Tuesday, May 17, 2005

To a God Unknown - John Steinbeck

I don't know when I began reading Steinbeck. It definitely was during my stay in the Bay Area. San Jose State University has a recently built huge library in downtown San Jose and it was there that I somehow got interested in Steinbeck. I knew he was a 'local' author. So to get to the real history of the place, I would have to read Steinbeck.

Since then I've read a few Steinbeck novels - The Cup of Gold, The Winter of Our discontent and Of Mice and Men. When we moved back to India, we bought almost all of Steinbeck's books as I had begun liking Steinbeck. He has this slow measured writing - which can be called lyrical (and I found out that others feel the same too). You can't honestly read a Steinbeck very fast. Of Mice and Men is small - any other book of its size and I could have finished it in a couple of hours at the most. He has nuggets of experience liberally sprinkled throughout the book. He uses simple words for profound concepts and images and respects the reader's intelligence by not going overboard with the descriptions. My having lived in California, albeit briefly, is most definitely another reason why I tend to like Steinbeck a lot.

Last month or so, I began reading - To a God Unknown. I didn't get around to finishing it till around now. After reading it, I feel overwhelmed. It is a mystical story (as stated in the book cover introduction) and very deep. It talks about Man and the symbols of events or people in his life that he sees in the external world. Another thing I like about Steinbeck is his wonderful description of nature. He describes storms, mountain ranges, groves and streams so beautifully that - amazing and beautiful - are all I can say. In the novels I have read (I haven't even read his magnum opus - The Grapes of Wrath - and which came later in Steinbeck's career), he writes with profundity - without the wordiness. I have had to ponder over certain lines for a long time. Was the imagery intended ? Or was I reading too much into it ? Actually, I found out later that Steinbeck took five years to write "To a God Unknown". So it seems to be the case that the images he presents are intended.

An interesting thing in this novel is that Steinbeck explores the concept of sacrifice (yajna in the Vedic tradition) which is pantheistic (not yajna but Steinbeck's interpretation of sacrifice) and also beyond any label you can apply to such a concept. Interestingly, Steinbeck prefaces this work with a section from the Veda (in Skt. it is kasmai devAya haviShA vidhema - To which God shall we give sacrifice). Man's relation with his environment and family is brought out profoundly again (this is the word I seem to be getting everytime). Man's resolve, fear, concern, love, raw bestiality, and other things are presented in a thought provoking manner. I am writing in abstract terms so that people (if at all) reading this won't get the complete story (if they haven't already read it..).

Set probably in the early to mid 19th century, Joseph Wayne is the main character and he comes from Vermont to a tract of land in the Valley of our Lady in California. Joseph's deification of trees and rocks is definitely a kind of animism - but Steinbeck does not ridicule it. He allows the reader to make his own decision. It is pretty interesting for some one who is Christian by birth. Actually, we see the response of orthodox Christianity to this behavior later. Hidden beliefs - characterized as 'pagan' by the Church - come to the fore in times of extreme strife and great happiness. The extent to which a man can obsess over his land and environment is brought out very well. This novel seems to bring out the thesis that Man is fundamentally spiritual in nature and is a part of his environment. It also seems to be making the point that a 'pagan' belief is truer to Man's heart than organized religion. The incident in the last chapter seemed to be emphasizing this. The social structure is also brought about well. Steinbeck knew so well about California, its weather patterns and climate that he seems to know each piece of land personally. He also seems to be quite knowledgeable in matters of agriculture.

This novel wasn't very well received when first published (1933). But I personally love it and will come back for a second helping later. If somebody hasn't read it, I urge them to go read this wonderful book.


Cat Gun Home said...

The book is set in the early 20th century. some of the characters of the book talk about draughts in the 80's and 90's, that is 1880s and 1890s.

Best wishes,

nIlagrIva said...

Ah! but is there any way to glean this information from the book itself ?

One obvious way, which I thought of right now - after seeing your comment, is probably the trains - oh yes! Why did I not think of it before? The frequent train journeys !! I googled and saw that the TransContinental Railroad was laid in 1869. So it was definitely after that.

So I was off by 50 years - I suppose.

But don't you agree that the story has some sort of a timeless quality to it? I suppose I got carried away there. I would appreciate some more insights from your side on this novel.

Thanks for the comment.