Tag Archives: John Steinbeck

From Steinbeck to Hane to Bach, by way of Ixtlan and Li Po


Culture is a slippery slope. One thing leads to another. A book leads to a poem, or a piece of music, or a painting, and suddenly you’re haring off after something else entirely.

We’re coming up on the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach. Even if you don’t know him, you know his music. Even if you don’t like classical music and avoid it like the plague, you’ve heard something by Bach. One of the pleasures of getting to known the man’s immense body of work is the little epiphany you get every now and then, realizing something he wrote — Toccata and Fugue, anybody? — has been imitated and recycled so many times that it has permeated the cultural aquifer.

We’re coming up on Bach’s birthday, and at the top of the post is the cover of the first Bach album I ever bought — Book Two of The Well-Tempered Clavier, performed by Glenn Gould. If memory serves, I scored my copy at a long-vanished record store in the Moorestown Mall. The thing is, I wasn’t looking for The RickettsWell-Tempered Clavier, I was looking for The Art of Fugue. That’s because my favorite book at the time, the book I re-read at least three times that year, was John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, which I still think is the best thing he ever wrote — second only to The Pastures of Heaven. And if you’ve read Cannery Row, you know the novel is, among other things, a song of devotion and admiration for Ed Ricketts, the Monterey-based marine biologist Steinbeck used as the basis for Doc, the novel’s scientist hero. Along with being a scientist, heavy drinker, and epic lover of women, Doc was also passionately fond of The Art of Fugue, and while the teenaged me could at the time only dream of indulging in the first three, I could damn well score myself a copy of Bach’s valedictory work.

Only I couldn’t find The Art of Fugue in any record store, and in the pre-Amazon landscape of the mid-Seventies it was a rare and lovely thing to find a record store willing to do special orders. Even so, I’d been wanting to take a crack at Bach — I approached album purchases as a form of self-improvement back then — so I thumbed through the bins in search of something that looked promising. That’s when I saw the angel-coiffed Bach staring back at me.

Another of my high school, fixations, along with Steinbeck, was the works of Carlos Castaneda and his (probably imaginary) encounters with the Yaqui Indian seer Don Juan Matus. The covers of A Separate Reality and Journey to Ixtlan sported the magnificent cover art of Roger Hane, whose style was so instantly recognizable that I had to get that particular Bach album. There was even a full-sized wall poster of the cover illustration. Hane also painted the coversJourney_to_Ixtlan for the 1970 Collier paperback edition of The Chronicles of Narnia. (Hane was killed by muggers in 1974, and when the fourth Don Juan book, Tales of Power, came out I was pleased to see the cover artist had written “For Roger” over his own signature.) So I proceeded to work my way through the entire Well-Tempered Clavier, and when The Art of Fugue finally turned up, I found it to be every bit as good as Steinbeck (and Doc) had promised.    

Cannery Row, as well as the essay “About Ed Ricketts” from The Log from the Sea of Cortez, included paens to the work of Li Po, and in due course I found the collected works of that drunken Chinese poet. Another bell ringer. 

See what I mean? It’s a slippery slope, this culture business. One thing leads to another. And all this because we’re coming up on Bach’s birthday.

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Farewell to ‘Farewell’

Turns out I have one thing in common with Ta-Nehisi Coates. We both started Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms with high expectations and ended up bored and indifferent. The love affair with Catherine, like the battlefield romance in For Whom the Bell Tolls, was one of the least convincing things I’d read up to that point:

I thought the protagonist fell in love because the book required it, and I never got any firm picture of who Catherine Barkley actually was. The obvious contrast for me is Wharton’s Madame Olenska and Newland Archer, where you see two people falling in love out a kind of need. I don’t really believe in literary romance for romance’s sake. I think love comes from actual places.

Hemingway was the second Certified Great Author I took on as a teenager, after spending a summer and most of the fall reading my way through John Steinbeck. At the time, Hemingway and Steinbeck were often lumped together by reviewers and teachers, which was not simply a mistake but a crashingly obvious mistake I still can’t fathom. Steinbeck could be an astonishingly clunky stylist, but he created undeniably powerful work in a variety of modes: near-documentary realism with In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath, mock epic with Tortilla Flat, magic realism with Cannery Row, allegory with The Wayward Bus, morality play with The Winter of Our Discontent. Hemingway crafted some of the most beautiful sentences ever set to paper, but he had only one mode, and while he could play it beautifully, in some of the later works — Across the River and Into the Trees anyone? Anyone? — he sounded like Vladimir Horowitz banging on “Chopsticks.”

Steinbeck was chiefly a novelist, though he could so fine work in short stories: see The Long Valley and the story-collection-as-novel The Pastures of Heaven, the book that shows him discovering his true narrative voice. Hemingway’s magic is in the short stories, not the novels.          

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Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley were published within a few years of each other, but their visions of America and “the road” are much different. Compare and contrast. (We’ll put aside the question of just how far Steinbeck really got on his journey.)

How to play Gandalf the Gray, from the man who ought to know. Consider it a refresher for The Hobbit in eight months.

I had no idea there were so many Harry Crews fans in the ranks of alternative rock. But I’m not surprised at the writer’s cussed response to that fact.

James W. Hall speaks out in defense of “trashy” fiction. Since he moved from poetry to thrillers such as Under Cover of Daylight and Bones of Coral, he knows whereof he speaks. I’ve noticed that the novels of a supposedly downmarket writer like John D. MacDonald have a lot more to say about their era than much of the critically lauded works of the time.

James Madison and his slaves.

The Hustler magazine stylebook.

James Baldwin meets William F. Buckley Jr. The argument has a very familiar ring to it.

Robert Caro has been writing his biography of Lyndon Johnson for 38 years. That over half as long as his subject’s actual lifespan. The next volume of the epic comes out May 1. I revere Caro’s biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker, but I have to admit I became exasperated with the length of Master of the Senate, the previous LBJ volume.

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Friday finds


All you need to celebrate Halloween the H.G. Wells way. (And the George Pal way, and the Oson Welles way, and the Hugo Gernsback way. . .) The image above, incidentally, shows Michael Condron’s sculpture of a Martian tripod in Woking, Surrey, where all hell breaks loose in the original novel. Check here for the New Jersey location used in the radio broadcast.

How about some literary costume ideas for trick-or-tweeding?

Halloween, B’more style.

Continuing our Halloween theme, it turns out that Dan Aykroyd based the Ghostbusters storyline on the psychic exploits of his own dad.

Novelists nominate books they think have been unfairly neglected.

A medievalist tries his hand at the Dante’s Inferno board game.

Taking on Knut Hamsun.

No need to be skeptical about Martin Gardner.

Patricia Cornwell’s latest mystery tale is playing out in court.

Gore Vidal’s sunset years.

How Paul Shaffer was crucified and resurrected by Bob Dylan.

There’s nothing more pathetic than a whining contrarian.

Maurice Sendak has three words for parents who think Where the Wild Things Are is too scary for their kids.

The Guardian harkens back to its coverage of John Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize for Literature. A writer retraces the journey described in Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley.

M*A*S*H was Robert Altman’s first big hit as a filmmaker, but his son ended up making more money off it than he did.

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Dream projects: Carroll Ballard

Pick a book that’s crying out to be adapted for film, then name the director best suited for the job. First up was David Cronenberg and Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi. Next came Spike Lee and Charles Mingus’ semi-memoir, Beneath the Underdog. And now . . .

CARROLL BALLARD: Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck.

Carroll Ballard is not a relentlessly productive filmmaker: in the thirty years since his first feature, The Black Stallion, was released in 1979, Ballard has directed only five other films. Ballard’s meticulous working methods and his preference for understatement are, to put it mildly, unfashionable in today’s film industry; his most recent movie, Duma, almost went unreleased, and was finally distributed to a handful of theaters only after Roger Ebert went to bat for it.

Except for The Nutcracker (an honorable attempt to find a non-cliched way of filming the biggest chestnut of the Christmas season), Ballard’s films deal Cannery Rowin some fashion with mankind’s relationship with nature, whether the subject is the companionship between a shipwrecked boy and an Arabian racehorse (The Black Stallion), a motherless child who nurtures a brood of goslings and then must teach them to migrate (Fly Away Home), yacht-racers working to master the vagaries of sky and sea  (Wind), or a research scientist trying to understand the ways of wolves on the Alaskan tundra (Never Cry Wolf, based on Farley Mowatt’s proudly unreliable book). They are also sumptuously good-looking movies, often breathtakingly so — I date my lifelong fascination with Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography to the almost abstract beauty of the Mediterranean landscapes he captured in The Black Stallion. Along with his fine taste in cinematographers, Ballard brings an eye for the telling detail  and the crucial moment, honed during his early years as a documentary filmmaker.

A similar blend of artistry and documentary precision is at work in John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel Cannery Row, set among the derelicts, prostitutes, lowlifes, eccentrics, and workers of the Monterey waterfront. The sort-of hero, Doc (loosely based on Steinbeck’s close friend Ed Ricketts), is a Renaissance man and Lothario who collects and preserves sea creatures from nearby tide pools for sale to laboratories. Cannery Row itself functions as a sort of tide pool in which exotic personalities survive, mingle, and sometimes prey upon one another, and Steinbeck observes from a rather chilly, above-it-all perspective.

In the morning when the sardine fleet has made a catch, the purse-seiners waddle into the bay blowing their whistles. The deep-laden boats pull in against the coast where the canneries dip their tails into the bay. The figure is advisedly chosen, for if the canneries dipped their mouths into the bay, the canned sardines which emerge from the other end would be metaphorically, at least, even more horrifying. Then cannery whistles scream and all over town men and women scramble into their clothes and come running down to the Row to go to work. Then shining cars bring the upper classes down: superintendents, accountants, owners who disappear into offices. Then from the town pour Wops and Chinamen and Polaks, men and women in trousers and rubber coats and oilcloth aprons. They come running to clean and cut and pack and cook and can the fish. The whole street rumbles and groans and screams and rattles while the silver rivers of fish pour in out of the boats and the boats rise higher and higher in the water until they are empty. The canneries rumble and rattle and squeak until the last fish is cleaned and cut and cooked and canned and then the whistles scream again and the dripping, smelly, tired Wops and Chinamen and Polaks, men and women, straggle out and droop their ways up the hill into the town and Cannery Row becomes itself again — quiet and magical. Its normal life returns. The bums who retired in disgust under the black cypress trees come out to sit on the rusty pipes in the vacant lot. The girls from Dora’s emerge for a bit of sun if there is any. Doc strolls from the Western Biological Laboratory and crosses the street to Lee Chong’s grocery for two quarts of beer. Henri the painter noses like an Airedale through the junk in the grass-grown lot for some part or piece of wood or metal he needs for the boat he is building. Then the darkness edges in and the street light comes on in front of Dora’s — the lamp which makes perpetual moonlight in Cannery Row. Callers arrive at Western Biological to see Doc, and he crosses the street to Lee Chong’s for five quarts of beer.

Though there is already one film version of Cannery Row in existence — a weak 1982 adaptation directed by David S. Ward — the film that offers the best look at the Row in operation is Fritz Lang’s 1938 melodrama, Clash by Night, which opens with a documentary-like sequence showing the Monterey canneries coming to life as the fishing fleet comes in. It wouldn’t surprise me if the sequence influenced the Steinbeck passage quoted above.

The biggest problem with Ward’s 1982 film is that only about a quarter of it derives from Cannery Row. The rest comes from Sweet Thursday, the 1954 sequel which, following the badly flawed East of Eden, marked the beginning of Steinbeck’s decline. The Broadway-ready storyline — it was adapted as Pipe Dream, the least successful musical in the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon — has Dora, owner of the local brothel, scheming with the colorful derelicts of Cannery Row to get the solitary Doc hitched up with a lovely young runaway. Aside from the shrewd casting of Nick Nolte and Debra Winger in the lead roles, Cannery Row is a sodden mess that replaces Steinbeck’s curiously poetic vision with stale sentimentality. (Ward is after all, the screenwriter behind the cuddly con men of The Sting.) Ballard couldn’t do worse if he tried; but he could certainly do much better.

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Friday finds

Sweet ThursdayCaustic Cover Critic interviews Mick Wiggins, whose lovely cover designs for the Penguin Classics editions of John Steinbeck could almost induce me to re-read Sweet Thursday, probably Steinbeck’s single worst novel (made all the worse by the fact that it’s a sequel to Cannery Row, his single best). Wiggins started out painting with oils, but in the Eighties he embraced digital techniques and gradually evolved a style that starts with scanned-in pencil sketches and proceeds from there with Photoshop. And here are some other examples of the man’s work, along with his Website.

A book that’s a study in ordinariness, in which little or nothing happens, and yet it’s fascinating. (Via Christian Bauman.)

What Richard Nixon couldn’t do, the Washington Post does to itself. And so, au revoir.

J.D. Lapidos reads the bogus Catcher in the Rye sequel and offers some advice.

Prep for the upcoming film version of Where the Wild Things Are by reading this excellent Bill Moyers interview with the author and illustrator, Maurice Sendak.

Richard Feynman’s Messenger Lectures series, delivered in 1964 at Cornell FeynmanUniversity, presented for you on video with annotations, all courtesy of Bill Gates, who thinks he may have gone into physics instead of software if he’d seen these lectures. The talks are delivered by Feynman in his characteristically humorous style and engaging style. (You’ll need to download Microsoft Silverlight to watch them, but it’s no biggie — even I managed it without trouble.) The name of the venture, Project Tuva, is pretty amusing if you know about Feynman’s interest in that country. It also gives you an impetus to add the charming film Genghis Blues to your Netflix queue.

This is going to be the Jack Vance summer, for me and a lot of other people. Songs of The Dying Earth, a collection of stories from other writers based on Vance’s seminal book The Dying Earth and its sequels, is coming out along with his memoir, This Is Me, Jack Vance. Even the New York Times has taken notice and given Vance a long, very knowledgeable profile.

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Great minds think alike

Andy Serkis, everybody’s favorite digitally enhanced actor, talks about the future of storytelling:

We put so much into the writing of film scripts and plays, but not into games. And games are where the audience is going to be. In the next generation of kids, you’re going to see a lot of storytelling in games. And I think it’s important to invest in that. I absolutely think that gaming is a massive storytelling arena in the making and now the technology has arrived to do that. It’s a fascinating time.

As it happens, I’ve been thinking along the same lines. I will soon shop around a proposal for a Wii game in the mold of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, called Freelance Writer. Players will  use small plastic PCs (or Macs) to take turns manipulating an avatar that sits at a computer and stares at the screen. Through a series of steps of escalating intensity, players guide their avatars through checking e-mails, making phone calls to sources, checking  e-mails, doing “research” by Web-surfing, checking e-mails, making another pot of coffee, checking e-mails, going to the bathroom and checking e-mails.    

As the game’s popularity expands, I’ll follow the example of Guitar Hero and introduce special edition versions of Freelance Writer with new playing controls.

Freelance Writer: John Steinbeck  will have an avatar that writes with a pencil, does some gardening, gets drunk and wins a Nobel Prize. 

Freelance Writer: Harlan Ellison will use a manual typewriter into which the avatar must insert a paper-carbon paper-onionskin sandwich through the platen, then leave the house to file lawsuits and verbally abuse fans. (The Gold Edition will come with a store window in which the avatar sits and writes.) 

Freelance Writer: Celebrity Whosis will, I suspect, be the most popular because its avatar will simply hire a ghostwriter and go clubbing.

I’m still deciding what to do with the riches that will come rolling in once I get this game on the market.

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