A Russian Journal by John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. his citation reads "for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception", and A Russian Journal is an example of the power and perception of his non-fiction reportage.

It's a wonderful little book, and quite an eye-opener. Written a scant three years after the end of the Second World war, when the world was coming to terms with the advent of the Iron Curtain, John Steinbeck and his photographer Robert Capa set out to see for themselves what Russia* was like.

Not surprisingly, they met some obstacles in the form of Soviet bureaucracy and prohibitions, and since they had to rely on government-approved translators, everywhere they went they were at their mercy and had no alternative but to assume the translator had integrity. Still, much of what is written has the ring of truth because Steinbeck insisted on meeting ordinary people wherever he could.

There’s a droll slyness to the reportage. Steinbeck affects a simplicity that belies his reputation as one of America’s foremost writers. He asserts again and again that they’re reporting only what they saw and heard for themselves, but of course choices were made about what to include and what to leave out. He chooses to include commentary about idiosyncratic plumbing and queues and bizarre airline schedules. He chooses also to explain that much of the inefficiencies he sees are due to having to make-do in the period of post-war reconstruction. He chooses to omit information about schools and health care and disparities in income.

But in other ways, with the wisdom of hindsight, the journal seems naïve. We, reading this book today, know much about Stalin that Steinbeck could not: about the purges, the famines, the gulags and the ruthless repression. So when he tells us without apparent guile that Stalin’s portrait is everywhere and how people make pilgrimages to his birthplace and revere him as a father-figure, we see a different figure to the one that Steinbeck portrays. The surveillance that Steinbeck finds mildly amusing had sinister connotations, but Steinbeck could not have known about that at that time.

What Steinbeck makes clear, in his inimitable style, is that ordinary Russian people were no more keen on the idea of war than the West was, and felt equally threatened by the other side’s hostility.

To read the rest of my review please visit http://anzlitlovers.com/2011/06/15/a-russian-journal-by-john-steinbeck/

I read and blogged my review on June 15, 2011.

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© Read the NobelsMaira Gall