Listening time: under 4 minutes. One of the finest pieces of prose I have read in a long time is by the photographer Robert Capa, presenting his ‘legitimate complaint’ about his friend and travelling companion John Steinbeck (Steinbeck’s own complaints about Capa pepper his account of their month-long exploration of the Soviet Union in 1946). In both cases, you sense the friendship was rock solid and that neither of them can have been easy to share a room with, let alone a bathroom.
As Capa explains it, he had to deal with not one, but three Steinbecks, each of them exasperating in their way.
The full text below if you’d like to read this ‘slow quote’ later.
Photo credit: Nobel Foundation
‘Now it is very late at night, and I am sitting in the middle of an extremely gloomy hotel room, surrounded with a hundred and ninety million Russians, four cameras, a few dozen exposed and many more unexposed films, and one sleeping Steinbeck, and I am not happy at all. The hundred and ninety million Russians are against me … Also I have three Steinbecks instead of one.
My days are long, and I begin with the morning Steinbeck. When I wake up, I open my eyes carefully, and I see him sitting before the desk. His big notebook is open, and he is imitating work. In reality he is just waiting and watching for my first move. He is terribly hungry. But the morning Steinbeck is a very shy man, absolutely unable to pick up the telephone and make the smallest attempt toward articulate conversation with Russian waitresses. So I give up and get up, pick up the phone, and order breakfast in English, French, and Russian. This revives his spirits and makes him rather cocky. He puts an expression of an overpaid village philosopher on his face and says, “I have a few questions for you this morning.” He has obviously spent his three hours of hunger figuring out the damn things, which range from the old Greek table habits to the sex life of the fishes. I behave like a good American, and although I could answer these questions simply and clearly, I stand on my civil rights, refuse to answer, and let the thing go to the Supreme Court …
After breakfast I get help. Chmarsky arrives. There is no morning and evening phases in Chmarsky’s character, he is pretty bad all the time.
During the day, I have to fight with the hundred and ninety millions who don’t want their pictures taken, with Mr. Chmarsky who snobs photography, and with the morning Steinbeck who is so goddam innocent that all questions posed by the curious and hero-worshiping Russian population are answered by a friendly grunt, “This I do not know.” After this momentous statement he is exhausted, shuts up like a clam, and big drops of perspiration break out on his fair-sized Cyrano face. Instead of taking pictures, I have to translate Mr. Steinbeck’s strange silence into intelligent and evasive sentences, and somehow we finish the day, get rid of Chmarsky, and get home again.
After a short mental strip-tease the evening Steinbeck begins. This new character is perfectly able to pick up the telephone and pronounce words like vodka or beer, understandable to the dumbest waiter. After a certain amount of fluid, he is articulate, fluent, and has many and definite opinions about everything …’
Source: Robert Capa, ‘A Legitimate Complaint’, in John Steinbeck, A Russian Journal, with photographs by Robert Capa (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1999 (1948)), pp. 141-142