Today read / listened to a fabulous propaganda novel

The-moon-is-down.jpgToday I read Steinbeck’s short novel The Moon Is Down, which is about a small town that gets captured by an invading army (obviously the Germans, though their country isn’t named) and embarks on a campaign of quiet resistance.

This book was written as an explicit piece of propaganda! Steinbeck was working with the OSS, the precursor to the CIA, when he wrote it, and the book quickly spread through various resistance movements in Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, and France, who translated it and distributed it at great personal cost. The book became a huge hit, even during the war, and afterwards, when it was published in legal editions, it sold out pretty large print runs in all those countries.

Meanwhile, at home, the US literary critics were debating whether it was worthwhile as a piece of propaganda or not. The problem, some critics claimed, was that the Steinbeck had given a too-kind and too-romantic picture of the invaders. He portrays them as a bunch of average guys who’re forced to do a dirty job. They don’t want to shoot innocent people. They don’t want to commit genocide. They don’t even want to be rude. They’re thoroughly ordinary folks. And the claim was that by downplaying the horrors of life under Nazi rule, he would discourage resistance.

I don’t know what to say to that, but the book’s popularity kind of speaks for itself. Actually, according to the introduction to the book, nobody realized how popular the book had been during the occupation until about fifty years afterward, when somebody collected all these stories, and they realized the sheer number of illegal copies that had circulated.

It’s a very interesting thing, though, this intersection of art and ideology. And there is something very compelling about the idea that truthfulness and subtlety make for the most compelling propaganda.

Quick thoughts on books that I haven’t read in a long time

  • gone_windI’ve only read Gone With The Wind once, when I was in 9th grade, but it made a huge impression on me. I still remember its strangely hopeful ending. There was something so perfect about Scarlett deciding to go back to Tara and regroup. It was exactly the right note on which to end the book. That was also the book that taught me that heroes don’t need to be sympathetic; they just need to be interesting. Scarlett was unintelligent, selfish, and cruel, but there was something riveting about her: she demonstrated how far you can get in life on sheer ruthlessness.
  • I was thinking the other day about Voltaire’s Candide. It’s a famous book, but not as widely-read as it should be. I think this one book that’s seriously suffered from being labeled ‘literature.’ Whenever you hear about it, it’s described as some deep philosophical tract on the education of the youth. But that’s not it at all. It’s a super-fun romp. It’s way more Arabian Nights than Bhagavad Gita. And it’s also weirdly bawdy and horrifying. People die in monstrous ways and if they don’t die, they degenerate and become haggard shells of themselves. It’s definitely worth an afternoon of anyone’s time.
  • One year, I spent so much time reading Saul Bellow and I’ve retained very little of it. It’s all blended together and left me only a mental picture of a slovenly but handsome man of letters who wanders around making caustic judgments on the people around him. Anyone who’s going to read him should just start with Ravelstein and then maybe not go any further. It’s not only one of his shortest books, but it also feels like his kindest and his least self-absorbed.
  • I wish George Orwell had written more nonfiction books. I enjoyed Homage To Catalonia, Road To Wigan Pier, Down and Out In Paris And London, and Fifty Essays much more than I enjoyed any of his novels (and I enjoyed his novels quite a lot). No one explains stuff quite as gently and kindly as he doess
  • On Wednesday, I saw The Silver Linings Playbook, which has a scene where the main character reads the end of A Farewell To Arms and then gets angry and throws it out the window. I loved A Farewell To Arms and I think its last line (one of the most famous last lines in literature) is an exactly perfect one. That line should not have been anything else. It’s deeply affecting and it, obviously, added something to the toolkit of modern literature. But that last line is also very upsetting, because it feels cheap. You have a character who’s cool and collected and slightly shell-shocked and then, at the very climax of the book, you pull away from him and refuse to pierce that dignity. It feels like the book can’t bear to ever allow its protagonist to ever seem less than utterly manly. And I don’t think that books should be solicitous of their characters in precisely that way.
  • John Steinbeck is so weird. I still find it hard to believe that the author of Grapes of Wrath could’ve also written Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row. They’re all about impoverished people, but Grapes is so righteously angry in a way that the other two simply are not. Tortilla and Cannery almost kind of glorify a life of poverty and portray poor people (or at least certain subsets of poor people) as being more genuine and more authentically in touch with life. But Grapes says exactly the opposite: it’s about how poverty destroys families and shreds human dignity. Ever since I read Tortilla Flat, I’ve never been able to get excited about Steinbeck in the same way. It’s a good and interesting book, but it’s also repulsive and cold-hearted one and, honestly, more than a bit racist. I still haven’t read East of Eden. Every description of it makes it sound rather unappetizing to me (a retelling of Adam and Eve using a ranching family in 1930s and 1940s Salinas, California), but I really do need to get around to that someday.
  • Other strangely-unappealing books that I’m constantly picking up and putting down and which I plan on getting around to sometime in the next forty years:
    • Crime And Punishment
    • For Whom The Bell Tolls
    • Ulysses
    • Gravity’s Rainbow
    • As I Lay Dying and Light in August
    • Middlesex
    • Song of Solomon and Beloved
    • A Passage To India
    • Mrs. Dalloway
    • Lord of the Flies
    • Invisible Man
    • Where I’m Calling From