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Thread: Nostromo (Conrad)

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    Registered User kev67's Avatar
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    Nostromo (Conrad)

    I have read three of Conrad's books: Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim and The Secret Agent. In fact The Secret Agent was my first go at classic literature after being put off it at school. After Lord Jim I decided to give up on Conrad because all his stories were bleak and depressing. However, I I was intrigued to hear that Nostromo, not Heart of Darkness was his masterpiece, and also that Ford Madox Ford assisted him in writing it.

    So far I am about five chapters in. It has quite a dense style. Definitely not bedtime reading, because you couldn't keep your eyes open. At present it is setting out the characters' histories. It turns out it is in part about mining, which is a coincidence to me because another book I am reading is about a mining community, How Green Was My Valley. Nostromo is set in a politically unstable South American country. It reminds me of a non-fiction book I read called The Squeeze which described the major oil companies attempts to do deals in countries where contract law is not always very scrupulously observed.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    Registered User kev67's Avatar
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    I am about half way through, and it has warmed up. The book it reminds me most of is The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa. Like The Leopard, the plot is set in a politically unstable country. The elite of society intrigue to keep their positions when civil war breaks out. It even has several Italian characters, one of whom was a veteran of Garibaldi's campaigns.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    Registered User Jackson Richardson's Avatar
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    I prefer Dickens! I'd be interested in what others say. I had a friend at school who was a great enthusiast for Conrad, but he was the most depressed person I'd ever known.
    Previously JonathanB

    The more I read, the more I shall covet to read. Robert Burton The Anatomy of Melancholy Partion3, Section 1, Member 1, Subsection 1

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    Registered User kev67's Avatar
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    Conrad is a million miles from Dickens. The difference in time may only be about forty years, but it seems much longer. Dickens' books were part fairy story, part social commentary. Conrad's books were more grittily realistic, although his protagonists end up doing extreme things, which usually turn out badly for them. They are both very good at psychology. Dickens only has a go at getting into the heads of a subset of his characters, while Conrad seems to have a go at most of them (at least he does in Nostromo). If Conrad wrote about Miss Haversham, she would not wear an old wedding dress and have a mouldering wedding cake on the table, but he would describe exactly what had driven her to be the bitter woman she was, and what her thought processes were. They are just very different writers.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    Sorry. My Ipad is misbehaving.
    Last edited by Pompey Bum; 11-05-2014 at 03:21 AM.
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    Quote Originally Posted by JonathanB View Post
    I prefer Dickens! I'd be interested in what others say. I had a friend at school who was a great enthusiast for Conrad, but he was the most depressed person I'd ever known.
    When I read Dickens, I feel like I am in a fantasy universe run by a benevolent but bipolar God. It can be as stark and terrifying as the brick yards in Bleak House or as warm and merry as Christmas Day with Mr. Fezziwig; it can be as crazy and busy as Flora Finching's silly chatter or Mrs Jellyby's obsessive nonsense about Africa; it can be as lonely as Oliver Twist walking into London without a friend or as heroic as Sydney Carton going to the guillotine for a better man. This strange universe is useful. I can learn from it just as I learn from the world of Odysseus or Sun Wukong. But I never confuse these mythological places with the world in which I live.

    Conrad's universe, on the other hand is all too recognizable. I have never gone to sea, mined for gold, or been in a knife fight. In fact these things seem more fantastical to me than some of the realism in Dickens' works. Conrad's world is by far the truer, though, because he does not flinch from the vision of what people normally are (selfish and exploitative), how they normally treat one another (searching out relationships of dominance), or what usually happens to those who seek a better way (read for yourself).

    There is no God in this world, and contrary to the sanguine disposition of many modern atheists (those who believe that human beings, left to their own devises, are capable of ethical living), for Conrad, atheism is a terrible but inevitable truth. There needs to be a God, but there is not. That is why the good are crushed. It is the human predicament.

    As I said in my review of Victory, it is my personal conviction that there are alternatives to the world as Conrad saw it. In fact, I see the rejection of his worldview as essential to a moral life. But I admire his courage in painting what he found in the world--and I recognize that painting from life. Dickens' morality, for all its homey charms, breeds a hypocrisy of which he was, in part, an active participant. Conrad gives us no such luxury. For him, the world is simply what it is.
    Last edited by Pompey Bum; 11-05-2014 at 08:42 AM.
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    Registered User Jackson Richardson's Avatar
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    Thank you very much. I still prefer Dickens, hopelessly sentimental though he is. I find don't find Conrad's characters very interesting, that's all.
    Previously JonathanB

    The more I read, the more I shall covet to read. Robert Burton The Anatomy of Melancholy Partion3, Section 1, Member 1, Subsection 1

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    The Gnu Normal Pompey Bum's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by JonathanB View Post
    Thank you very much. I still prefer Dickens, hopelessly sentimental though he is. I find don't find Conrad's characters very interesting, that's all.
    I agree--at least in comparison to Dickens characters. Marlowe is an Everyman, and some of Conrad's other characters are too busy being participants in his psychological allegories to be very memorable in themselves. Happily there are some exceptions: the unnamed and unreliable youth in the African interior, surviving on his own but loyal to--or at least admiring of--Kurtz, in The Heart of Darkness (the character was played by Dennis Hopper, with little faithfulness to the novella, in Apocalypse Now); Kurtz himself; Schomberg from Victory, who is a shipmate of Marlowe in some of the other stories; and perhaps a few others. But none of them can compare to Fagin, or Uriah Heep, or Miss Havisham, or even to Miss Wade. Not even close.
    Last edited by Pompey Bum; 11-05-2014 at 06:16 AM.
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    Registered User Jackson Richardson's Avatar
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    It's late at night, a time I usually regret posting. But I'll just flag up an interesting contrast to Conrad, namely George Eliot. Intellectually an atheist but with a far greater understanding to religious sensitivity than Dickens and a lot of interest in character's inner life and social experience. I can't remember much inner life in Conrad (or indeed in Dickens - it just wasn't how he did things).

    GE did the omniscient narrator all the time - however understanding and tolerant she was.

    Conrad seems to be much applauded as a modernist for doing without it.

    Dickens is technically an omniscient narrator (when he's in the third person) but one who doesn't tell us important things going on.
    Previously JonathanB

    The more I read, the more I shall covet to read. Robert Burton The Anatomy of Melancholy Partion3, Section 1, Member 1, Subsection 1

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    Quote Originally Posted by JonathanB View Post
    It's late at night, a time I usually regret posting. But I'll just flag up an interesting contrast to Conrad, namely George Eliot. Intellectually an atheist but with a far greater understanding to religious sensitivity than Dickens and a lot of interest in character's inner life and social experience. I can't remember much inner life in Conrad (or indeed in Dickens - it just wasn't how he did things).
    It's an interesting point. Eliot may have been "intellectually an atheist," but she sometimes seems a little like a transcendentalist to me (I was born and raised in New England, where we tend to see transcendentalists like other Americans see Bigfoot ), especially in the intimate personification in her descriptions of nature, and the importance it plays--for better or worse--in her view of English life. I understand, of course that Eliot's take on religion is far more complicated than that (especially as it affects social relations, but I take you to be referring to her underlying spirituality here). Still seems to me that in this passage from Mill on the Floss, the expression "deaf and loving" could be applied to a transcendent divinity not immediately available to us in the way a more pedestrian God might be:

    A wide plain, where the broadening Floss hurries on between its green banks to the sea, and the loving tide, rushing to meet it, checks its passage with an impetuous embrace...How lovely the little river is, with its dark changing wavelets! It seems to me like a living companion while I wander along the bank, and listen to its low, placid voice, as to the voice of one who is deaf and loving.

    Now compare that passage to this one by from Almayer's Folly by Conrad, another "intellectual atheist" who likes to use rivers symbolically:

    The tree swung slowly round, amid the hiss and foam of the water, and soon getting free of the obstruction began to move down stream again, rolling slowly over, raising upwards a long, denuded branch, like a hand lifted in mute appeal to heaven against the river's brutal and unnecessary violence.

    This is Conrad's "religious sensitivity." It is not just that he is taking a grimmer tone than Eliot. For Conrad, humankind is fallen, and nature with it (an view expressed ad nauseum in The Heart of Darkness). If the same position had been advanced during the Reformation it would have been considered somewhat radical (by Protestants--it would have been Anathema to Catholics), but it might not have raised too many eyebrows during that radical age. It is, of course, quite the opposite of what Eliot is expressing in the passage from Mill on the Floss. It's odd that he should have been raised a Catholic and she a Protestant. Neither could be called believers, but both were moralists--Conrad a rather one within his own context.

    And Conrad does express a kind of inner life for some of his characters; but as a modernist and humanist he favors psychology over spirituality. In fact, at his best, This is a strength of his writing. Unfortunately Conrad's work is also seriously flawed by his frequent use of crude racial stereotypes. Such characters are seldom well developed and often little more than props for the expression of what amounts to cultural (or even racial) jingoism. Most have nothing resembling an inner life (although oddly enough, some do). Conrad's racism and jingoism are a source of frustration and disappointment to me.

    Quote Originally Posted by JonathanB View Post
    GE did the omniscient narrator all the time - however understanding and tolerant she was.

    Conrad seems to be much applauded as a modernist for doing without it.
    Yes, the early moderns liked narrator and plot innovations almost as much as our post-mods do. All the "real-time" action (as it were) of The Heart of Darkness, for example, takes place in the Thames estuary, which is described in terms of a golden Turner painting--not an image one usually associates with Conrad's "dark" worldview. The third person omniscient narrator does little more than provide a framework for one of the character's self-questioning account (Marlowe's, of course) of what he found once when he journeyed far from the light. So Conrad manages to have it both ways.

    Of these early modernist experimenters, My favorite is Ford Madox Ford, who uses a mostly omniscient narrator in his Parade's End tetralogy, but keeps things interesting by having chapters that move forward in time, but in which the action is often presented backwards or in retrospect (if you know the movie Momento, it's a little like that in places).

    Quote Originally Posted by JonathanB View Post
    Dickens is technically an omniscient narrator (when he's in the third person) but one who doesn't tell us important things going on.
    My favorite omniscient narrator is Tolstoy, who managed to play God, looking down on the Prince Andrei, shot in the head at the Battle of Austerlitz, looking up at God.

    Ah well, I am rambling. It's time for bed here, too.
    And this from a man in a bunny suit.

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    Registered User kev67's Avatar
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    I finished it a few days ago. It was a good plot. Like I posted before it reminded me of a non-fiction book I read called The Squeeze, which was about the efforts of the oil majors to secure new oil fields in politically unstable countries. The country's government needs foreign expertise and investment to develop a mineral resource. The oil major is desparate to find some more oil fields. However, if the oil major is successful then the native population, as well as their politicians, start to resent foreigners enriching themselves with their unrenawable mineral reserves. If a new government comes to power, either by revolution or democratically elected, the oil major may well find their assets nationalized. This puts off any other foreign investment in the country, which remains poor and unstable.

    So it was an intelligent plot, and once I started to remember who was who, I started to enjoy it more. The bit I liked the most was the misunderstood Dr Mongham's undeclared devotion for the kind-hearted, socially responsible wife of the silver mine owner, Mrs Gould. I was going to give it four stars on GoodReads, but I marked it down because of the ending. *** SPOILER *** I wondered whether this book was going to differ from every other Conrad book I have read in that the hero did not die in some futile, meaningless way. There was no need for it. The plot did not demand it. No miserable fate was foreshadowed. Yet just as every Jane Austen book ends in a wedding, every Conrad book ends with the hero dying in some heart-wrenching, pointless manner. It was actually the least realistic part of the plot.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    The Gnu Normal Pompey Bum's Avatar
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    Sorry for the thread hijack, Kev. I haven't read Nostromo yet, which is why I haven't talked about it. I stopped reading your review at the spoiler warning (and thanks for that, btw), so I'm not sure why you had an problem with the ending. Conrad's endings occasionally seem a bit rushed to me. He and Ford Madox Ford (with whom he had an on-and-off-again literary relationship) sometimes downplayed the end of their novels--maybe to make them seem less "framed" as today's academic realists like to do? I think in particular of Ford's Some Do Not, in which the off-beat power of the novel really lies in the massive and unexpected lurch in which the reader is intentionally left. The early moderns are a lot of fun (yes, even Conrad), but it can take some time to get used to their tricks.
    And this from a man in a bunny suit.

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    Quote Originally Posted by kev67 View Post
    I finished it a few days ago ... I wondered whether this book was going to differ from every other Conrad book I have read in that the hero did not die in some futile, meaningless way. There was no need for it. The plot did not demand it. No miserable fate was foreshadowed. Yet just as every Jane Austen book ends in a wedding, every Conrad book ends with the hero dying in some heart-wrenching, pointless manner. It was actually the least realistic part of the plot.
    Finishing the book this afternoon, I see it differently. From beginning to end the book revolves around the dreadful allure of silver, divorcing the spellbound from the beauty and truth of human existence. First Henry Gould, then Charles and finally Sotillo, Decoud and the virtuous Nostromo. The ending is exquisite although the book was hard slog before the revolution began.

    [Teresa Viola] did not move her head; only her eyes ran into the corners to watch the Capataz standing by the side of her bed. "Would you go to fetch a priest for me now? Think! A dying woman asks you!" …

    "You refuse to go?" she gasped. "Ah! you are always yourself, indeed."
    "Listen to reason, Padrona," he said. "I am needed to save the silver of the mine. Do you hear? A greater treasure than the one which they say is guarded by ghosts and devils on Azuera. It is true. I am resolved to make this the most desperate affair I was ever engaged on in my whole life."

    She laughed feebly. "Get riches at least for once, you indispensable, admired Gian' Battista, to whom the peace of a dying woman is less than the praise of people who have given you a silly name—and nothing besides—in exchange for your soul and body." …

    "They have turned your head with their praises," gasped the sick woman. "They have been paying you with words. Your folly shall betray you into poverty, misery, starvation. The very leperos shall laugh at you—the great Capataz."


    Incidentally, I think The Leopard an even greater novel, gripping throughout.
    "Love does not alter the beloved, it alters itself"

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