quarta-feira, janeiro 23, 2002

Infection in Literature: "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck



(Original Review, 2002)


There's no reason why we should judge a film on the basis of how faithful or otherwise it is to the book: it should be judged by how good it is as a film. The ending of the book could not be depicted on film in those days because censorship would not have allowed it, but there's no reason to assume that Ford would have filmed Steinbeck's ending had he been able to. The artistic vision Ford was expressing was not Steinbeck's, but his own. My own view is that Steinbeck was a fine novelist, but that Ford was a great film-maker. Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" is a fine novel, but Ford's "The Grapes of Wrath" is a great film.

What about Ma's speech? Actually, Ma Joad's speech is in the novel. Just not at the end. Immediately after that speech, Ford cuts to a long line of lorries, all containing people just like the Joads, and none of them knowing where their next meal is coming from. Ma Joad's defiant speech is magnificent (well, I think so anyway), but putting it into context immediately with the horrendous reality of the situation achieves a sort of poetry rare in cinema. On one level, the optimism of her speech is undercut by the reality; but at the same time, we are aware that the people in those lorries share the defiant humanity of Ma Joad. Despair and defiant optimism are perfectly balanced. I think it is a wonderful ending, and, like everything else in this film, could scarcely be improved upon.

Politics is like an infection in literature. It turns fleshed out characters scabby and itchy in the reader's mind. Rand allowed politics to over-steer her writing. Gaunt is a voice-box for politics. If you are writing and you ever hear one of those lying political voices trying to wheedle around your own your own voice to find expression in your work, - imagine you are up on a castellated stone parapet . You have thick leather gloves and a metal bucket of boiling lead next to you. Down at the gate this political voice is trying to get in. Pour that molten lead over this character. His skin and flesh will come off like three-day dead goldfish rotting in a glass tank - most satisfying. It will be quiet after that. This is important: Steinbeck wrote symphonically with the full range of human experience and nature. That is the music underlying his work. Ships and castles in clouds, political types imagine there is some kind of political structure underlying his work - that is the surface reflection; it is not there. I really dislike the scratchy shrill and the breathy wheedling voices of politics. They should not be in literature unless spoken as characters. If you are a writer, that is what your imagination is for.

For literature about the dustbowl and migration to California, I prefer Sanora Babb's "Whose Names Are Unknown". Better writing, more moving descriptions and more inspiring than "Grapes of Wrath". As it turns out, Steinbeck read the first four chapters of Babb's book before he even started writing "The Grapes of Wrath2. And Bennett Cerf who pushed "The Grapes of Wrath" did not react warmly when we received Sanora Babb's manuscript. It's unfortunate because Babb's book really is the better of the two.

quinta-feira, janeiro 10, 2002

Coming of Age: "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" by J. K. Rowling



(original review, 2002)


Children's literature comes in 3 styles these days. "The Coming of Age Stories", in which a child suffers a horrible tragedy and grows because of it. Pets, best friends, and elderly relations don't live long in Coming of Age tales. I hated the things when I was a kid. I'd seen enough tragedy first hand. I didn't need to read about it. Then there are the "realistic" children's books, that describe the social dynamics of middle school, without commenting on how the everyday cruelty affects children. Judy Bloom was the mistress of this. Here young protagonists were very real, but you didn't like them. Finally there are the series. Not well written, contrived plots, a little contrived humor. But kids like them.

Rowling understood what childhood is like. But she wasn't afraid to comment on it. She could be genuinely funny. And she understood that tragedy doesn't necessarily make you a better person. Future writers of children's' books might learn from her.


I was on the Tube one night reading. There was only one other person in the car, and he came up to me and asked what I was reading. Then he asked me if I'd ever read Harry Potter. He looked to be in his early 40s -- not much older than I was -- and he said that he hadn't read a book since leaving high school until his son brought "Chamber of Secrets" along on his weekend with his dad. After that, he read the first two books and when each new book came out he arranged for the release weekend to be one he spent with his son. They bought two copies and both read them, talking about them afterward. I think it was just after "Order of the Phoenix" had been released, but I was struck by him saying that he now read all the time. He loved Frederick Forsyth books. He asked if I thought he'd like the one I was reading, and when I said I didn't think it would be a favourite for him I recommended John Le Carré. Harry Potter had given him a better relationship with his son and brought him back to reading. Loved this story. The book deserves 2 stars just for this...