A Literary Break

Read last week: six short literary novels in five days. Three by Steinbeck; one each by Henry James and James Joyce and Leo Tolstoy. A break from my routine of reading science fiction and current nonfiction.

I had a cold last week and so didn’t have much energy to do much of anything besides sit and read. So I read several short classic literary novels (or novellas), mostly without taking notes. Here are my impressions; not any kind of deep analyses. I’ve read the Steinbeck titles before… but as you get older, of course, your perspectives expand and you understand old things in new ways.

Steinbeck was a California writer, and so OF MICE AND MEN and THE RED PONY were somewhat more meaningful to me now, than decades ago, because I’ve been through the areas where these stories are set, numerous times, even if what were farmlands and ranches to Steinbeck are full of suburban housing these days. Steinbeck can be grim, because he fully understands the brutality of the world and people’s place in it — how the world works, and how human nature works about how people behave in groups. But he’s also deeply curious, and sympathetic, about how individual people experience the world.

OF MICE AND MEN is the story of two itinerant farm hands, one a … let me find the right words; I’ll use Wikipedia’s … ‘mentally disabled’ man, gentle in some ways, accidentally brutal in others. I noticed the author’s technical skill in straightforward foreshadowing — how a backstory incident in Weed foreshadows an incident in this story; how an episode in putting down an elderly dog foreshadows the end of this novel. For incidental reasons this seems to be one of the most challenged, and banned, books in the US. Its ending is startling and brutal, yet compassionate in a way. Once read, you will never forget it.

THE RED PONY gets a lot of authority from the author’s obvious experience with living on ranches and raising horses; no one could describe such details without having experienced it. The book is a sort of ‘story-cycle,’ its four chapters originally published separately; in fact the four are so short (less than 100 pages) the original publisher added an earlier, unconnected story, “Junius Maltby,” at the end, that features some especially quirky characters, though the story is more sketchy and less dramatized than Steinbeck’s later work.

Of THE RED PONY’s four chapters, the one that especially struck me was “The Leader of the People,” in which the family is visited by a grandfather who once led the wagon trains across the prairies to settle the west. And won’t stop talking about them, telling his stories over the over, every time he visits. Only the young boy — he of the pony and the colt — is interested in hearing his stories. It’s sad, really; the grandfather has lost his reason for living. It’s also an expression of how, for some,  life was better in the old days, and the only hope, aside from retelling the stories, is the idea that a new frontier might open up.

(I had to check about the difference between a pony and a colt. Now I know.)

And THE PEARL, while not set in California, is again focused on ordinary people, in this case a poor pearl-fisherman at the edge of a coastal town in Baja California. It’s a classic ironic situation: the fisherman finds a gigantic pearl, surely worthy a great amount of money, and discovers that it causes him nothing but trouble. And leaves him, ultimately, worse off than before. Here there’s a strong theme about community, how everything can work smoothly, but how any disruption can wreck it. There’s also insight into the dual aspects of human nature — much discussed in modern disquisitions of evolutionary psychology — that is, how altruistic social motives ride side by side with selfish motives, the consideration by every individual about how they might take advantage of the situation — the fisherman’s finding of the great pearl — to his own advantage. The disruptions that can wreck a community come when the selfish motivations override the social. (Wilson’s individual selection v group selection is one take on this eternal.)

This last leads me to note, again, how the best literary writers have long perceived the ideas that modern psychologists are now nailing down with experiment and evolutionary theory. I discussed this a few days ago in this post.


Henry James “The Turn of the Screw” is famously a ghost story, one of the most renowned ever. I had never read it before, but I’d gathered that is was famously ambiguous. Superficially it concerns a governess sent to take care of two children on behalf of their absent uncle, a man she is instructed to never contact about the children’s concerns. The story is told through layers (and in prose like glue): first from a narrator to friends before a fire, then via a manuscript left by that governess, and then from the governess’ perspective, with the realization that she is likely an unreliable narrator.

Once the governess arrives at the estate, she learns that the boy under her charge, returning home from school, will not be accepted back, for elusive reasons. The governess sees figures, first a man, then a woman, on the estate and in the house, whom the housekeeper identifies, from her descriptions, as the governess’ predecessor and her lover. Who both left their employment and subsequently… died, though the housekeeper doesn’t know how. The governess comes to think she’s seeing the ghosts of the two, who are haunting the boy and girl, to corrupt them, though those children say they have seen nothing. Nor has the housekeeper — only the governess writing the manuscript claims to have seen anything. The governess gets more and more alarmed as her personal visions become more frequent, even as no one else notices them — and yet (spoiler) in a climax with one of the visions outside a window, clutching the boy to protect him — the boy dies in her arms.

Or did he? What’s the bit at the beginning about the narrator by the fire telling about a women who was governess to his sister? Who’s the narrator..? The boy whom the governess thinks died at the end? Should I try to figure this out?

The context of the story is as interesting as the story itself perhaps, how James was challenging the commonplace Victorian assumption that children were always pure. (An assumption overridden, perhaps needless to say, by a century of understanding how basic human nature is built into us by evolution.) Wikipedia discusses the shifts in critical analysis of this story: from plain ghost story, to one about figments of imagination, to interpretations via structuralism or Marxism or feminist thinking.

What struck me especially was a passage I read about how the author, in later editions of the book, deliberately revised passages so to be *more* ambiguous and less subject to rational interpretation. So what is a modern reader to do? Some writers, like Gene Wolfe, write ambiguous stories that can actually be figured out, if only indirectly. But James it seems was playing with his readers, or perhaps simply writing a “story” that defied any single interpretive mode. Thus people see in it whatever they want to see. Perhaps that was James’ point.


And then James Joyce’s “The Dead,” another long story that has been published as a stand-alone book in many editions, though which was first published as the last story in his book The Dubliners, a set of stories that famously depicted the daily life of people in Dublin, Ireland.

The story is set on one evening. It relates, rather matter-of-factually, the gathering of people to a Christmas-time party in Dublin. As they gather, they meet and dance, have dinner, listen to a piano recital, and so on. Minor themes emerge, such as one in which the main character, Gabriel Conroy, who writes book reviews for the “Unionist” newspaper The Daily Express, is accused — while dancing — of being a “West Briton,” i.e. a supporter of the English control of Ireland. Another theme concerns Gabriel’s concern over his obligation to give a speech after dinner, and his worry about citing a phase by the poet Robert Browning, which he worries would go over the head of his audience. (He gives the speech, a bland speech admiring his hosts, and doesn’t cite Robert Browning.)

The narrative is an acute observance of people at a particular time and place. The key event of the story occurs as the guests leave, and Gabriel Conroy observes his wife hesitating at the top of the stairs (from the main floor down to the entryway) … apparently because she is listening to a pianist playing a particular song. When she descends, she is flushed. Did she have some connection with the pianist…? He suspects.

All of the previous themes give way to the events in the final pages. Gabriel has realized his wife has been distracted, by the song she heard (or by the pianist?). As the couple return to their hotel room, she confesses: the song reminded her of a boy she loved, and who died young. Gabriel had never known. He lies in bed, and considers how the past never lets us go; we are all, in our daily lives, driven by the present but also by the past, by those who are now dead. Outside the snow is falling, and he realizes how the snow falls over everyone, the living and the dead. And that’s the end.

This is a profound insight, of course, and I’m almost startled to note how some modern writers consider this one of the great short stories of all time. Because of the profundity of realizing there’s more to life than everyday circumstances, that we all subject to forces beyond our control? Because one’s own life is but a small episode in a vast spectacle in which more people have died than are alive right now? That the indifferent stars look down on us all, that the snow falls on all of us, and doesn’t care?

But that’s exactly what the best science fiction does. It finds perspectives about reality beyond individual experience, and places human activity in the context of a great, cosmological reality. Granted, there’s lots of superficial, gaudy, childish, simplistic science fiction out there, but the best of SF, that is what it aspires to, and frequently does.

In that sense, James Joyce’s “The Dead” is a work that science fiction readers can admire and respect. Or any reader with a broad idea of what literature is about, beyond the minutia of daily existence.


Finally, Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, first published in 1886, following the two enormous novels for which he is best known (War and Peace and Anna Karenina… which I’ve not read). It’s about an ordinary Russian bureaucrat and the ups and downs of his career and his marriage. Until he becomes sick — the result of a bump to his abdomen while hanging drapes! — and gradually confronts the prospect of death. It’s an outrage; he can’t quite grasp how this could be happening to him.

What’s impressionable here is the intricacies of Russian bureaucracy, and the Russian penchant for long patronymic names. And the sad state of medicine in the late 19th century. There is no concept about how some injury to an internal organ has brought all this about. Medical treatments were rudimentary, and in hindsight, mostly worthless. (Lewis Thomas gave some flavor of this in the book reviewed here.)

Often the commentary and context of works of fiction from over a hundred years ago is as interesting as the stories themselves. We can’t now completely understand the context in which these works were written, and thus how the author was challenging assumptions of his time. But the very long introduction to the Bantam Classic edition shown in the photo at top makes the point that while Tolstoy was very conscientious about the idea of death, he figured most people were not, and so writes a story about one of them.

Today? Isn’t it different? Medicine is far more advanced than it was in the 19th century, and at the same time TV watchers are bombarded by advertisements for this or that medicine to treat this or that symptom that you may never have realized you had! The threat of death is everywhere. Certainly people are aware of it. This is what strikes me about the difference in Tolstoy’s world and today’s world. No doubt literary critics could entail many other crucial literary themes. What I see is how the world has changed from then until now. While the verities of life and death have not.

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