Vacation is over and the next trip to lovely California around the corner. Time to review all the reading I did to get ready for the Steinbeck Festival in Salinas. Since I will definitely talk more about the books later again when I write my travelodge from Cali I will seriously try to make it short this time (I know - I say that all the time and it never works). For the better overview I will divide this posting into two chapters.
This kick off part 1 will focus on the Steinbeck play-noveletts "Of Mice and Men" and "The Moon is Down".
Before I go into detail let's first talk about the text form. Like the term already implies a play-novelett is a hybrid between a play and novel or like Steinbeck explains ("The Play-Novelettes" from "America and Americans and selcted nonfiction"):
"... a novel that could be played from the lines, or a play that could be read."
He calls his work for "Of Mice and Men" an experiment and he himself was not exactly happy with the result:
"It was a failure because it wouldn't play, and wouldn't play because I had not sufficient experience and knowledge in stagecraft."
Looking at it now knowing that "Of Mice and Men" became a classic piece of American literature and was and is read and played thousands of times Steinbeck seems a bit too self-critical but I get his point - to make a hybrid work like this is not easy at all because he tried to write for two different kind of audiences and for two different types of reception with reading and seeing the play on stage.
I had not the chance to see the play-noveletts on stage yet, but from the reader's perspective I am with Steinbeck, who reflects in the above quoted text about his work, that the reading experience of a play and a novel is very different. A play demands more attention from the reader. There are no long and detailed descriptions of locations, scenarios and characters. All action is in the dialogues and the relative shortness of the text forces more complexity.
My personal impression was that "Of Mice and Men" and "The Moon is Down" read more like plays than novels, but quite straight forward, relatively easy to read plays. This experimental form might have been a failure from the theatrical perspective (at least from Steinbeck's point of view), but from the perspective of the reader they are not.
John Steinbeck - Of Mice and Men
I guess if you would put all sheets of paper in a row with all the homework written about "Of Mice and Men" for school and university exams you could walk on it to the moon and back. That means ... it doesn't need me anymore to analyse it ;)
To quickly summarize what it is about:
"Of Mice and Men" tells the story of two farmworkers during the Great Depression in California. The smart George and the mentally disabled Lennie travel together from job to job. Lennie has a golden heart and trusts George with all he got, but the combination of his physical strength and his mental handicap causes trouble for the duo everytime they try to settle down. Their last stop on a big ranch is no exception and leads to a tragic ending.
"Of Mice and Men" ranks I would say in the top 5 of the saddest books I ever read. Even in the moments where some of the characters feel some hope and allow themselves to dream of a better life it is totally obvious that there isn't any real way out and so the story goes towards its inevitable, heartbreaking peak.
There is one thing in "Of Mice and Men" that appears again in some other works of John Steinbeck and that's the idea of physical violence - even murder - out of love and as the solution of a problem.
I am still not sure what to think about it. In "Of Mice and Men" there doesn't seem to be another way out and "Sweet Thursday" such an act of love and violence even leads to the happy end. But although it makes sense in the context I am not sure if I am willing to accept it - even if it's "only" in a storyline and even if I take it just in a metaphoric way.
John Steinbeck - The Moon is Down
"The Moon is Down" was released 1942 and sponsored by the "Office of Strategic Services". It is often called a propaganda novel (although it is not really a novel but a play-novelette like that follows even more consequently the structure of a play than "Of Mice and Men"), which was supposed to motivate the resistence against the Nazis in the occupied European countries. Indeed it was secretly released in French, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish or Dutch versions. All together it was published in 92 versions around the world and ranks as one of Steinbeck's most popular releases.
Although there is no real information about where the little town of "The Moon is Down" is located and the nationality of the invaders is never really revealed it is common sense that the invaders are German and the little town is in Norway. In reference to "The Moon is Down" John Steinbeck even received 1945 Steinbeck the Haakon VII Cross of freedom for his literary contributions to the Norwegian resistance movement.
When the little town, which has military relevance due to a coal mine, is taken by the invaders the citizens are confused and have no chance to really defend themselves. They just wake up to a changed world with new rulers.
The invaders try to force the elected and respected mayor of the town to co-operate with them, but he doesn't. He knows that there is no way to really break the spirit of the people in his town including himself and he is right. Once the first shock lifts and the cruel reality of occupation strikes in, the anger and the idea of resistance rises in the little town. And they find their way to fight back.
Of course it is very obvious that the story is written to have the reader supporting the rebellious little town and its mayor - and it works. But what interests me more is that I think that the special dynamic - including the homesickness and frustration also on the occupants site - of the situation is described very well and it is quite universal.
I had to think of the story and its people lately again, when the horrible bombing and shooting happened in Oslo and on the island with all the kids being killed. That is not a classic situation of invasion, but this terrorist tried with violence to change the way the Norwegian people live their life and see the world, but just like the people in the little town the whole country stood together and came to the conclusion: Even this incredibly cruel act of terrorism will not break their spirit. It seems that Steinbeck described Norway much more precise than he might thought himself.