Sunday, February 6, 2011

East of Eden

‘I think the difference between a lie and a story is that a story uses the trappings and appearance of truth for the interest of the listener as well as the teller. A story has in it neither gain nor loss. But a lie is a device for profit or escape. I suppose if that definition is strictly held to, then a writer of stories is a liar — if he is financially fortunate.’

East of Eden is probably not the best known of John Steinbeck’s novels, but a book that inquires more thoroughly into the nature of human relationships or the human conscience is hard to imagine. Taking for its inspiration the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, and based in part on the maternal history of Steinbeck himself, the book follows the lives of the Trask family. In each generation a pair of brothers competes for the attention and love of their father and must live under the strain of constant suspicion and jealousy.

Steinbeck’s dialogue is one of the book’s many winning attributes: it quite simply seems real and unaffected — it has the ‘appearance of truth’. Indeed the dialogue saves the book, which is a relatively lengthy one, from becoming daunting. This need only be qualified by the observation that certain of the characters (namely Lee, the Trasks’ servant, and Samuel Hamilton, a great friend of the family) are used somewhat gratuitously as mouthpieces of what appears to be Steinbeck’s own personal philosophy.

Set mainly in the Salinas Valley of Steinbeck’s childhood, the descriptions of the natural landscape fill out the novel and satisfy every want of the reader’s imagination without descending into self-indulgence. Who could fail to be captivated by a turn of phrase such as the following, appearing on the very first page: ‘They were beckoning mountains with a brown grass love’?

The novel is not subtle about its message. Fortunately for readers, the message is a comforting one. Steinbeck is very clear about his wish to redeem the autonomy and individuality of the human soul: each person is capable of making decisions about what it is right to do, independently of background, family connections or past choices. This removes the right to make excuses for our conduct but it leaves us with the inherent capacity to do good.

We can only speculate about why Steinbeck was interested in writing this novel. If by his own definition Steinbeck was a liar, then you may depend on it that East of Eden will be one of the greatest lies you ever read.

Life isn't a novel. It's lots of novels, one after the other.