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Monday, December 31, 2012

 

First sentences: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green.

The landscape outlasts the characters in this book: we begin with a future death scene.

According to his star, John Wayne, the famous Westerns director John Ford used to say (quoted from memory, as I no longer have the video on which he said it), 'Give them the scene then give them the scenery, give them the scenery then give them the scene, but you can't give both at once.' Whether or not this dictum was influenced by the novels of John Steinbeck, that great maker of Americana, it's probably hard to say, but Steinbeck is writing of the people of a place, and even in so short a book as Of Mice and Men, the place must have its moment before its people if we are to feel, as they do, the weight of the landscape. We begin in the big, empty landscape that will loom against the loneliness of every soul in this book.

What we don't know, until we reread the novel, is that we're seeing a place that is, pre-emptively, haunted. The two men who will enter it on the next page will finish the story here too, and one of them will die at the hands of the other. Not a murder, but something sadder: a man whose mental incapacity has finally created a situation that will destroy him, and his best friend offering the only protection left to him - a quick, kind death at his hands rather than a slow, cruel one at the hands of his pursuers. Inevitability is in the wind, and tragedy. This isn't just a setting: it's a warning, a funeral in advance, like a river flowing uphill.

Even the name of the landscape is melancholic and forboding: 'Soledad' may be a town in California, but the word itself means 'solitude'. 'Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world,' George tells his simple-minded friend Lennie in a practiced, repeated bedtime story, and the setting does not contradict him. Etymologically, we're a few miles south of solitude, just about as alone as it gets.

We are alone here, without even the characters to keep us company. More than that, we are alone in the same way the characters will be: in the present tense. They will be written in the past tense, but we see things as if we were standing right there, characters in our own right. The Salinas river 'drops in' - not 'dropped in', but 'drops', a river that will outlive the men who pass it: Lennie and George may go in and out of the landscape, but its time will exceed theirs, and probably ours too. What we see is a place that exists outside the human span. Lennie and George will bring with them the conventional narrative past tense - though even then, their past-tense coming will be heralded by the landscape: 'Evening of a hot day started the little wind to moving among the leaves,' the third paragraph begins, and we hear their footsteps and see the birds take flight before they finally enter the book in its last sentence - but what we are seeing is a place that just is. It has melancholic human names, but it doesn't care about people. We see it first as if we were walking through it, for everyone lives in their own present-tense narrative, and it feels eternal. We come to it, and it is unaffected by our presence.

The present tense also gives the feeling that the narrative is informing us - which it is, of course, but informing us about more than just geography. While Steinbeck's language is plain, it is also evocative - and after the bleak name of 'Soledad', we see unions begin to creep in. The river 'drops in close' and 'runs deep', language that, while not quite metaphorical, suggests a river in motion not just in the flow of its water but in the curve of its bed, as if the river itself were walking through the landscape, hugging the hill for company - almost as if its depth were refreshed by the hill's companionable presence. The rhythm of its movement is balanced, almost musical, the three beats of 'drops in close' balanced by the three beats of 'hillside bank', followed up by the sweet assonance of 'deep and green': while 'Soledad' is lonely and 'Salinas', 'salty', sounds sterile (the river actually isn't, but it's there in the name), there is a sense of revival by the linking of these two geographical features. Likewise, there's a sense of pairing between those two names - both foreign to us, readers of English confronted with a double strike of Spanish, but there's consistency between the two. It makes the landscape sound the more alienating to our Anglo protagonists, hiking as they are through a land named by another culture, but this is a sentence, nonetheless, of pairings. Beginning with solitude, we see a world where even the geography seems to hunger for company - where to be 'close' to something, even something as dissimilar as a hill to a river, makes experience 'deep and green', less parched than before.

Which is, of course, a foreshadowing of the novel's theme: burdensome and maddening though George often experiences Lennie to be, he is a companion in a world of isolation, a bringer of meaning and comfort even with all the discomforts that life as the protector of an overgrown child can involve. As the paragraph continues, the water begins 'twinkling', we see trees, lizards, rabbits, racoons, dogs, deer: in a big landscape, this is a place of relative comfort. The river hugging the hill has created a place that draws people, as the second paragraph shows us with a path 'beaten hard' by workers and tramps coming to rest here. The shadow of solitude falls over us, but this is a place where things come together, and their union - hill and bank, trees and animals - creates a kinder environment that people seek out for comfort.

We are without people in this first sentence, entering the landscape slowly - it's a big place, and it takes time to travel. What we see is a place of lushness, despite the harsh human names, a place where things can act together to create a sweeter space. But the sweetness won't last; in the end, it will be a place of peace, but only the peace of death; a place of comfort, but only the comfort of a few last seconds of company before the horror falls. What we are hearing is not a celebration, but an elegy, and the companionable landscape only makes the coming failure of human relationships, the impending solitude, all the more poignant.

Comments:
I've read a lot of writing advice on the importance of starting a story in media res, to get the reader involved and excited about the action, to grab the reader's interest quickly and all that. But I've always loved Steinbeck's beginnings, how he takes a few pages before the story to talk about the river and the trees and the land. I suppose it takes a writer of Steinbeck's calibre to pull it off.
 
I think one might say that Steinbeck also begins in media res; it's just that the cultural and geographical background are major players in the story. The tale of Lennie and George is engrossing and harrowing, but it has the heft it has precisely because they inhabit so specific a world: their friendship rests on being the exception to 'guys like us, that work on ranches'. It works in two ways: they both become more than themselves, mythic representatives of a broader principle of of hope that fails, and more entirely themselves, because we know more about the setting that shapes them.

Which means that to understand them, and to understand what a dreadful loss their relationship truly is, we have to understand what being a guy who works on ranches normally involves - which in turn, involves understanding how and where such a person lives, the big distances that separate him from the rest of the world, the rough living conditions that mean a fortuitous swimming hole or an easy dirt track can make a genuine difference in his quality of life, the scattered settlements that make for a life of solitude.

I'd say it's not that it takes a writer of Steinbeck's calibre to make a landscape description into a strong opening - or rather, it is, but that's because it takes a Steinbeck to make a description of the landscape a relevant opening, to make it so much of the story that just seeing a river pool tells us as much or more as hearing a conversation.
 
To a modern California audience, Soledad is also associated with the State Prison there. Alas, this is a modern anachronism: the prison wasn't founded until 1946, while Of Mice and Men was published in 1937.
 
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