I discovered John Steinbeck in junior high school. We read Of Mice and Men (a french translation), and it shook me. It was tragic, but not just bluntly tragic : all of the characters felt “true” and the building of the story towards the ineluctable ending sounded realitic as well. I guess that’s what touched me so much : it was not only a sad story to weep upon, but something to reflect on, a vivid description of the human soul embedded in a short, intense story : fellow human beings’ destinies to share and live. This first positive encounter with Steinbeck’s talent motivated me to try some of his other works. A friend lent me a french version of The Grapes of Wrath, but I never managed to finish it, and gave up after a few unsuccessful attempts. I guessed I was not familiar with nor keen on the rural America ambiance, and the slow setting up of the context did not help me get into it. A few years later, I stumbled upon a beautiful Folio Society edition of East of Eden. The description and reviews of the book, decided me to give a try to this less expensive but still gorgeous Penguin edition.
So here is the blurb, my review follows :
‘Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of a man.’California’s fertile Salinas Valley is home to two families whose destinies are fruitfully, and fatally, intertwined. Over the generations, between the beginning of the twentieth century and the end of the First World War, the Trasks and the Hamiltons will helplessly replay the fall of Adam and Eve and the murderous rivalry of Cain and Abel.East of Eden was considered by Steinbeck to be his magnum opus, and its epic scope and memorable characters, exploring universal themes of love and identity, ensure it remains one of America’s most enduring novels.
Well, to make it short I adooored this book! I found in it the same insight into the human soul I loved in Of Mice and Men, magnified. This fresco of the interwined lives of two families, set against a biblical retelling background was grandiose! Partly inspired by Steinbeck’s own family history, it brings about a vivid picture of the struggle of men, eternally battling between good and evil.
“There’s more beauty in the truth even if it is dreadful beauty. The storytellers at the city gate twist life so that it looks sweet to the lazy and the stupid and the weak, and this only strengthens their infirmities and teaches nothing, cures nothing, nor does it let the heart soar.“
I read that at the time it was published, some critics found the characters unrealistic. Well they do not have to be 100% realistic for them to be true. Their inner battles felt real, the lines of wisdom they threw spoke to my heart and soul. They were an allegory of life itself, with the beautiful and the ugly, the pure and the tainted, the sad and the wonderful, the great and the petty.
“She watched his great red happiness, and it was not light as Samuel’s happiness was light. It did not rise out of his roots and come floating up. He was manufacturing happiness as cleverly as he knew how, molding it and shaping it.”
I found Steinbeck’s writing raw and powerful, eminently poetic. I loved the delicate way he presented the tragedies that occured in the book. He made me cry at times, laugh at others, and nod in understanding when I recognised some of my questioning in his characters’. And I was never bored; this truly amazed me. No passages felt unnecessary or wheezy. Sometimes I had to stop reading, not because I felt uninterested, but because I heard the catastrophe coming and could not stand it. Violence in particular was painted in a striking, intense way : Steinbeck well described how hatred and pain grow in minds and hearts, inflate like an uncontrollable wave, before breaking all the dams, and overflowing in people’s lives.
“Aron was content to be part of his world, but Cal must change it.”
And interestingly, although this story was told by a choir of many characters, I ended up knowing them all intimately : their faults and virtues, their subtleties also. Three characters particularly stood out for me :
-Samuel, who I admired although I sometimes struggled to follow the intricacy of his reasoning,
-Lee, whose wisdom, meticulous work and shrewd mind were a comfort in the midst of the tragedies at play, like a pillar that stayed steady in an agitated sea of feelings,
-and Cal, who I feared at the beginning, and ended up deeply loving in the end.
All in all a must read : a beautiful, colourful painting of the rise and fall of men, the story of a neverending struggle. Steinbeck offered us a mirror in which to contemplate humankind and embrace it as a whole.
Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ (and more!)/5
“We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the neverending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.”