Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Cannery Row — John Steinbeck — A review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on November 15, 2008

Interviewer: These questions that inquire into craftsmanship really are annoyance?

Hemingway: A sensible question is neither a delight nor an annoyance. I still believe, though, that it is very bad for a writer to talk about how he writes. He writes to be read by the eye and no explanations or dissertations should be necessary. You can be sure that there is much more there than will be read at any first reading and having made this it is not the writer’s province to explain it or to run guided tours through the more difficult country of his work – Hemingway in an interview for the magazine Paris Review

In my idle moments I play a mental game in which I imagine the world literature to be a huge sprawling building with all sorts of tenements. And I keep slotting writers into these tenements. The ones whom I am impressed with end up getting the penthouses. Everytime I encounter a new writer the order of the habitat changes. Some get promoted from lower to higher floors while some naturally get demoted. Nobody is ejected – all have a welcome residence in my building. It is just that they get the slotting they deserve. Despite doing this many times over resulting in a blurred shuffle, a few writers have retained their penthouses intact and the more I read them, the more they seem to stay put. One such writer who has remained a permanent resident in these imaginary penthouses of mine has been John Steinbeck. He is a writer whom I am coming to respect quite a lot for his incomparable range, depth and humanism. I completed reading his Cannery Row over the weekend. I remember reading it as a student and as I reread, I was able to recall with a significant amount of clarity the characters and situations in the book. I would prefer to think that the clarity of my recall is more to do with Steinbeck‘s ability to write what I would like to call “graphic fiction” than my own power of recall. That to me is the strength of Steinbeck. He (could) write about the subject on hand with such a depth of feeling, perspective, understanding, passion, love and compassion that it is difficult for a reader not to get absorbed, moved, touched and impressed. His subjects have a range which is difficult to draw a boundary around.Yet his central preoccupation remains human beings and their lives

If one were to look at the core of Cannery Row, one quickly realises that the subject matter is ordinary and mundane. It is about the life of people on the fringes of society (in Cannery Row) and their jostling to address the impulses of ordinary demands of life. And what sort of a society is it? In Steinbeck‘s own words “Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, ‘whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,’ by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peep-hole he might have said: ‘Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,’ and he would have meant the same thing” and who are these inhabitants? The migrant chinese trader “Lee Chong”, the scientifically inclined “Doc”, brothel running “Madam Dora”, failed as an artist but skilful boat builder “Henri” and the lovable, carefree, reckless and alcohol-loving pack of “Mack, Hughie, Hazel, Jones, Eddie” – the grand denizens of Palace FlopHouse – a ramshackle erstwhile storehouse owned by Lee Chong. Very clealry Doc is the central character in the book and Steinbeck builds his character quite brilliantly  – “He can kill anything for need, but he could not even hurt a feeling for pleasure” …. Everyone who knew him was indebted to him. And everyone who thought of him thought next: ‘ I really must do something nice for Doc“. It is this desire to do something nice for Doc that motivates Mack and his pack to organise a party for Doc. The initial attempt fails but the second attempt succeeds. The extent to which the denizens of Cannery Row go to make this party a success is at the center of the narrative. Around this Steinbeck builds a brilliant portrayal of his wonderful characters and their touching interactions with one another and makes it a memorable reading experience

In diverse aspects related to fiction like character delineation, dialogue and situation building Steinbeck leaves his unique mark in this book, yet, the area where Steinbeck shines through is his observation and ascribing of greatness to motives and behaviours of the ordinary people who go about their lives without much thinking or circumspection. Consider what Doc says about Mack and his rogue pack: “Look at them. There are your true philosophers. I think” he went on “that Mack and boys know everything that has ever happened in the world and possibly everything that will happen. I think they survive in this particular world better than other people. In a time when people tear themselves to pieces with ambition and nervousness and covetousness, they are relaxed. All of our so called successful men are sick men, with bad stomachs, and bad souls, but Mack and the boys are healthy and curiously clean. They can do what they want. They can satisfy their appetites without calling them something else’…. “They are all very clever if they want something. They just know the nature of things too well to be caught in that wanting“. It is this observation of depth and saintliness in the so called ordinary human beings and its portrayal that is touching and heartwarming in this book. Throughout the book, Steinbeck throws light on this noble aspect of human existence. Consider when Doc reflects loudly: “It has always seemed strange to me” said Doc. “The things we admire in men, kindness, genorosity, openness, honesty, understanding, and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits that we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism, and self interest are traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second” . Maybe it is this quality of Steinbeck‘s writing that drew me into a reread in the first place and allowed me to enjoy once again my time with the book

From the perspective of explaining the approach to narrative in Cannery Row, Steinbeck goes onto say that “When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms that are so delicate that they are almost impossible to capture the whole, for they break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will on to a knife blade and then lift them gently into your bottle of sea water. And perhaps that might be the right way to write this book – to open the page and to let the stories crawl in by themselves“. And yes the story, the characters, their motives and outlooks  ooze and crawl quite nicely and surround and remain with the reader long after the last page of this small novel is shut

For anybody who wants to start on Steinbeck, Cannery Row can be one definitive introduction

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