Friday, 21 September 2012

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

East of Eden
Steinbeck's epic novel starts with a description of the Salinas Valley that's so full of smells, sounds and colours that it'll be burned into your mind's eye forever.  Every tragic story of human nature needs it beautiful natural backdrop.

It's a story of numerous generations of two farming families, the Hamiltons and the Trasks.  The Hamiltons are poor, but work hard and live happily.  The Trasks are a family of soldiers and farmers, and not particularly good (or suited) to either occupation. The Trask brothers seem doomed to re-enact the story of Cane and Abel and their fatal rivalry generation after generation, fighting and competing for their father's love and attention.

So much of the story asks questions about what it is that makes a person.  Is a person the product of a time?  A place? Their upbringing? Is a a person genetically programmed to behave a certain way?  Are they a product of their education?  Their choices and decisions?  Most of the characters in this novel struggle with these questions throughout their entire lives.  Apart  from Lee, the Chinese servant and Sam Hamilton, who are perhaps the only two men in California who can think straight and see sense.  Their conversations showcase Steinbeck's knack of showing true understanding between people and giving the reader faith that perhaps one in every 100 people has that calming influence and sensibility that's needed so universally.

Personally, I think the most interesting character in the novel is Cal, the third generation Trask.  He's dark complexioned, brooding and hugely intelligent.  The type of intelligence that can make a man a brilliant businessman, or a malicious malcontent.  Cal's angelic twin, Aron, is loved by everyone and appears to sail through life with ease.  Everybody knows how it feels to try your hardest and to find that it still isn't enough and the reader can't help but ache with sympathy for Cal, reliving the neglected life of his uncle Charles, who Steinbeck himself abandons part way into  the story.  Cathy/Kate too is a brilliant study of pure evil.  Every Biblical allegory has to have its Devil.  Her complete lack of emotion, her unending patience and her psychopathic-genius intelligence make her seem otherworldly or mythological, like Pandora.

I absolutely loved this novel.  Usually I can tear through 600 pages in a couple of days, but you can't do that with East of Eden.  It's too good to rush.  You get full of it.  Like gateaux or cheese.  The ending is devastating too.  You wonder how you can end a novel that sprawls continents and decades like this one does.  Turns out you end it with a punch to the guts and the confirmation that it's your choices that make you who you are.

I honestly did not know that James Dean played Cal in the film.
I only sort of half knew there was a film.
Casting like that doesn't happen anymore.

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