Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

A book that has been read by so many and is such a tour de force that I wasn’t sure if I had anything to add to the millions of words already said and written and of much more critical depth than I plan to cover, so I waited until I was sitting in the airport yesterday and just decided to write whatever came to mind.

CIMG5356Steinbeck narrates a simple story that reads like a play, which it did indeed become. It was a time when Steinbeck believed the novel to be dead and his work seemed to sit on the cusp of genre, able to swing both ways.

“The work I am doing now, is neither a novel nor a play but it is a kind of playable novel.”

Lennie likes to keep a mouse in his pocket, he gains pleasure from the soft caress of fingers on a smooth pelt, the feel of silky hair, new-born puppies. He is a simple man and a hard worker, however his strength is fallible and his appreciation of the sense of touch incompatible with it.

The story is a short but life-changing episode in the lives of two friends George and Lennie, itinerant labourers on the Californian seasonal workers trail, trying to avoid trouble and dreaming like others of one day having their own plot of land, a few animals, vegetables, a working life yes, but one that would not be lived at the beck and call of those who claim superiority.

They meet others like them, they meet sceptics, they meet a man who would never have dared dream of what they pine for and they encounter those who have it already. Without needing to tell or describe, Steinbeck presents through sparse narrative and dialogue: friendship, cruelty (with and without intention), jealousy, indifference and fear. He uses the colloquial language of men of the time giving it a raw, frank boldness that requires no embellishment (the book was written in 1937, though perhaps inspired by his own experiences in the early 1920’s).

Crooks interrupted brutally.

“You guys is just kiddin’ yourself. You’ll talk about it a hell of a lot, but you won’t get no land. You’ll be a swamper here till they take you out in a box. Hell, I seen too many guys. Lennie here’ll quit an’ be on the road in two, three weeks. Seems like ever’ guy got land in his head.”

Candy rubbed his cheek angrily.

“You God damn right we’re gonna do it. George says we are. We got the money right now.”

Steinbeck himself spent time working as an itinerant agricultural worker in the Salinas Valley for nearly two years in the 1920’s after dropping out of university, so had first-hand observations of the kinds of men whose lives were entrenched in these routines and their familiar aspirations.

“Lennie was a real person” he told a New York Times reporter in 1937.

MenHis own experiences, observations, his compassion, perhaps born of a certain humbleness having left the hi-brow corridors of Stanford University where he would have brushed shoulders with another kind of person, lend the narrative authenticity and empathy.

An exceptional novella, told mostly through dialogue where every word is made to count without losing its beauty or power. We sense the inevitability of the outcome which unnerves the reader while we encounter a brilliant, sensitive portrayal of two friends with a similar dream, who if the world was a kinder place, should have been able to achieve it with the genuine camaraderie and work ethic they possessed .

Previous Steinbeck Reviews – A Pearl

The Pearl

I am content as my first foray into the work of John Steinbeck reveals that he too loves a fable, and like the best of them, lets the story speak for itself.

His short novel ‘The Pearl’ is based on a Mexican folk tale about Kino and Juana, a young couple who live a basic existence, their joy of a first baby threatened when it suffers the sting of a scorpion.

Kino is a pearl diver and on the day he most needs a miracle, the discovery of a large pearl appears at first to be the answer to the couple’s prayer. However, its discovery disturbs the community’s tranquil equilibrium, it seems too much to embrace and while it is in their possession, it wreaks only havoc.

There is a sense of inevitability with this kind of tale, we know the pearl is symbolic, and we recognise that desperate grasping, clutch of desire, laced with fear and stalked by paranoia, the fleeting hope it inspires is stifled by the more pervasive greed and jealousy which quickly degenerate into suspicion and violence.

Despite the inevitability, I read with the wilful hope of an optimist, always searching for some altruistic sign, an indication of man’s humanity, the charitable gesture of an honest person. Steinbeck leads us along on this journey, as we develop our own understanding bathing in his glorious prose.

Now Kino’s people had sung of everything that happened or existed. They had made songs to the fishes, to the sea on anger and to the sea in calm, to the light and the dark and the sun and the moon, and the songs were all in Kino and in his people – every song that had ever been made, even the ones that had been forgotten. And as he filled his basket the song was in Kino…

Taking the pearl from its natural habitat changes its symbolism, for in nature it is pure, lustrous, a thing of splendour and inspiration, it represents the transformation of something irritable (the grain of sand) into something of divine beauty (the pearl). But removing it from the sea will corrupt everything that sees, hears of, imagines or touches it; it becomes representative of greed and avarice, the longer it stays in their possession, the greater its destructive power. But will returning it to nature undo its curse?

In addition to this enjoyable story, the book opens with a foreword which reads like a letter from Steinbeck’s wife Elaine. She shares something of the joy of his writing life, his impulsive and creative attempts to construct the perfect writing environment (including building a writing room in the back seat of his Ford Station Wagon) all of which for me, created an almost familiar context from which to begin reading the great man’s work.

Onward to his next oeuvre, Tortilla Flat awaits.