One of the masterpiece I have been meaning to read since my student’s days (but never got round to) is John Steinbeck’s monumental The Grapes of Wrath (1939). I love John Ford’s film adaptation of 1940, but I’ve kept on putting off reading the book. Sorry but Steinbeck is one of those authors that makes me feel lazy as a reader despite my admiration for him. I got, though, eventually curious to see whether his portrait of Depression America is still valid today. It is, so much so that I ended wrapped up in the bleakest mood (my! that final scene…). This, anyway, is not a novelty these days: add to the pay cuts and the general attack against the welfare state the death this week of my favourite writer, Iain Banks.
The Grapes of Wrath tells in compassionate, humane detail the story of the Joad family. These poor Oklahoma croppers lose their jobs and home when the greedy banks that own their land replace whole farming communities with a handful of men driving tractors. The Joads and thousands of other ‘Oakies’ take then the road to the promised land, California, only to discover after an arduous journey that the scant jobs available there are too meanly paid to guarantee basic day-to-day survival. Same old story.
A reader at Amazon called the novel ponderous and perhaps it is. Chapter 3, very famously, focuses on a turtle crossing a country road. You might also tire of so much dialogue in dialect although, naturally, this is how the Joad family and the others that people Steinbeck’s world would speak. I had, nonetheless, the clear feeling from page one that I was reading a masterpiece, the kind of literary novel nobody can write anymore (remember that Steinbeck is a Nobel Prize winner, not that I care very much about that).
I do not mean that there is no literary talent today. What I mean is that The Grapes of Wrath is an ambitious novel by a novelist who cared more about what he was narrating than about his own career, at least that was my impression (I cannot get rid of this feeling that writers today write mainly for narcissistic reasons). Steinbeck’s writing is dominated by his anger and indignation at the political and economic situation of 1930s America. I don’t know whether he was repeating facts and ideas well known at the time or whether he himself had a crystal-clear perception of the abuses of capitalism. What baffles and moves me at the same time is how he made first-rate literary material out of that personal and collective suffering.
I do not know whether Greek author Petros Márkaris (a recent Carvalho award), who is writing a trilogy about the deep crisis in his country, is up to the standard of literary greatness that this catastrophe calls for. What I know is that we need someone as big as Steinbeck to narrate these hard times (the Dickensian allusion is not accidental).
Logically, this major novel of the current crisis should come from the South of Europe (Italy, Portugal, Greece and indeed Spain). This great novel should draw, in the style of a Hugo, Balzac, Tolstoi or Dickens, a vast panorama of interlocking stories with corrupt politicians, long-term unemployed families, migrant post-grads, victims of fraudulent bank practices (and university teachers scared of eventually losing tenure…). Or, as Steinbeck does, this great Spanish novel could focus on just a family –hopefully not in the style of the awful TV series Cuéntame (I wonder whether our local talent is already stretched to the limit with Aída…). I just wish that any of the members of the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca could turn out to be the novelist we need. And no experimentalism, please.
The hardest part of reading Steinbeck is how the hardships of the characters get under your skin. How deep, one keeps wondering, can injustice gnaw into people’s lives? This is no simple melodrama but something much darker, which shows how the same untrammelled evil let loose then, in 1929, is still sweeping up the lives of many that deserve much better (and I do know this is white ethnocentric). Perhaps one could read The Grapes of Wrath fifteen years ago and think of it as a quaint reminder of a distant past; not any more, for the dividing line between the Joads and any of us, working or middle-class, is gone (just think of the thousands of Greek public TV workers that their Government left cold in the streets a few days ago).
In the bleakest mood, I’m telling you (any great novelist out there??)
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