Thursday, June 15, 2006

Book: East of eden

There are books that are, I strongly believe, pulp literature missplaced into the grand literature. Take "Gone with the wind", the book that owes fame to the fact that a very expensive film is based on it; Some will mistake this book for great literature though it's always been just a love story written for housewives to spend idle afternoons, with a bit of popular history thrown in to make it look serious. Historical setting gave enough impression of an epic scope to "gone with the wind", which many people believed is enough for a great novel.
I'm telling that because, at times, John Steinbeck's "East of Eden" seems to assume the shape of such missplaced pulp; at other times, however, it doesn't.
But that's ok, terature world often shunned this last work of author of "Grapes of wrath" and "Of mice and men" because of its melodramatic character and forced byblical mothives, though not as forced as in Scorseze's "Cape fear" or in popular anime "Evangelion". There seems to be a hunting season on on Bible while, apparently, more of really great art of this Century has been based on "1001 night". Perhaps Borgues's influence. Anyways...
I read "East of eden" while lying in hospital this spring and if i wasn't confined to bed i would've probably leave it after a few chapters (unlike films which i always watch to the end, i do leave books unfinished; they take too much time to spend on something uninteresting). In is first chapters already, it has shown characteristics of that dull writing of "great" novels that describe few generations of a family on canvas of historical events; novels that think that the grand scale of the theme is so self-sufficient that it doesn't need involving story, likeable writing style or any inspiration whatsoever.
"East of eden" tells a story of two families arriving and living in still barely inhabited California. These two families have barely any connection between them, they don't represent anything and, in fact, their roles are shared so unfairly that one of those two families seems to serve only as a set of supporting characters for the other family. And since they are the only important supporting characters, it seems, indeed, that the valley was won entirely by two families. Until the end i was waiting for something, some plot twist that would make relation between those families more meaningful and, in fact, something that would help me understand why these two particular families were chosen for main characters, But alas.
One thing that irked me all through the book is that romanticism with which people of the time were represented. Now, you'll agree with me that inhabitants of new lands were always simple, uneducated people running away from poverty, and not erudite philosophers and never accomplished poets. In Steinbeck's novel, all characters are farmers or sons of farmers, yet they are all uncharacteristically intelligent, well read, either poets or amateur inventors, innovators or financial geniuses. In "East of eden", the more simple and uneducated character is, the more likely he is to talk and discuss like a philosopher. In fact, it is surprising how little of the insight into human character one accomplishe
writer has shown in this book. His characters act and talk out of character all the time, their mothivations are always weak or unclear, and their accomplishments simply seem unlikely; Steinbeck rarely manages to convince us that his characters are real flesh and blood people who would act the way he described them to act, and the hand of a writer is always too obvious.
One of the more bizzare and unlikely characters is, for instance, a Chinese who is very well educated and intelligent man who'd likely be invited to various phylosophy circles (and if i remember well, he is at one moment) but he preferes to work as a servant because of oportunism, and also to play dumb in order not to attract attention. Not bloody likely. His employer is bound to notice Kierkegaard book on his bed sooner or later.
I assume that Steinbeck believed that the west was won by all sorts of geniuses who steered for the unconquered land because they could clearly forsee future of that land. I know that it is nice to believe that your ancestors are all great people; however, this is simply not true; it's a romantic delusion that most of people today won't bite into.
Similarly, Kol and Aron, two brothers who emerge as main characters in later third of the novel are shaped on Cain and Abel. Steinbeck puts effort to make biblical characters believeable and to insert their mothivations and tensions into the mind of modern men, but result is just as innapropriate as trying to shape a character by noah and his arc would be.
And the most debatable character of all, Cattie, at the beginning described as pure evil, practically as some sort of genetical glitch that deprived her of anything human. Through the novel, you can see writer's hand trying to steer her toward being evil and to make her avoid any humanactions, and, when the plot requires a human action from her (like birth of two sons) to "justify" that action by some devious mothives. Again i am surprised at how little insight into human mind steinbeck had; he should have known that ultimate evil is a pulp novel cliche that doesn't exist in reality, simplification of the world made for easy reading; he should have known that no genetic glitch can make somne evil; Kattie is too simple a character to be believeable. Serious writer should not make a character profile By just writing "evil" in big letters over it.
Most of complaints by critics of the time were based around the Kain and Abel reference at the second half of the book. Is Steinbeck trying to tell us that brother-killing urge is rooted deeply into american society? Or in human society? Or is he simply saying that there are genes for evil and that col inherited them from his oh so el mother Catty? I don't think i need to touch that one any further. With reason, people felt that this reference tells nothing, means nothing in the context, and it's there simply because of equation: "byblical references = great novel".
And actually i'm mentioning this term "great american novel" for a reason. Nalmey, Steinbeck was a succesful writer. He was already considered a great writer before "East of eden"; he had a nobel prize for "Grapes of wrath"; he was one of the favourite writers in conservatively-romantic Hollywood of the time, when making books into films in considered.
"East of eden" was to be his last novel. He decided that it was to be his masterpiece, his lifetime achievement, his "great american novel". He spent enormous amount of time on it, he used to lock himself in his room with his novel for days. He assembled all elements that should have made a great Novel, including: family chronicle, founding fathers, war, tear-jerking tragedies, shakespearian inner fight with evil inside of you, and last but not the least, biblical references. he isolated himself from the world and lost insight in it. He isolated his work and gave up on apparently neccesary second opinion.
He started to write with intention to write a great novel. You usually write because you have something to say. If you're writing simply to write a great novel, then you're writing for fame, and that often means that you have nothing to say. Therefore, i can see how this can be worst of steinbeck's work, and how an appreciated writer can be an author of such mess.
Post scriptum could say that the film was made by this novel too. It was one of three films James Dean made before dying, he played Col and it's curious how the role given to him was a continuement of what he started in "Rebel without a cause". Film was directed by Eliah Casan and deals only with second, more dynamic part of the novel.
I have to admitt, i am reclutant toward family chronicles. Writers write them when they want to be known as great writers and the true is that, though they're not always that bad, they often contain much more writing that material requires. One of the better i've read was Sholohov's "Silent Don", novel i've read in high school and fully appreciated only years after reading. Markes's "100 years of solitude" was intesting for first few Chapters after which it descended into boredom and repeating. The problem is, this boredom and repeating is intentional and is, in fact, part of the message of the book, which asks for a question: is message final goal that should maciavelistically beclivered even at the price of being boring (book's mortal sin no 2 or 3). Cover blurb cleverly stated that the key to the whole book was to be found in last ten pages, knowing that without that, many readers would quit long before finishing. Then there was "Adda or ardor", by Nabakov, writer whom i otherwise love very much; i left that book twice, after reading only one chapter self-indulged into cultural references and linguistic twists. And then many, many books that aren't even worth mentioning.
So down with great family novels and cheers for small but sublimed postmodernistic novels - and i just have one for the next article.


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