Smuggling Steinbeck under the Nazis’ noses
A piece of wartime propaganda confirmed that the genius of the ‘Grapes of Wrath’ writer lay in his understanding of people
A German soldier sitting on a sledge in occupied Norway, in 1940 or 1941, the imagined setting of The Moon is Down. Photograph: Imagno/Getty Images
The Moon Is Down
It remains a curiosity, if an important one. No admirer of John Steinbeck, the 1962 Nobel laureate in literature, would claim that The Moon I s Down (1942) ranks among his finest writings. Yet this second-rate novella is fascinating as blatant but well-intentioned propaganda that Steinbeck offered as a contribution to the war effort. He had to battle for it, and even make major plot changes, but Steinbeck proved eerily intuitive. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise: by then he had already written Of Mice and Men (1937) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939). East of Eden would follow in 1952.
Although a bestseller and Book-of- the-Month Club choice in the US, outselling The Grapes of Wrath by two to one, The Moon I s Down divided US critics, many of whom dismissed it. It did win the popular readership, however, a large percentage of which was loyal to Steinbeck – who, at his best, was a great writer.
It was the book’s astonishing reception in occupied Europe, where it was read in hastily translated versions often smuggled to readers under the noses of the Nazis, that guaranteed its enduring appeal. If fiction can be said to inspire, console and sustain, The Moon I s Down did exactly that.
It also confirmed that Steinbeck’s genius lay in his understanding of people. Few writers would have dared to do what he did in this odd little yarn with its hint of a wayward fairy tale, its moralising, its flashes of heavy comedy and, above all, its daring to present the enemy as human, scared and as confused as everyone else. It was Steinbeck’s homage not only to democracy but also to the strength of a nation’s resistance to occupation.
For a present-day reader it is well worth looking at a novella that caused its author many problems, including accusations of being sympathetic to the Nazis.
The Moon I s Down takes its title from Shakespeare’s Macbeth . When Banquo asks his son, “How goes the night, boy?” and Fleance replies, “The moon is down. I have not heard the clock,” treachery is about to assist evil.
In Steinbeck’s book a small, unnamed, apparently northern European coastal country, most likely Norway, is occupied by an invading force with the help of a sneaky local, “Mr Corell, the popular shopkeeper”. The citizens are shocked at the betrayal, which has been cunningly choreographed by a fellow citizen: “The local troops, all twelve of them, had been away, too, on this Sunday morning, for Mr Corell, the popular shopkeeper” – note Steinbeck’s use of repetition – “had donated lunch, targets, cartridges, and prizes for a shooting-competition to take place six miles back in the hills, in a lovely glade Mr Corell owned.”
Although the local troops, whom Steinbeck describes as “big, loose-hung boys”, hear the approaching aircraft and see the parachutes of the invaders, and quickly return to town, where they open fire, they are no match for the enemy: “The machine guns clattered for a moment and six of the soldiers became dead riddled bundles.”
The tone remains unexpectedly light. The scene moves to the mayor’s home, where a fussy servant, Joseph, is fretting over the furniture and old Dr Winter, “bearded and simple and benign, historian and physician to the town”, twiddles his thumbs and inquires about the impending meeting with the occupying forces.
Even more light-hearted is the off-stage introduction of Mayor Orden, who is sitting in some discomfort while his bossy wife attempts to trim the hair in his ears. The mayor and his wife gently continue bickering, apparently unaware of what has happened. When it becomes obvious that the senior officers are about to arrive and discuss their conditions, the lady mayor is concerned about what to offer them, “tea or a glass of wine?”
At this point Steinbeck begins to get serious, and the mayor announces: “I don’t think the people will like it. I don’t want to drink wine with them [the enemy]. I don’t know why” – although it is all still rather vague.
Steinbeck describes the enemy officers in details; he variously presents the men as eccentric, introverted, self-absorbed and mildly ridiculous. “Lieutenant Tonder was a poet, a bitter poet who dreamed of perfect, ideal love of elevated young men for poor girls. Tonder was a dark romantic with a vision as wide as his experience. He sometimes spoke blank verse under his breath to imaginary dark women. He longed for death on the battlefield.”
Slowly but surely the people emerge from their shock and reveal their resentments. The central catalyst is the coal mine. The enemy wants the coal, but the local miners object to being ordered to work. Violence escalates, and the traitor’s life is known to be at risk. A young man intending to strike one officer kills another and in turn is to be executed, leaving his beautiful young widow prey to the aspiring poet. Lanser, the commanding officer, demands that the mayor pronounce sentence.
No matter which way one reads this, the writing is stilted and uneven, uneasily balanced between satire and melodrama. It reads as a play – and was performed on stage in a version scripted by Steinbeck. Yet the most consistent criticism was that it humanised the enemy.
Steinbeck’s theme is resistance. Lanser recalls an elderly Belgian woman from many years earlier who, although apparently collaborating, was in fact systematically killing soldiers with her long, black hatpin.
Early in the second World War, before the US was involved, Steinbeck had been invited by its Foreign Information Service to discuss ways of combating Nazi propaganda. According to one of his biographers, Jay Parini, Steinbeck never worked officially for the service, but he enjoyed saying that he had written The Moon I s Down on assignment.
Presented with a medal
Ironically, the Californian, who had drawn such inspiration from his home state in his work, wrote The Moon I s Down while living on the east coast. The Foreign Information Service did not like the book, particularly as in the first version the action takes place in a midsized American town under German occupation. Steinbeck was ordered to change that detail, so the action moved to northern Europe. For the Norwegians it was as if Steinbeck had shared their experience of being occupied. The king of Norway presented him with a medal.
But before that was to happen the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, on December 7th, 1941, and the United States entered the war. Steinbeck reacted quickly. In little over a week he made the requested changes. “I placed the story in an unnamed country, cold and stern like Norway, cunning and implacable like Denmark, reasonable like France. The names of the people in the book I made as international as I could. I did not even call the Germans Germans but simply invaders . . . and sent it to press.”
As a work of literature The Moon I s Down compares very poorly with the Norwegian writer Roy Jacobsen’s wonderful The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles (2005; English translation 2007), which is set during the Russian invasion of Finland, in 1939, or the Albanian master Ismail Kadare’s magnificent The Fall of the Stone City (2008; English translation 2011), which, part thriller, part parable, is a sophisticated study of resistance on many levels, unlike The Moon I s Down .
Even so, not for the first time in his career – and in an admittedly minor work – Steinbeck showed that he could combine the astuteness of a journalist with the empathy of an artist who always placed humanity first. Steinbeck was a campaigner at heart, but he was also a natural storyteller, and therein rests his genius.