John Steinbeck – Burning Bright

Originally posted November, 2011

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Artifice Alight but Alright

If you teach GCSE English in this country, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is the holy grail of engaging in educational pragmatism: teaching a book of unquestionable literary quality that is accessible, meaningful, challenging and examinable for all. That this is the only prose literally hundreds of thousands of young people here will ever know in any depth is both glorious and despairing, but I’m not pursuing that paradox now. Come January 2012, my next examination period, I will no doubt be reading and assessing hundreds of more OMAM responses, and I love it.

Like the other millions who know Steinbeck’s work well, I am a devoted fan, both as reader and teacher. I read most of his work when I was 19 years old: in brief, whilst working on the farm I once spent a few weeks driving a tractor and trailer that collected silage and this entailed long periods of simply waiting my turn to have the latter filled, and in these moments I read Steinbeck’s novels, there in the tractor cab. That said, I do recall exactly where I was when I finished The Grapes of Wrath, my favourite novel of all authors: in the small second bedroom of my cottage. I can’t remember where I was when JFK was shot, or the moon landing, but I do when I read that astonishing ending. And what a colossal work: the storyline, the politics and philosophy, the dialogue, the intercalary chapters with their metaphoric reflections, the biblical prose and the expansive descriptive narrative.

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This is by way of introducing and writing briefly about Burning Bright which I have just finished. As I said recently, I thought I had read all of Steinbeck’s work but found this untouched on the shelf. It is problematic as a read in a way his other work isn’t. I chose not to read Steinbeck’s own forward at the beginning, though I did after the first Act, a clue I had missed when I began. The opening descriptive detail is classic Steinbeck, for example in the introduction to Joe Saul,

A lithe and stringy man of middle age, Joe Saul. His jaws muscled against strain and cables down the sides of his neck. His arms were white and blue-veined, with the long chords of clinging and hanging rather than the lumps of lifting. His hands were white, the fingers spatulate, and palms and fingers calloused from the rope and bar.

The setting for Act One is a circus, and the opening detail is typically taut and clear in presenting place and the four main characters: Joe Saul, Friend Ed, Mordeen and Victor. We see immediately the tent where Joe is getting ready to perform and the stubbled field where this and others are pitched. We also see immediately that he is a trapeze artist and Friend Ed is a clown, and so on. Simple and succinct and vivid. It is soon apparent, however, that the dialogue is full of artifice. When Friend Ed enters, he speaks with a knowing that doesn’t ring true, but background detail – Joe’s loss of his wife and partner – is quickly conveyed in the rather heavy opening exchanges.

At this point I sensed the theatricality of the dialogue and turned to the forward where Steinbeck talks about the experimentation of writing this as a ‘play novelette’ and his rationale for doing so – obviously referencing the roots of this in Of Mice and Men – so my instinct was correct though I should have known this anyway, considering myself to know his work well!

And here is an example of the artifice and melodrama in the speech,

Joe Saul stirred. ‘Yes, I know that. But something like a ceremony, something like a golden sacrament, some pearl like a prayer or a red flaring ruby of thanks. Some hard, tangible humility of mine that she can hold in the palm of her hand or wear dangling from a ribbon at her throat.’

The artifice is carried into the structure too, the four Acts taking us with the same characters and situation/plot into wholly different contexts – from circus, to farm, to the sea [on a freighter], and to a hospital room. The central plot twist is also quite evident near the end of Act One, so it is a highly crafted, and visibly so construction. As a tale of love, friendship, self-sacrifice, deceit and human compulsion, it tackles the major literary and real human themes. I think I would find a stage production as inevitably stilted, and because Steinbeck attempts to embrace both prosaic and theatrical genres, it is ultimately – but because it is him – a jack of both and marginal master of each. And perhaps my experimental appropriation of a summation is equally contentious.

So would I recommend it? Of course – it’s Steinbeck! Even with the stylised dialogue and plot projection I found the story compelling, from simply wanting to know how it ended, to being fascinated by the experimentation and wanting to see/read it through. When first published in 1951 [as a companion piece to The Pearl; it was first published as a single volume in 1971] it was, apparently, criticised in reviews both as prose and as a play, though the experimentation was acknowledged more positively, this a little condescending though if I’m honest I suspect I too value it for this creative impulse over its realisation.

I have located a video version of a 1959 stage production of Burning Bright and I am intrigued enough to want to see if I can get this. I wasn’t able to find a picture of my single volume Pan edition, but I do like the two versions I did find, which both focus illustratively on BB rather than The Pearl [the latter of course highly regarded] and it is interesting how those images so clearly ‘sell’ the human relationship drama as soap opera!

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One thought on “John Steinbeck – Burning Bright

  1. Pingback: Roger McGough – The State of Poetry | mikeandenglish

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