Of James and John

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Mural in Cannery Row - the only remains of the fish canneries today

As Dublin: One City, One Book 2012 draws to a close and we come to the end of 'Dubliners', I am thinking back to last month when I was in California and stopped in Monterey at Cannery Row. This is the background of one of my favourite authors, John Steinbeck, and set me thinking about these writers and where they come from.

Right: Mural in Cannery Row - the only remains of the fish canneries today.

James Joyce and John Steinbeck - both world renowned writers, both part of the very fabric of their home place, and both the authors of seriously weighty, literary novels.

Steinbeck had his first success with a lighter work, 'Tortilla Flat', a series of humorous stories about the paisanos who lived around the fish canneries of Monterey just after WW1.

He had sympathy and respect for his characters – in a forward to an early edition of the work he said "They are people whom I know and like, people who merge successfully with their habitat...good people of laughter and kindness, of honest lusts and direct eyes". He returned to this feckless, jobless, charming gang a couple of times with 'Cannery Row' and 'Sweet Thursday'.

Maybe the characters are stereotypical, perhaps even inaccurate, but as portrayed by Steinbeck, they are undeniably amiable, good-natured and appealing. They also know they are lazy and unambitious - quite well aware that they are spending their lives sitting in the sun drinking cheap wine, but content with their lot all the same.

Contentment plays little part in 'Dubliners' - characters seem to long for something better, different, special. There is an air of poverty and gloom pervading most of the stories, a little meanness of spirit, feelings of regret and disappointment.

Can it be just the difference in light and shade? The blue skies and sunshine of California, (even not long after the Great Depression), and the dreary grey pavements of Dublin in the 1900s? American optimism and Irish melancholy?

Or, simply the difference in Joyce and Steinbeck - Joyce, the writer in exile with his love/hate relationship with his native city and Steinbeck who clearly loved his homeland and whose ashes are buried in Salinas beside his parents.

Can't deny the brilliance of 'Dubliners' and the genius of James Joyce, but I have to admit to a sneaky longing for that cheap wine and the warmth of the California sun.

Comments

What a brilliant post!! Excellent stuff. For some reason I too often play Joyce vs Steinbeck in my head (don't ask me why) with the Californian always prevailing. I think if I was forced to choose then The Grapes of Wrath would be my 'Desert Island Choice' of novel. I envy people who have yet to read it. Steinbeck's essay on visiting Ireland (collected in America and Americans I think) is great. Completely devoid of sentimentalism. What a pity he never got to finish his re-telling of King Arthur.

Regarding Joyce, I like Martin Amis's comment that Joyce was so talented he could have been anything but settled for being the teacher's pet (i.e. the plaything of Eng Lit academics). Then again, Dubliners sets such a high standard....

 

Thanks for again for a great post.

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