Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

This is a book I feel I ought to have read before now, because it's such a classic. I have seen the wonderful film, so the story is familiar to me. It is the story of the Joad family who are forced to leave their Oklahoma farm and join the exodus to California during the Depression in the 1930s.
At first I thought I was going to struggle with it because I found it so upsetting. The unfairness of it all and the way big businesses just rode roughshod over the tenant farmers with no thought for their lives, or their history on the land, or what was going to happen to them and whether they would survive.

Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves. Some of them hated the mathematics that drove them, and some were afraid, and some worshipped the mathematics because it provided a refuge from thought and from feeling. If a bank or finance company owned the land, the owner man said The Bank - or the Company - needs - wants - insists - must have - as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them.

The Joads bravely set off for California, the younger ones are excited, the older ones face the future with more trepidation. Their journey brings them into contact with others like them. They meet a man who is returning from California, he tells them there is no work, and that his children died of starvation there. But they don't want to believe him. They, like everyone else who has been driven off their land, are desperate. They have to believe there is work for them in California. They meet with kindness - usually from people as poor as themselves - and they also meet with people who are willing to trade on their vulnerability  to make a quick profit. The authorities biggest fear is that these desperate people will unite and therefore become powerful so they are harried and constantly moved on.

Of course when they get to California there is very little work and so many people that wages are driven down to below subsistence level. Some people are willing to work for food to avoid starvation. It is hard for people to keep their dignity under these circumstances but Ma Joad is determined to keep her family together and for them to keep their self respect.

The introduction (by Robert De Mott) to the Penguin edition I borrowed from the library is very interesting. Apparently Steinbeck travelled extensively in California during the Depression and saw the deprivation at first hand. So although the book is fiction it is rooted in actual events.

I ended up loving the book, though it did make me upset and angry. I think that although it is set 80 years ago, some of it is quite pertinent to today.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead, by Paula Byrne

This book is about Evelyn Waugh's life in relation to the inspiration for, and the writing of Brideshead Revisited. It's a long time since I read Brideshead but I still found this book completely fascinating. In the Preface Paula Byrne writes;

I set out to write this book because I believed that Evelyn Waugh had been persistently misrepresented as a snob and a curmudgeonly misanthrope. I did not recognise Waugh in the popular caricature of him..........I kept coming back to his relationship with a single family: the Lygons of Madresfield. I came to the conclusion that his feelings about them provided a key that could unlock the door into Waugh's inner world.

Evelyn Waugh met Hugh Lygon when they were both students at Oxford. Hugh came from an entirely different background to Evelyn's, the Lygons live in 'a heady cocktail of aristocracy, eccentricity and piety'. He was one of the seven children of William Lygon, the seventh Earl Beauchamp. The family had several homes but the children's favourite was Madresfield Court in Worcestershire. The Lygon family became the models for the Flytes and Hugh was Sebastian.

It was the era of the 'bright young things' and Waugh threw himself wholeheartedly into the drinking and the parties and the fun. Paula Byrne shows how, as something of an outsider, he was ideally place to chronicle those times. He was part of it, yet slightly removed from it. It was a heady time and there were casualties, there was alcoholism and drug addiction. Waugh chronicled this as well.

I thought this was a fascinating book, and it has certainly made me want to read more of Waugh's work. Paula Byrne's latest book is a biography of Jane Austen and I would like to read that too.