John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men (1937)
Every now and then the Book Group reads a classic. As one of us is currently performing in the play of Of Mice and Men, it seemed like an obviously good idea to read the book and see the play together.
Before the meeting: This is one of those books that you feel you don’t actually need to read. Like the photos of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, it’s a solid part of our understanding of the US in the 1930s. A little skinny guy and a lumbering giant with intellectual disability team up in rural USA during the Great Depression. The big man is a gentle soul, but doesn’t know his own strength and bad things happen.
Predictably, the book turned out to offer any number of surprises. First was the lyricism of the opening. I vaguely knew that Elmore Leonard’s disparagement of ‘hooptedoodle‘, the descriptive bits that readers tend to skip, cited Steinbeck as an authority. It was a surprise, then, to meet an opening paragraph that describes a pool over which arch the ‘recumbent limbs and branches’ of sycamores, and to which water ‘has slipped twinkling over the yellow sands in the sunlight’. That ‘twinkling’ challenged my assumptions mightily.
But then the humans appear, and there’s no more twinkling or recumbent arches until the final chapter, where ‘row on row of tiny wind waves flowed up the pool’s green surface’. The return to that pool carries a huge emotional thwack. Steinbeck knew a little hooptedoodle goes a long way, but he knew how to do it well. In this case, it’s the equivalent of a theatrical backdrop.
The story unfolds in six scenes, each of which observes the classical unities of time, place and action – that is, we see only what happens in a given place, and we see everything that happens there in sequence. The settings, described briefly at the start of each scene, are: an idyllic clearing on the bank of the Salinas river on a Thursday evening; a ranch bunkhouse the next morning; the bunkhouse again that evening; the harness room, which is also the bedroom of Crooks, the stable buck, on Saturday night; the barn, Sunday afternoon; the pool again, still Sunday.
Almost everything is conveyed by dialogue and action. It’s a short book, just about 100 pages – it could have been twice as long in the hands of a writer who wanted to tell us what his characters were thinking, rather than trusting us to get it.
There’s another passage of ‘fine writing’ that stands out. Unlike the other characters – the old man Candy, Crooks, Curley – who reveal themselves by their words and actions, Slim first appears in a long descriptive passage. Here’s the end of that passage:
There was a gravity in his manner and a quiet so profound that all talk stopped when he spoke. His authority was so great that his word was taken on any subject, be it politics or love. This was Slim, the jerkline skinner. His hatchet face was ageless. He might have been thirty-five or fifty. His ear heard more than was said to him, and his slow speech had overtones not of thought, but of understanding beyond thought. His hands, large and lean, were as delicate in their action as those of a temple dancer.
This eloquent prose telegraphs Slim’s function as moral touchstone: we know that his judgement is to be trusted, that his point of view is as close as we’ll get to the author’s. Then the prose snaps back to normal, not so much undercutting the hoptedoodle as saving it from itself, when Slim speaks:
‘It’s brighter’n a bitch outside,’ he said gently. ‘Can’t hardly see nothin’ in here.’
As I was reading this book, Barack Obama made headlines for using the N word. (As someone said, he is the first US President to use that word without referring to someone he claimed to own.) Given the extreme sensitivity to that word in the US today, it’s gratifying that Steinbeck’s use of it hasn’t been bowdlerised, at least not in the edition I read. The characters’ casual use of it to refer to Crooks, the only African American character, is very uneasy-making. Then there’s a scene where the woman addresses him by the vile term, and reminds him that she could have him ‘strung up on a tree so easy it ain’t even funny’. Steinbeck and Obama would agree that racism is not just a matter of it not being polite to use some words in public.
After the meeting: We didn’t have a group meeting as such, as we spent two and a half hours at the Sport for Jove production of Steinbeck’s play, directed by Iain Sinclair, with an all-round excellent cast. All good intentions of joining our actor-member after the show evaporated at the final curtain, and we all made our way home to warm mid-week beds.
It was interesting to see the play so soon after reading the novel. Maybe Steinbeck had the play in mind when he wrote the novel, because it really did feel largely as if as if the book had been magically transmogrified into flesh and blood. Maybe George wasn’t as wiry as I’d imagined, and Curley’s wife (her lack of a name much more noticeable in the play) was less sexy; the scene in Crooks’ bunk felt truncated; the dog was cuter and more alert than the book’s smelly wreck. But these were minor variations. The novel was walking and talking in front of our eyes. But no twinkling water or recumbent sycamore branches.