriends, not boyfriends, before.

McEwan portrays the differences in class and background between Edward and Florence. He is a schoolmaster’s son, a grammar school boy, she is a businessman’s daughter who has had all the privileges.

Starting with the dinner the newlyweds have before they retire to bed with disastrous consequences, the author tells the story flashing back and forth between the past and the present showing the differences between the couple. In the process one gets a picture of early 1960s England.

A day in the life

The story is set almost entirely in a single day, jumping 40 years to the noughties -– the present decade -– in the last pages.

Edward, now in his 60s, looks back on his life and misses Florence, who has become a famous violinist leading her own quartet.

Regrets

He has changed since he was shocked by her suggestion that he could go out with other women. He absorbed the spirit of sexual liberation that came in the late 1960s, had affairs with other women and went through another short-lived marriage. But he feels his life would have been far more rewarding had he listened to Florence and stuck with her.

The last two pages of the novel, filled with Edward’s regrets, are a meditation on the choices we make and their consequences, success and failure. The story ends on an elegiac note in McEwan’s beautiful prose: 

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James Fenton on Paris

Poems can be sexy and fun. Like this poem by James Fenton. I first read James Fenton way back when in the New Statesman. But let’s get on with the poem.

In Paris With You
By James Fenton

Don’t talk to me of love. I’ve had an earful
And I get tearful when I’ve drowned a drink or two.
I’m one of your talking wounded
I’m a hostage. I’m maroonded.
But I’m in Paris with you.

Yes I’m angry at the way I’ve been bamboozled
And resentful at the mess that I’ve been through
I admit I’m on the rebound
And I don’t care where are we bound.
I’m in Paris with you.

Do you mind if we do not go to the Louvre,
If we say sod off to sodding Notre Dame,
If we skip the Champs Elysees
And remain here in this sleazy 
Old hotel room
Doing this and that
To what and whom
Learning who you are,
Learning what I am.

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The sweetest Indian love story

The English Teacher by RK Narayan reminds me of Erich Segal’s Love Story and the Bobby Goldsboro classic, Honey. One may even be reminded of David Copperfield and Dora. Narayan has been compared to Charles Dickens. But the relationship between the couple at the centre of this story is more profoundly moving.

I have not come across a more romantic English novel by an Indian author.

Set in Narayan's fictional town of Malgudi, the plot is simple.  A man teaching English in a college gets married, has a daughter and a few years later his wife dies of typhoid. The rest of the story, told by the man himself, is about his raising his daughter and holding on to his wife’s memories.

What makes it remarkable is the love that pours out of every page.

The man describes the beauty of his wife and the happiness they had known with an ardour and a lack of inhibition that's extraordinary for a book by an Indian author published in 1945.

 Narayan's own story

It's said to be Narayan's own story: his wife died of typhoid, leaving behind a little daughter, a few years after their marriage.

Indeed, Narayan dedicated the book to his wife, Rajam.

Narayan captures the ardour of the young couple. Krishna, the English teacher, virtually worships his wife, Susila, who is beautiful, charming, a perfect homemaker, and enjoys the attention of the man she loves. Outwardly though she defers to him, she has him completely under her thumb.

When he is sitting at his table, trying to write a poem, she comes up and says: “Let me see if you can write about me.”

She is simply adorable.

Here they are out on a walk. Krishna, the narrator, writes:

“I was highly elated. The fresh sun, morning light, the breeze, and my wife’s presence, who looked so lovely – even an unearthly loveliness – her tall form, dusky complexion, and the small diamond ear-rings – Jasmine, Jasmine…”I will call you Jasmine, hereafter,” I said. “I’ve long waited to tell you that…”

“Remember, we are in a public road, and don’t start any of your pranks here,” she warned, throwing at me a laughing glance. Her eyes always laughed – there was a perpetual smile in her eyes.”

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