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Strange and mystic business

Allenby Street in Tel Aviv is a busy place at lunch time. Amidst the roadside cafes, the pizzerias, the shop fronts full of mannequins in shiny dresses and corner boutiques where people seem to be forever buying sunglasses, one can easily miss a half-open gate with its small board pointing the way to Halpers, one of the several second hand bookshops on Allenby. But once inside, time is put on hold.

There are rows of floor-to-ceiling shelves creaking with the weight of old books, there is jazz in the background and below the skin, there is the excitement of a huge and thrilling discovery. Sobriety returns in about half an hour: the shop is there to stay, there will be more visits. So for the moment, four yellowing, sweet smelling books are enough. And of the four, it’s John Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel, with its crumbling, fragile pages that I first open.


“Dear Pat: How did the time pass and how did it grow so late.” With these elegiac words, Steinbeck began this Journal, in the form of letters to his good friend and editor, Pascal “Pat” Covici as an accompaniment to the first draft of his novel East of Eden. Written from January through November 1951, there is a letter for each working day on the novel.

In fact the letters were written on the left hand side pages of the large format notebook on the right hand side of which Steinbeck was writing his book. In the end, it stood itself as an independent literary achievement, never intended for publication but eloquent about Steinbeck’s emotional condition- he was comfortably settled into a New York apartment with his third wife, recovering from the death of his best friend and from a divorce- as well as his working methods and commitment to his writing.

Most importantly, the Journal provides an honest and open view of how Steinbeck, visualised, planned and executed what he believed was his biggest book in which he was determined to use “every form, every method, every technique” that he had honed. All that had come before was regarded as only practice for this book. Set in his native Salinas Valley of California, Eden would be the classic retelling of the Cain and Able story, “the story of good and evil, of strength and weakness, of love and hate, of beauty and ugliness…” He decided to write the story as if addressing his two young sons, to ensure simplicity and directness and because he felt that unless he told them, they would never know what they came from.

And he felt prepared. “All the experiment is over now. I either write the book or I do not. There can be no excuses…..This book will be the most difficult of all I have ever attempted. Whether I am good enough or gifted enough remains to be seen. I do have a good background. I have love and I have had pain. I still have anger but I can find no bitterness in myself…I think perhaps it is the only book that I have ever written.

I think there is only one book to a man.” And this from a man who had written The Grapes of Wrath thirteen years earlier; The Winter of Our Discontent and the Nobel Prize were still a decade away. The Journal, used by Steinbeck as a warming up for the daily work on the novel, also provides a fascinating view of a novelist at work. Uphill and alone most of the time, trudging through an uncertain landscape, clinging on only to some momentary vision glimpsed through the mists of his mind, waiting for the downhill rush that may or may not come.


As most writers, Steinbeck fears the putting down of the first line. “It is amazing the terrors, the magics, the prayers, the straightening shyness that assails me…A strange and mystic business, writing.” One feels his quiet resolve, reserving the first part of every day for the book, out of “a necessary selfishness- otherwise books do not get written.” Doggedly and unhurriedly he lets the story unfold through the “slow, leisurely pyramiding of detail.” There are the good days and bad days – “some days smile and others have thin slitted eyes…”

And there are the sheer eccentricities of the craftsman: He wrote in soft, black pencil which had to be a certain length and worried constantly about having a dozen of the right ones at hand, perfectly sharpened. By the time the first draft of 350,000 words was done he had gone through 25 dozen of them and had a callus on his writing finger that he had to sandpaper down. He found relief in crafting wooden objects on his carpenter’s bench, including a paperweight that could stand on an inclining desk. The sleeplessness, the nightingale in his workroom and a hundred other such details…..Journal of a Novel is essential reading for anybody struggling with the desire to write, anybody brave enough to try, as Steinbeck says, “in utter loneliness…to explain the inexplicable.”


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