Originally published in 1935, Tortilla Flat – Steinbeck’s fourth novel and the first which he found success with – is purported to be ‘also his funniest’ work. The premise of the novel – set during the Great Depression, ‘when friendship and wine meant more than money’ – intrigued me so much that I found myself immediately adding it to my Classics Club list:
To borrow from the official blurb, the main plotlines of Tortilla Flat are as follows: “Danny is a paisano, descended from the original Spanish settlers who arrived in Monterey, California, centuries before. He values friendship above money and possessions, so when he suddenly inherits two houses [from his grandfather], Danny is quick to offer shelter to his fellow gentlemen of the road. Together, their love of freedom and scorn for material things draws them into daring and often hilarious adventures. That is, until Danny, tiring of his new responsibilities, suddenly disappears…”.
The Penguin edition (pictured) is introduced by Thomas Fensh. I find that often, Penguin’s introductions do tend to give an awful lot of the plot away, so rather than begin by reading it, I left it until after I’d immersed myself into the story. Fensh writes that, ‘for many who read Tortilla Flat during the Depression, the novel was pure escapism and entertainment’. Within the novel, Steinbeck begins to discuss ‘the poor and the downtrodden’, a group of people whom he focused upon in many of the works which followed. In his own foreword to the 1937 Modern Library Edition of Tortilla Flat, Steinbeck ‘suggests the ecological principle that an organism will adapt to its environment: the paisanos are, he writes, “people who merge successfully with their habitat. In men this is called philosophy, and it is a fine thing”.’
In his preface, Steinbeck sets the scene and tone of the whole in his distinctive manner: ‘This is the story of Danny and of Danny’s friends and of Danny’s house… when you speak of Danny’s house you are understood to mean a unit of which the parts of men, from which came sweetness and joy, philanthropy and, in the end, a mystic sorrow. For Danny’s home was not unlike the Round Table, and Danny’s friends were not unlike the knights of it’. Tortilla Flat itself, in which both of Danny’s properties are situated, is ‘that uphill district above the town of Monterey… although it isn’t a flat at all’. Characteristically, too, Tortilla Flat features rather a varied cast of characters, all of whom are held back by their circumstances, but who, largely, try to make the best of life.
Whilst Tortilla Flat is nowhere near Steinbeck’s best work, it is on a par with Cannery Row, and shares many of the same themes to boot. Socially, the novel is of much importance; it gives us as readers a lens through which to view those affected by the Great Depression. Steinbeck is adept at weaving in many different themes, and of particular interest here is his demonstration as to how easy it is to both take advantage of others, and to be taken advantage of. The prose style is rather simplistic in places, but throughout it feels fitting, and the stories nestled within stories gives the whole a marvellous sense of depth.