Wednesday 14 February 2024

The ultimate bleak read? - Steinbeck's 'East of Eden'.


I finished it yesterday, a quite hefty 600 pages in my paperback edition.
If you're looking for a disturbing novel, this is the one, no kidding! It's destined to resonate in my mind for days to come, and in no heart-warming way. It's essentially a 'horror' story, though not in any supernatural or extra-natural sense. Always down-to-earth, but dark - oh my, ever so! Hardly one moment of respite, no humour at all - and, despite that, considered as possibly Steinbeck's greatest novel. He himself thought it so. Based, to some extent on his own life and ancestry (though just how much remains veiled one never knows), he inserts himself a few times as narrator though ever at arm's length from the happenings told, without his giving away either how much actually occurred or to what extent the story is his own creation. But I do find his style of writing and his choice of vocabulary extraordinarily fine.

It's a dynastic saga starting about three generations before the then present (it was completed in 1952) and contains hardly any sympathetic characters, though a prominent one is 'Lee', a Chinese manservant, a few times referred to as a 'chink' - so called only in conversations, I think. (Occasionally the 'N-word' is also casually used, as it certainly would have been in the writer's own day). This quietly tolerant and quite amiable 'Lee', the sole, vaguely likeable character, is ever-ready to voice pearls of wisdom which other characters sorely need to heed. 

The story begins in Salinas California towards the end of the 19th century, where and when Steinbeck himself was born - he (thrice married, though so what?) becoming a dreadful, habitual misogynist, by several accounts. 
Easily the most terrifying person in the novel is one Cathy, with no redemptive features and the mother of male twins, the latter who, at the age of 17, will end this saga towards the end of World War I. I could go on further about this Cathy but it would involve horrific plot spoilers at the heart of this 'jolly' (not!) tale.

I first became acquainted with Steinbeck's works some 30 years ago when I read 'The Grapes of Wrath', and was so knocked out by it that I wished I'd encountered him a lot earlier. Then I read 'Of Mice and Men' which I found almost as impressive - and then, back in 2002, 'East of Eden', which I've noted that I'd 'read', though on second reading finished just now, I didn't recall one single thing about it as being familiar. I can only think that back 20 years ago I'd been so daunted with its length that although I must have read the words they passed by my eyes unregistered, though how I got through so many hundred densely-packed pages in such a manner I can't explain. Anyway, this present time I read the novel with not only full attention but with a number of synopses at hand which I regularly consulted so as not to lose the drift. And it worked marvellously well - even if the final effect on me felt so negative on an emotional level. Nevertheless, and despite its writer's indefensible reputation, I must now concur that 'East of Eden' is a truly great work. 

When I was 10 my mother took me (and, perhaps, two of my as-young brothers) to the cinema to see the then new James Dean film of 'East of Eden', the actor himself having recently been killed in a car crash at the tragically young age of 24. But why she took us to see such an adult story I have no idea, though she almost certainly had no preconceived notion of what the film concerned. Of the film itself I have no recollection whatsoever. I badly want now to see it again. However, the character that Dean plays (as one of the two mutually hostile twins) when the book ends his character is just 17 years old, the actor himself having presumably been 23 when the film was shot. It's not such a big deal now, as such similar inappropriate-age castings have always happened. But with this film, one of Dean's three major iconic roles (along with 'Giant' and 'Rebel Without a Cause'), that remains a somewhat niggling curiosity.
But rather more pertinent is the fact that the character ('Cal') which Dean plays doesn't appear in the novel until two-thirds through, and even then only as a young boy. He only gets to his teenage years until a further near-hundred pages. Additionally, in the list of the film's characters there is no mention of the aforementioned, evil-incarnate 'Cathy', so strategic to the large bulk of the novel.  Clearly the film deals with only a selected smallish extract of the book, possibly having been intended to be mainly a vehicle for Dean.  

In conclusion, then, if you are avid reader and one who hasn't yet encountered this novel, I couldn't urge you too strongly to give it a try. However, be aware that if your reaction is similar to mine, it could well affect you profoundly. A 'pleasant' read, one which you can let gently waft over you, it is not - though an intense, involving and unforgettable experience it could surely be.

Now, though I must tackle more Steinbeck ('Cannery Row' has some strong recommendations) I want to get back to something rather more uplifting. A re-read of 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland/Through the Looking-Glass' perhaps? - and try to block out of my mind that particular author's penchant for photographing nude, pre-pubescent girls. Oh dear!.........