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.
Wednesday, December 26, 2012
Mikalogue - happy Christmas Tracy!
First of all, apologies to Tracy and Jolyon: somehow your request for a charity Mikalogue ended up in my spam filter and I've only just come across it. Tracy: Jolyon has bought you a Mikalogue for Christmas!
Mika: ...Is dreamin of a dry Christmas, just like the ones Mika used to know...
Kit: Do you mean a white Christmas, sweetheart?
Mika: Nope. Is rainin and rainin and rainin Christmas. Need to go out and patrol, but world is throwin water! Not fair.
Kit: Do you really need to go patrol, honey?
Mika: Hasn't Kit heard? Is goin to be foreign invaders!
Kit: Honey, are you getting paranoid again?
Mika: No! Is big spiky cats with horns on heads going to land and eat mince kibbles! Got to patrol! Defcat One!
Kit: Do you mean Santa's reindeer, honey? I think you've got it a bit mixed up.
Mika: Is you cat?
Kit: Well, no.
Mika: Then knows nothin! Territory disputes General Mika the Mighty's province. Got to go and shoo off spiky invaders or will have shame before neighbourhood cats. Make go away!
Kit: Um - General Mika, field scout Kit reporting. It seems there may have been some disinformation spread in recent months concerning reindeer.
Kit: What? I'm not a spy!
Mika: Is too! Heard you sayin to Daddy that Santa should come cos you've been good all year.
Kit: Well, I have been soldiering away on rewrites and trying to be a good mum, yes...
Mika: YES! Heard you with big military-issue fluffy ears! You KNOW the clawheads is comin and you pretend otherwise! REPORT YOU! SPY! DOUBLE AGENT KIT! Court martial and stockades! You is for it, spy Kit!
Kit: Er - would you settle for some extra Christmas fish treats instead?
Mika: Ooh, fish treats! Gimme.
Kit: There you go, puss.
Mika: Mmmm. God rest you merry fishy treats let nothing you delay, Remember Mika Mighty Puss must always have her way, And reindeers do not mess with Mika for it doesn't pay, Oh tidings of fishy treats and kibble, fishy treats and kibble, oh gimme more for Mika deserves fishy treats!
Thursday, December 06, 2012
Mikalogue, courtesy of Tracy S
Many thanks to Tracy S, who has taken advantage of this blog's fundraising scheme to raise money for Xavier's surgery and bought herself a post of choice. Tracy requested a Mikalogue. Anyone else who'd like to get a blog post on any subject of their choosing, just make a £20 donation and e-mail me the receipt, and I'll have at it.
Mika: Out with you! Out!
Kit: Mika, honey, what are you playing at?
Mika: Out, damned squeak!
Kit: Are you playing with Nat's truck, Mika?
Mika: Mousie will succumb to Mika the Mighty's claws if it takes all day.
Kit: I don't think there's a mouse in there, honey. That squeaking is just the wheel axel.
Mika: Squeaky wheel gets the puss! Mousie will perish!
Kit: It does sound like a mouse squeaking, I agree. But it really isn't.
Mika: You is disrespectin Mika's objective relations with reality.
Kit: Mika, have you been into the Ayn Rand books again?
Mika: Mika the Individual dominates machinery with a gaunt, thrustin claw!
Kit: We've got to put those on some higher shelves.
Mika: Second-pawer, I scorn you!
Kit: Mika, why don't you get into some of Nat's books? I'm sure they'd be better for you.
Mika: Do not mention dependent second-pawer shouter of doom. Cannot tolerate.
Kit: I know, I know, we had a baby on you. But we do still love you, you know.
Mika: Steals Mika's thunder! You is corrupt self-abnegator, mumsie.
Kit: I know, it's harder to write Mikalogues now because I don't want to make Nat a character in them and he's usually in the room with you. I'm sorry about that.
Mika: Artistic compromiser! Mika scorns you. Laughs because want to laugh.
Kit: The fact remains, darling, that you're the one who's been playing with his truck for the last hour. Don't you appreciate the sharing?
Mika: Second-pawer shouter of doom can give or not give currency of toys in exchange for Mika's beautiful presence. Is his choice. Gratitude degrades freedom of exchange.
Kit: Well, at least you're getting something out of a toddler in the house...
Mika: Is gettin out mousie! Mousie come out!
Kit: I think I'm just going to leave you to your splendid isolation on this one.
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