BOOK REVIEW / Cain, Abel and the gripes of wrath: John Steinbeck - Jay Parini: Heinemann, pounds 20

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The Independent Culture
HILAIRE BELLOC famously wrote: 'When I am dead, I hope it may be said: 'His sins were scarlet, but his books were read'.' John Steinbeck's books, though hardly fashionable, are still widely read. As to his moral make-up, his latest biographer sees him as more sinned against than sinning - the chief villains, apart from his second wife, being elitist and uncomprehending critics in general and Alfred Kazin in particular.

The paradox of Steinbeck (perhaps of all dedicated artists) is that, while writing seemed to release him from himself, his obsession with it seemed to others like extreme self-centredness, since it took precedence over everything, including filial, marital and paternal relationships. His insistence that his first wife have an abortion, which resulted in her becoming sterile and led directly to the breakdown of their marriage, was a callous act. Taking a biblical view, one might say he was punished for his selfishness when he was deprived of the two sons of his second marriage after that broke up.

Equally paradoxical was Steinbeck's attitude to success. His early resistance to personal publicity was only equalled by his later delight in hobnobbing with presidents, from FDR to LBJ. (It was his friendship with LBJ that led him to support the Vietnam war, despite his own son's first-hand testimony of its rottenness.) Yet Steinbeck endorsed Thoreau's view that 'none can be an impartial or wise observer of human life but from the vantage ground of what we should call voluntary poverty', and he gave away a considerable portion of his wealth.

In Sea of Cortez, he summarises the paradox thus: 'Of the good (qualities) we think always of wisdom, tolerance, kindliness, generosity, humility; and the qualities of cruelty, greed, self-interest, graspingness, and rapacity are universally considered undesirable. And yet in our society, the so-called . . . good qualities are invariably concomitants of failure, while the bad ones are the cornerstone of success . . .'

In this biography, Jay Parini is nothing if not loyal to his man, even when the evidence goes against him - as in Steinbeck's treatment of his first wife and in his public support of the Vietnam war. The trouble is, being defended by Parini is something of a liability. His book suffers from slapdash writing: 'Mrs Price was delighted to see Steinbeck again,' he enthuses at one point, 'and Toby Street (a friend) was practically hopping up and down with delight.' Filling in the historical background, he writes: 'Adolf Hitler turned a gun . . . on himself, ending his dictatorship with more of a whimper than a bang.' Putting on his critical hat, he proclaims that 'style in prose is not accidental or unrelated to the mind that generates it.'

In the early chapters there is some half-baked psychological speculation on the weak father / strong mother syndrome, though Parini does allow that, 'like so many middle-class American sons, (Steinbeck) enjoyed a prolonged and productive adolescence, made possible by his parents' income and unswerving devotion'. Yet he keeps sniping at Steinbeck's mother for her puritanism and impossibly high standards, and their inhibiting effect on the young man, even holding her responsible for his occasional 'aggressive behaviour towards women'.

Sadly, Parini doesn't quote what Steinbeck himself wrote of his mother, that her theology 'was a curious mixture of Irish fairies and an Old Testament Jehovah'. This is of considerable interest in relation (as Parini might say) to the son's oeuvre. V S Naipaul, after visiting a tarted- up Cannery Row in Monterey, wrote of Steinbeck: 'His sentimentality, when prompted by anger and conscience, was part of his strength as a writer. Without anger or the cause for anger he writes fairy-tales.' For evidence of the influence of the Testaments, one need look no further than The Grapes of Wrath, or East of Eden, with its Cain and Abel theme. Steinbeck also had a lifelong obsession with Malory's Morte d'Arthur and the happiest months of his old age - and third marriage - were spent in a cottage in Bruton, Somerset.

It is always a problem for the literary biographer to incorporate an assessment of the work (which is, after all, the biography's raison d'etre) into a narrative of the life without interrupting the flow, but Parini is a slave to chronology. When, for instance, his subject's volume of stories called The Long Valley is published, he interrupts his account of the writing of The Grapes of Wrath to give an eight-page critique of these stories. Hands-on editors are a rarity in publishing these days, but this book cries out for one.

Steinbeck never attained critical success to match his popularity, but he was more fortunate than most writers in the film adaptations of his novels - though that in itself may be a comment on the imperfections of the originals. He may not be the greatest of Great Writers, but he surely deserves better than this sloppy biography.

(Photograph omitted)