Anyway, this time the book is Steinbeck's East of Eden. I think I started reading it ten years ago. I made it through the first three hundred pages or so, and then gave it up, bored to death of both the plot and the characters, and thinking that everything about it felt too contrived -- far too contrived for Steinbeck, especially. I felt like he was stepping out of his league.
I don't know if it's just because my expectations have changed, or whether the second half of the book was really so much better than the first half (it did get better as it progressed, even within the second half), but having finished it, I can say that I underestimated Steinbeck, and that although East of Eden could probably have been better, it was very good. It did what it was meant to do.
Steinbeck will never be one of my favorite authors. There's something about him that's so whole and simple, almost Taoist, and it's beautiful, but I'm just too damned analytical for it. Everything about Steinbeck's writing puts me in mind of open farm fields and old corduroy and dirt and sweat, and in a way he puts me in mind of the insignificance of men, because he makes their equality so plain. Everyone is just the same. He cuts straight to the heart of philosophy, leaving aside all the noise of proof and argument, and it makes him look a little bit credulous, but also... something else. Genuine, unpretentious. It's like he's got nothing to gain by convincing you. Like he doesn't care whether you believe him or not. He's just talking—just telling you how he sees it, and if you choose to listen, you're welcome to hear everything.
What struck me as I finished reading East of Eden is that the bare and open simplicity of Steinbeck won me over far more readily than did all of Tolstoy's careful rhetoric. Tolstoy was hellbent on making a point, and he turned every tool of his art to the purpose, but for just that reason I found myself meeting him with resistance, arguing with him rather than just listening to him. Steinbeck you can listen to. I don't know whether or not I agree with him, but it doesn't matter; you don't have to agree with Steinbeck any more than you have to agree with the smell of cornfields after a rain. And what he says is true even if it isn't true, the way myths are true, and the way the wet cornfields are true—because what they mean isn't one thing.
Steinbeck will never be one of my favorite authors, and I'm a bit sorry about that. I think I'm more sorry that I'll never want to write like Steinbeck than that I never will write like Steinbeck. There's something there that I'm missing; I almost think it's that Steinbeck is more human than I have the capacity to be. I don't know if that makes sense. It's just -- not to have an agenda: to write where the act of writing is as pure and unintentional as the act of being—that's what Steinbeck feels like.
I mean, he doesn't, from line to line, or from page to page. There were plenty of pages that made me wonder why I was reading at all. Some of it was contrived, and some of it was just plain out of step. But you see, that's the very thing. Tolstoy was impeccable. I couldn't fault him anywhere. But Steinbeck has something else. He's just human and it's enough for him. The dirt and the sky and the brown hands flicking cigarette ash are enough for him.
If we were only content to be human, I guess we wouldn't need God. Or maybe some people call that finding God. I don't even know. It's probably the same thing.