Thursday, April 26, 2012
221. EAST of EDEN
The Book Jacket Blurb:
In his journal, John Steinbeck called East of Eden "the first book," and indeed it has the primodial power and simplicity of myth. Set in the rich farmland of California's Salinas Valley, this sprawling and often brutal novel follows the intertwined destinies of two families - the Trasks and the Hamiltons - whose generations helplessly reenact the fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous rivalry of Cain and Abel.
Adam Trask came to California from the East to farm and raise his family on the new, rich land. But the birth of his twins, Cal and Aaron, brings his wife to the brink of madness, and Adam is left alone to raise his boys to manhood. One boy thrives, nurtured by the love of all those around him; the other grows up in loneliness, enveloped by a mysterious darkness.
First published in 1952, East of Eden is the work in which Steinbeck created his most mesmerizing characters and explored his most endearing themes: the mystery of identity, the inexplicability of love, and the murderous consequences of love's absence. A masterpiece of Steinbeck's later years, East of Eden is a powerful and vastly ambitious novel that is at once a family saga and a modern retelling of the Book of Genesis.
What Hooked Me:
I am totally astounded by how good this book is! It is definitely going up on my top dozen, pushing one other book back down a notch. What is amazing is the depth of the complexity of the stories of the two main families, the Hamiltons and the Trasks, as well as the depth and complexity of the characters that support them. Cathy (a selfish woman with a sordid evil past who married Adam Trask) and Lee (who was Adam's Chinese servant and who later raised Adam's twin boys and became his good friend, confidante and adviser) represented two opposing extremes in the spectrum of the human heart, and they totally fascinated and enthralled me. Against this wondrous saga is the story of Salinas Valley itself, always a nice place to revisit. And on a lighter note, on p.62, I learned a new description I intend to use a lot from now on to refer to the severe form of pneumonia as a 'galloping pneumonia,' as opposed to the description I always use for the milder form, 'walking pneumonia.'
'The Salinas Valley is in Northern California. It is a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains, and the Salinas River winds and twists up the center until it falls at last into Monterey Bay.
I remember my childhood names for grasses and secret flowers. I remember where a toad may live and what time the birds awaken in the summer -- and what trees and seasons smelled like -- how people looked and walked and smelled even. The memory of odors is very rich.'(opening lines)
'Samuel had no equal for soothing hysteria and bringing quiet to a frightened child. It was the sweetness of his tongue and the tenderness of his soul. And just as there was a cleanness about his body, so there was a cleanness in his thinking. Men coming to his blacksmith shop to talk and listen dropped their cursing for a while, not from any kind of restraint but automatically, as though this were not the place for it.'(11)
'When a child first catches adults out -- when it first walks into his grave little head that adults do not have divine intelligence, that their judgments are not always wise, their thinking true, their sentences just -- his world falls into panic desolation. The gods are fallen and all safety gone. And there is one sure thing about the fall of gods; they do not fall a little; they crash and shatter or sink deeply into green muck. It is a tedious job to build them up again; they never quite shine. And the child's world is never quite whole again. It is an aching kind of growing.'(19-20)
'Maybe -- maybe love makes you suspicious and doubting. Is it true that when you love a woman you are never sure -- never sure of her because you aren't sure of yourself? I can see it pretty clearly. I can see how you loved him and what it did to you. I did not love him. Maybe he loved me. He tested me and hurt me and punished me and finally he sent me out like a sacrifice, maybe to make up for something. But he did not love you, and so he had faith in you. Maybe -- why, maybe it's a kind of reverse.'(69)
'Monsters are variations from the accepted normal to a greater or a less degree. As a child may be born without an arm, so one may be born without kindness or the potential conscience. A man who loses his arms in an accident has a great struggle to adjust himself to the lack, but one born without arms suffers only from people who find him strange. Having never had arms, he cannot miss them. Sometimes when we are little we imagine how it would be to have wings, but there is no reason to suppose it is the same feeling birds have. No, to a monster the norm must seem monstrous, since everyone is normal to himself. To the inner monster it must even more obscure, since he has no visible thing to compare with others. To a man born without conscience, a soul-stricken man must seem ridiculous. To a criminal, honesty is foolish. You must not forget that a monster is only a variation, and that to a monster the norm is monstrous.
It is my belief that Cathy Ames was born with the tendencies, or lack of them, which drove and forced her all of her life. Some balance wheel was misweighted, some gear out of ratio. She was not like other people, never was from birth. And just as a cripple may learn to utilize his lack so that he becomes effective in a limited field than the uncrippled, so did Cathy, using her difference, make a painful and bewildering stir in her world.'(72-73)
'And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wished, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about. I can understand why a system built on a pattern must destroy such a system. Surely I can understand this, and I hate it and I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the universe beasts. If the glory can be killed, we are lost.'(131)
'The words struck into her understanding like lead shot dropped in water. She made a great effort. And it gave him a shivering to see her face change, the steel leave her eyes, the lips thicken from line to brow, and the corners turn up. He noticed a movement of her hands, the fists unclench, and the fingers turn pinkly upward. Her face became young and innocent and bravely hurt. It was one magic-lantern slide taking the place of another.'(190)
'Sometimes your opponent can help you more than your friend.'(259)
'Samuel said, "Apply that to the Cain-Abel story.' ...
"I think I can," Lee answered Samuel. "I think this is the best-known story in the world because it is everybody's story. I think it is the symbol story of the human soul. I'm feeling my way now -- don't jump on me if I'm not clear. The greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears. I think everyone in the world to a large or small extent has felt rejection. And with rejection comes anger, and with anger some kind of crime in revenge for the rejection, and with the crime guilt -- and there is the story of mankind."(268)
"I didn't know anyone could see it," Samuel said. "You know, Lee, I think of my life as a kind of music, not always good music but still having form and melody. And my life has not been a full orchestra for a long time now. A single note only -- and that note unchanging sorrow. I'm not alone in my attitude, Lee. It seems to me that too many of us conceive of a life as ending in defeat."
Lee said, "Maybe everyone is too rich. I have noticed that there is no dissatisfaction like that of the rich. Feed a man, clothe him, put him in a good house, and he will die of despair."(306)
'I believe there are techniques of the human mind whereby, in its dark deep, problems are examined, rejected or accepted. Such activities sometimes concern facets a man does not know he has. How often one goes to sleep troubled and full of pain, not knowing what causes the travail, and in the morning a whole new direction and a clearness is there, maybe the result of the black reasoning. And again there are mornings when ecstasy bubbles in the blood, and the stomach and chest are tight and electric with joy, and nothing in the thoughts to justify or cause it.'(324)
"Adam went on, astonished at his own thoughts, "but you -- yes, that's right -- you don't know about the rest. You don't believe I brought you the letter because I don't want your money. You don't believe I loved you. And the men who come to you here with their ugliness, the men in the pictures -- you don't believe those men could have goodness and beauty in them. You see only one side, and you think -- more than that, you're sure -- that's all there is."(381-382)
'In uncertainty I am certain that underneath their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved. Indeed, most of their vices are attempted short cuts to love. When a man comes to die, no matter what his talents and influence and genius, if he dies unloved his life must be a failure to him and his dying a cold horror. It seems to me that if you or I must choose between two courses of thought or action, we should remember our dying and try so to live that our death brings no pleasure to the world.
We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.'(412-413)
'In the darkness he saw Lee's face and heard Lee's soft speech. Lee had built very well. Having a respect that amounted to reverence for the truth, he had also its natural opposite, a loathing of a lie. He had made it very clear to the boys exactly what he meant. If something was untrue and you didn't know it, that was error. But if you knew a true thing and changed it to a false thing, both you and it were loathsome.
Lee's voice said, "I know that sometimes a lie is used in kindness. I don't believe it ever works kindly. The quick pain of truth can pass away, but the slow, eating agony of a lie is never lost. That's a running sore." And Lee had worked patiently and slowly and he had succeeded in building Adam as the center, the foundation, the essence of truth.'(427)
'Will's face contorted and a memory swept over him like a chilling wind. He did not move slowly over the past, it was all there in one flash, all of the years, a picture, a feeling and a despair, all stopped the way a fast camera stops the world. There was the flashing Samuel, beautiful as dawn with a fancy like a swallow's flight, and the brilliant, brooding Tom who was dark fire, Uma who rode the storms, and lovely Mollie, Dessie of laughter, George handsome and with a sweetness that filled a room like the perfume of flowers, and there was Joe, the youngest, the beloved. Each one without effort brought some gift into the family.
Nearly everyone has his box of secret pain, shared with no one.'(475)
'I was thinking about that time when Sam Hamilton and you and I had a long discussion about a word,' said Adam. "what was the word?'
"Now I see. The word was timshel.'
"Timshel -- and you said --
"I said that word carried a man's greatness if he wanted to take advantage of it."
"I remember Sam Hamilton felt good about it."
"It set him free," said Lee. "It gave him the right to be a man, separate from every other man."
"All great and precious things are lonely."
"What is the word again?"
"Timshel -- thou mayest."
a Penguin Book edition
Book borrowed from the library
Dianne @ Bibliophile by the Sea's very convincing review is HERE.