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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Sunday, July 5, 2015

Does Nostromo hold up after 100 years?: When Conrad is at his best

Friend WS (not william shakespeare) notes that in my series of posts on Conrad's Nostromo I have said little or nothing about whether I'm enjoying the novel, whether it's a great work, whether over the course of a century it still holds up - and he's right, I've been withholding judgement. I'm not a little more than half-way through this long novel, ready to evaluate it provisionally: First of all, it's very complex in its plotting and intrigue and somewhat opaque in its narrative structure. It's hard work going through the novel to keep straight the names of the many characters - some of who are introduced 200+ pages into the narrative! - and the many strands of the plot: there are revolutions and counter-revolutions and several back stories - the Goulds, the Avellanos (?) - as complex in and of themselves as novellas. It's clearly one of those books about whom readers over the past hundred years say: This would make a great movie! And the fact is, it won't or couldn't: there are many references to the coups and countercoups, there's a political story of capitalism and imperialism, there's a love story (this is the one introduced late, through the journalist Decoud (in yesterday's post I amusingly called him Decoup, which I will let stand) and the daughter of the political leader Avellanos) - and there are few powerful scenes: Nostromo protecting the Italian radical's little coastal hotel from a band of revolutionary soldiers, for example, that do seem cinematic, but when you get down to it so much of the novel is interiour and involves complex unspooling of narrative strands, not really cinematic stuff. The section I'm in now, in the middle of The Isabels (part 2) is the best in the novel so far and also the most cinematic: Decoud and Nostromo in a little cargo boat (a lighter) trying to bring a load of silver bullion to a passing steamer, which will bring the wealth to the U.S. bankers, passing in utter darkness and coming close to a steamship with the revolutionary soldiers who would kill them in a moment - they have to be dead silent (and there's a stowaway on the boat who could panic and scream), and N. has said he will scuttle the boat and sink the bullion before giving it up. There's no doubt that - The Secret Agent and maybe Under Western Eyes aside - Conrad's best writing consistently is about the sea - and it feels as if this novel comes to life for the first time when the main characters push off from shore.

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