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Clement's Corner: The Journal

Owen Clement absorbs himself in the thoughts and journal of Nobel prize-winning novelist John Steinbeck.

Quote from John Steinbeck’s, EAST OF EDEN ‘Journal of a novel.’:
‘November 1, Thursday
Today I should be pretty close to finishing …
You can see it is going to be a tough day. But I’ll do the best I can …’

I put the book aside after reading those closing lines and wondered why I held onto it. I had sold most of my books before moving into my retirement unit. The reason, I decided, was that it carried me into the world of how one writer thinks and works.

The author, John Steinbeck, while writing the first draft of his book, East of Eden, wrote letters to his long-time friend and editor, Pascal Covici. Pascal had given Steinbeck a blue-lined book to use for the purpose of writing his novel. Steinbeck had drawn a line down the middle of each page. On one side he wrote to Pascal, whom he called ‘Pat’, and on the other, he wrote his story. According to the introduction, Steinbeck wrote to Pascal to overcome writer’s block and to organise his thoughts. It is also interesting that Pascal did not see any of this until he was given the first draft of the book almost a year after Steinbeck began writing it.

The journal is part diary, part letter and part ramblings of personal matters and day-to-day occurrences. But most importantly, his thoughts were constantly on the characters, the plot and Salinas Valley in California, where the action took place. For a budding writer like myself, and I am sure many others, I found it a fascinating exercise.

The journal is also filled with serious thinking about the novel - his ‘most ambitious’ and about novel writing and some of his deepest convictions.

These letters were never meant for publication, as he never revised them in any way. That is another part of their charm.

The book, according to him, is about his country, about good and evil, about strength and weakness, about love and hate and beauty and ugliness. He goes on to demonstrate how these doubles are inseparable, how neither can exist without the other and how out of these groupings creativeness is born.

He concentrates on two families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons and the theme of the book is from Cain and Abel in the Bible. The Hamiltons were taken from members of his family on his mother’s side.

This is where it becomes even more intriguing. The Journal was first published in 1970, twenty eight years after East of Eden was first published. Pascal had died in 1962 and Steinbeck in 1968. Although the journal was written to Pascal, Steinbeck says, the story was written for his two sons, Thom and John who were only six and four in 1951. They would not read the book until they were grown men. The only scenario in my opinion was that Dorothy Covici, Pascal’s wife, typed out Steinbeck’s letters to her husband. In the process she edited out any slanderous matter that would have affected those still living. She then showed it to Steinbeck’s third wife, Elaine, and between them they decided to have it published.

I was fortunate to discover the book amongst others no longer wanted in the Coffs Harbour Library.

Now that I have re-read the journal I am keen to once again read, East of Eden, to try and understand what it was that made me hang on to the journal. It is not a book which would appeal to those who are not fans of Steinbeck, especially of East of Eden. I still find it an enjoyable read.

There is one final letter to Pascal where Steinbeck writes his dedication, prologue, argument, apology, epilogue and perhaps his epitaph all in one. Also in that section there is a brief dialogue between the editor, the sales department and the proof reader and the writer, which could be fact of fiction.

I will leave the final word to Steinbeck who says, ‘A book is like a man - clever and dull, brave and cowardly, beautiful and ugly. For every flowering thought there will be a page like a wet and mangy mongrel, and for every looping flight a tap on the wing and a reminder that wax cannot hold the feathers firm too near the sun.

Well - then the book is done. It has no virtue any more. The writer wants to cry out –“Bring it back! Let me rewrite it or better - Let me burn it. Don't let it out in the unfriendly cold in that condition”.

As you know better than most, Pat, the book does not go from writer to reader. It goes first to the lions - editors, publishers, critics, copy readers, sales department. It is kicked and slashed and gouged. And its bloodied father stands attorney.’

By Owen R. Clement ©Clement 2011


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