One of the best books I read last year is The Russian Journal of John Steinbeck. He spent a month in the Soviet Union with the photographer Robert Capa – the one writing limpid, lively, funny, succinct and compassionate prose and the other taking equivalent photos.

The slim book includes a few marvelous pages by Capa himself, in which he complains beautifully about his travelling companion, at least as eloquently as Steinbeck’s equally affectionate complaints about Capa.

Here he explains how the two of them hooked up for this unusual trip in 1947. I loved Capa’s description of Steinbeck and of his preparations for the trip, including his insistence on writing the truth despite not actually knowing what it is.

And yes, the trip was delayed several months because Steinbeck in fact fell out of a window and broke his knee.

‘This time I found a certain support in a man of wide reputation, considerable thirst, and gentle understanding for the gay underdog. His name is John Steinbeck, and his preparations for our trip were very original.  First he told the Russians that it was a great mistake to regard him as a pillar of the world proletariat, indeed he could rather be described as a representative of Western decadence … Also he committed himself to write only the truth, and when he was asked politely what truth was, he answered, “This I do not know.” After this promising beginning he jumped out of a window and broke his knee.’


Source: Robert Capa, ‘A Legitimate Complaint’, in John Steinbeck, A Russian Journal, with photographs by Robert Capa (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1999 (1948)), p. 140

Photo credit: congerdesign at pixabay


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