Saturday, March 7, 2009

Twain and Steinbeck

It's time for me to be in bed, I'm exhausted after not getting much sleep during the night. It seems I want to blog briefly about the books I'm reading first before I can settle down to sleep.

I finished reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn last night for the first time in I'm not sure how many years, maybe five. My old copy of the book is beyond falling apart, the middle 200+ pages are kept within the broken cover, and I can lift and read them one by one if I want to avoid the annoyance of trying to hold the loose pages together in my hands. I can't remember when or where I bought this copy, I probably picked it up used somewhere.

I enjoyed the humor more in this reading than I usually do, laughing out loud, and the stressful parts (during the con by the king and duke) were less stressful than usual. Here's a line I'd love to use some day: "I lay you'll be the Methusalem-numskull of creation before ever I ask you--or the likes of you." Spoken by Aunt Sally of Tom Sawyer after he's up and kissed her on the mouth while she still thinks he's a stranger. I can't help thinking this book must have been translated into many foreign languages but I'm damned if I can see how it possibly could be translated. What other language contains the term Methusalem-numskull?

Here's another wonderful passage: "I reckon a body that ups and tells the truth when he is in a tight place is taking considerable many resks, though I ain't had no experience, and can't say for certain; but it looks so to me, anyway; and yet here's a case where I'm blest if it don't look to me like the truth is better and actuly safer than a lie. I must lay it by in my mind, and think it over some time or other, it's so kind of strange and unregular. I never see nothing like it."

And his panegyric (is that the right word?) on Mary Jane. "Pray for me! I reckoned if she knowed me she'd take a job that was more nearer her size. But I bet she done it, just the same--she was just that kind. She had the grit to pray for Judus if she took the notion--there warn't no back-down to her, I judge. You may say what you want to, but in my opinion she had more sand in her than any girl I ever see; in my opinion she was just full of sand. It sounds like flattery, but it ain't no flattery."

I began reading what I believe to be my first Steinbeck novel, Of Mice and Men, a shorter one to start with than The Grapes of Wrath which I've intended to read for about 40 years. I've never had the goal of writing a novel because it seemed as if I would need to know when I began what the story was going to be about and why it would be interesting enough for somebody to read. And for some reason as I began this book and read the conversations between George and Lennie, I wondered if Steinbeck painted the landscape and then planted two characters in it and watched to see what they would do.

Steinbeck's writing is so theatrical in some places, it's almost like reading stage directions, or the narrative in a screenplay. "The afternoon sun sliced in through the cracks of the barn walls and lay in bright lines on the hay. There was the buzz of flies in the air, the lazy afternoon humming. From outside came the clang of horseshoes on the playing peg and the shouts of men, playing, encouraging, jeering. But in the barn it was quiet and humming and lazy and warm."

One of the reasons I've often resisted reading "great literature" was that it so often contains some horrific tragedy, the kind that haunts my sleep for weeks. I once read a novel by Alice Walker about a lesbian couple in which one of the partners gets beaten to death with a brick. I sense that something pivotal is going to happen in the lives of George and Lennie, as I guess it should or there'd be less reason for Steinbeck to be writing about them.

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