Friday, August 26, 2011

A Russian Journal by John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck was one of the authors that got me interested in reading classics a few years ago.  I'd found a list of the Modern Library's Top 100 Novels and was shocked at how few I'd read.  However, I was pretty intimidated by Steinbeck -- The Grapes of Wrath sounded so dire.  Shortly after I made the commitment to classics, I joined an online reading group, and one of the first selections I read with the group was Travels With Charley, in which Steinbeck travels around the U.S. with his dog.  How bad could that be?

Well, it wasn't bad, it was great.  And after that I had the nerve to tackle The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, and several of his other works.  I laughed and cried with Steinbeck, and someday, I hope to read his entire oeuvre.  I've read seven of his works so far, and I've liked or loved most of them.

A Russian Journal is a bit like Travels With Charley because it's a non-fiction travel memoir.  At the beginning of the Cold War, Steinbeck and his friend, Robert Capa, a respected WWII photographer, traveled around Russia for several weeks, recording his impressions.  As a famous writer, Steinbeck naturally went to receptions and speeches and events with Important People, but what he really wanted was to travel all over the country and met regular people and see what their lives were like, much like he would do in the 1960s in the United States with his dog Charley.

I found this book extremely interesting -- I've spent my whole life wanting to see other places, so I am a complete sucker for a travel memoir.  Steinbeck is a great observer of life and characters, and most people don't realize how funny he could be.  He didn't make fun of the Russian people -- he held them in the greatest respect.  Steinbeck writes really well about the humor in situations, like the nightmares of bureaucracy and the difficulties of travel.

What really struck me about this book was Steinbeck's admiration of the Russian spirit.   Steinbeck sees people who are literally living in holes in the ground, the remainder of their homes after they've been bombed out by the Germans.  It will take years to rebuild, yet the people are undaunted.  They're determined to survive.  One of my favorite parts of the book was when he describes a visit a farming community in the Ukraine, which was particularly hard-hit by the war.  Steinbeck and Capa spend an evening in a village, eating and drinking and dancing with the locals.  There are very few young men, since so many died in the fighting, so the young women dance with each other.  These young ladies work hard all day harvesting in the fields, using traditional methods since there isn't much machinery left since the war; then, they dance all night long, sleep a couple hours, and get up and go back to work in the fields.

Steinbeck found the Russian people as curious about Americans as he was about them.  He also found them to be equally concerned about nuclear war.  And more than anything, he found them warmhearted and generous.  He and Capa are constantly entertained wherever they visit.  One of the places he visited was Georgia, which sounds absolutely wonderful.  After visiting a tea plantation, they stop at many houses to visit, and at each one Steinbeck and Capa are offered food, which they couldn't bring themselves to refuse.   After they were completely stuffed, the manager of a farm asks them to stop by his home for a bite to eat, "only a token bite, as a courtesy."

We were beginning to believe that Russia's secret weapon, towards guests at least, was food. . . . It was the vision of the table that nearly killed us.  It was fourteen feet long, and it was loaded with food, and there were about twenty guests.  I think it was the only meal or dinner we ever attended where fried chicken was an hors d'oeuvre, and where each hors d'oeuvre was half a chicken. . . . [Steinbeck goes on to describe many fabulous-sounding dishes] . . . .The flavors were all new, and we wanted to taste all of them.  Capa, who prides himself on a thirty-two inch waist, and who will not let out his belt, no matter what happens, was getting a puffed look under the chin, and his eyes were slightly popped and bloodshot.  And I felt that if I could just go two or three days without eating anything, I might return to normal.

If you have any hesitation about reading Steinbeck, this is a great introduction.  His writing has a wry humor and genuine insight into the human spirit.

My thanks again to Rebecca at The Classics Circuit!  I've really enjoyed reading all the postings about Steinbeck, and look forward to more tours.


  1. Sounds really interesting, although I'll probably start with CHARLEY for his travel writing. Did your volume have the pictures that his photographer friend took? Did that enhance the reading at all. Also, did it feel like propaganda? I read that he wrote some propaganda for the USA so wondered if any was in this book too.

  2. I've only ever read The Grapes of Wrath, but it made such a powerful impression on me that I will always revere Steinbeck. I would love to read both of his travelogues - such interesting settings and times he wrote them in!

  3. Oh I loved Travels with Charley and I love Russia, so obviously I need to get my hands on this one! ;)

  4. I'm a huge Steinbeck fan, but have yet to read his travel books. Have added this to my wishlist...Travels with Charley is already there!

  5. Rebecca -- Charley is a great starting point for the travel writing. This edition does have photos, which was nice, though I would have liked captions. I wouldn't say it felt like propaganda -- Steinbeck does mention some of the official functions he has to attend, and he and Capa were frustrated when they weren't allowed to take photos in certain places. Also, at the end of the trip some of the photos were censored and taken away, which they describe at the end of the book. I think he was even trying to poke a little fun at propaganda in a way.

    Anbolyn -- I've loved both travelogs and someday I'm hoping to read The Log from the Sea of Cortez, which is about another of Steinbeck's trips, a 4,000 mile marine expedition around the Baja Peninsula.

    Eva -- it's very good, if you liked Charley you'll probably enjoy it.

    JoAnn -- his travel books are great, you get the great writing AND a travelogue. Also, they're pretty short -- this one was just over 200 pages.

  6. I really should read some of his nonfiction. I wonder how different it reads from his fiction.

  7. I had already decided that I was going to read this one soon as I've always been fascinated by Russia. It sounds great, can't wait to get it now! Thanks.

  8. Amanda -- I think you'd really like it. Maybe we should choose one for our book group next year -- we should do more Steinbeck! Unless you'd rather stick to fiction.

    Katrina -- it made me want to visit Georgia and the Ukraine. But air travel back then was just awful -- those are some of the funniest parts of the book.

  9. I read Travels With Charley a million years ago, when I was in high school, and like it, but I think I'm due for a re-read. I didn't even realize Steinbeck had written a Russian travel book, so I'll look it up. I love travel narratives from earlier years. I recently finished Tramp Royale by Robert A. Heinlein and enjoyed it. It's a quite funny recounting of a trip around the world he and his reluctant wife took in the 1950s.

  10. Thanks, now I have another Steinbeck to add to my growing TBR list. Sounds superb.

    I'm a sucker for travel memoirs as well.

    The more I learn about Steinbeck, the more I admire the man, not only for his eloquence but for his humanity, compassion, and humor.

  11. I thought I knew a little bit about Steinbeck but I've not heard of this! I must look out for it. I enjoyed Travels with Charley and if you get the chance to read Cannery Row I would recommend it.

  12. I'm scared about reading Steinback. The Russian spirit you described in this post is really similar to the one Tolstoy described in Anna Karenina.

  13. Joan.Kyler -- I didn't know Heinlen wrote a travelogue, it sounds interesting (especially the reluctant wife). I love classic travelogues too, R.L. Stevenson wrote some, Mark Twain -- that would be a great theme for another Classics Circuit!

    JaneGS -- I don't know much about Steinbeck's life but I really admire what I got from him just from his writing. Someday I'll have to read one of his biographies. There's a book called Obscene in the Extreme which is about the banning of Grapes of Wrath which sounds really interesting.

    Vintage Reading -- Cannery Row is one of my favorites by Steinbeck! My favorite part is about the frog hunting. I haven't read Sweet Thursday, the sequel, but it's on the TBR list.

    Eclectic Reader -- I was scared too! But I loved Travels with Charley, and this is great too. I think his travel writing is a very non-threatening introduction to his work. After I'd read Charley I had the guts to tackle Grapes of Wrath, and I was really pleasantly surprised.