Wednesday, February 21, 2007

How goes the night

Since my hours became desynchronised with normal society while trying to brain-storm some ideas a couple of weeks ago I've had time, late at night, when my mind was no longer in the mood to follow equations on scraps of paper to read some interesting novels which I received for Christmas.

It's been a while since I raved about a Steinbeck, simply because I haven't been able to get hold of a new one for too many months. However, in my package of Christmas goodies I received a couple which I've been intrigued about for some time.

I've talked at length about my reasons for enjoying Steinbeck so much on this blog. To sum these feelings up though, it's Steinbeck's very simple but direct language which frequently takes my breath away. Steinbeck's books are about humanity, from the joy of life to the pains of death, of lost friendship, of unrequited love, of brotherly love and brotherly hate, and it's these extremes which somehow he manages to conjure, like cannon balls, out of simple words to make your core reverberate with empathy for the characters. Most of these characters in their totality are far from those in my life but every facet is somehow embedded in the man in the street, good friends and relatives and everyone in between. Steinbeck generally focuses his books on the West coast of America in the early 20th century but still his characters resonate with modern England.

However,not all of his books are set in the dust bowl, or the depression. Steinbeck was, for a short time, a war correspondent during the second world was and was a part of the allied propaganda machine, the war effort to inform those 'back home' that the boys were strong, that times were going to improve and that though the war was a terrible thing, it was really going to be alright in the end - I simplify greatly.

Once There was a War is a collection of Steinbeck's articles written during his stay in England, in North Africa and in Italy, spending time with the troops, sometimes under fire or sheltering during bombings, sometimes in the interminable times when simply nothing happened; the times when the nerves frayed and people lost their minds. Interestingly this is not Steinbeck's writing at its best. For a start he was writing for a cause, rather than for himself and his motivations are different, his writing was also edited with pieces of information removed when deemed inappropriate. I also think that he is best at dissecting the closed soul. Here he has the soul of the soldier magnified already and so the impact of what is already a powerful set of sentiments is lost a little. It's still a fascinating, important account of what it was like to be a private, to be sat waiting for your mission, the superstitions which built up, the personalities who were never affected by the pressure and those who simply crumpled and much more.

This form is however ideal for his studies of the individual. While it may be easy to think of the war in terms of large groups of people on vast missions, he uses his skills here to look at single soldiers as well as the collective feelings. This is really a book of well-written anecdotes, not about strategy and the art of war but, as always with Steinbeck, about people and what happens when they are pushed.

The second Steinbeck is also a book written during the war but this, historically, was almost certainly a more important book in terms of boosting the moral of the allies than Once There was a War. The title of The Moon is Down is taken from Macbeth indicating the 'descent of evil powers on the kingdom' (Introduction to Penguin classics version). The book is the tale of an unnamed town in an unnamed country, similar to Norway, invaded one day by an unnamed army. There is little struggle and at first the people simply don't know what to think. The book is a tale of the resilience and simple unwillingness to be dominated of this quiet, peaceful peoples to the force which had come to disrupt their existence.

The aim of the book was very similar to the aim of Once There was a War, to boost moral, to show that the allies could win through and that the determination of the good man and woman was enough to defend against the invading force.

When it was first published, the book was heavily criticised for treating the unnamed enemy as human beings. Indeed they came across as polite, respectful within their remit and fallible, not simply as mindless machines which were on a mission to destroy everything in their path. In fact these accusations were publicised and hurt Steinbeck deeply; he had simply done what he knew best, to put a real personality to all faces of humanity.

It only became apparent after the war that this had been quite simply one of the most important pieces of propaganda literature to come out during the occupation. The book had been smuggled through a huge swathe of Western and Northern Europe, published, copied, and published again in areas for which being found with the book almost certainly meant death. The people who read the book knew that the forces occupying their towns and villages were human beings, they would not have been fooled by Übermensch characters, and the book boosted the moral of the hundreds of thousands of people who were lucky enough to get their hands on it in the translated Norwegian, Danish, Dutch and French versions.

Again, this is not Steinbeck's greatest work of fiction but it's an important historical document and another example of his understanding of our true nature.

OK, it's now getting late and while I'm still awake I want to continue reading the new book by Becker, Becker and Schwartz: String Theory and M-theory: A Modern Introduction, which I'm borrowing from the Yukawa library and I am fast becoming convinced that this is the most in depth, accessible book on string theory yet published. I'll write more soon, but so far it's proving to be excellent.

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