Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, January 06, 2012


by Joseph Conrad
Originally published
This Edition
Everyman's Library 38

      Does anyone else find it funny that the universal method of teaching high school students about literature/English is by reading Novels/other literature and then "analyzing" it.  Like, describing the plot and asking why the characters did what they did?  That's what I remember.  I think educators would make more headway with students if they treated each book like a hit record, and talked about why it was popular, focusing specifically on why the students DON'T like it- what has changed in their world.  Confront them about their taste and try to explain why they are reading this specific book.

     From the perspective of looking at a classic work of literature as a hit, Nostromo is interesting because it wasn't well received at the time.  It's "generally" considered to be a top classic Novel, even the best by Joseph Conrad since Heart of Darkness is more of a short story/novella.  Part of what makes Nostromo so classic is that it's a late example of pre "modernist" novels.  This is not a novel that sets out to toy with expectations of the Audience regarding a Novel, it's a novel that sets out to wow you with command of detail, richly drawn characters and enough pre-modern racism and prejudice to give the material an edge.

   Nostromo tells the tale of a made-up Central American/South American nation that sounds like Venezuela, Columbia, Panama or Nicaragua.  The central character set are Mr and Mrs Gould- native of English descent, who control the "richest coal mine in all the land."  They are just the anchors for a cast that ranges across class, with Nostromo himself being the equivalent of a ranking longshoreman.

  Other the course of 500 pages you get a lot of political squabbling in latin america- perhaps the premiere example of that specific dynamic IN ALL of literature. The backdrop is pleasantly appealing, richly drawn and stuffed with detail.  It's great that Conrad just brings the thematic thunder, and the whole time, doesn't feel compelled to apologize for his point of view.  That is key to the classic Novels of the 19th and pre 1920's 20th century: STRENGTH OF VIEWPOINT.

  So I read Nostromo, I'm glad I read it- I love Joseph Conrad.  It's everything I'm about in classic literature. Novels were better before Authors felt that to apologize for every thing that has gone wrong in the world.  Conrad knew life was cruel- he worked as a sailor for twenty years- but he conjured up worlds in his mind, and then wrote it all down, and didn't say "Sorry!" afterwards.  That's like it should be with Art, and how commerce so rarely is: Stated with conviction.

  There's a way to look at Nostromo in terms of "colonialist literature" but I say, embrace the label.  You can seek to understand colonialism without being a colonialist in matters of international politics.

1 comment:

Cud said...

I too loved this book. It is the only full-length novel I've read by Conrad. Though it shares elements of colonialism with Heart of Darkness, I thought this work dealt with different themes, and it was certainly more sweeping in scope than the novella.

You are right about the "thematic thunder". For me though, his insights on human nature and the futility of individual action resonated more than his interpretation of colonialism. Despite Conrad's bleakness, he absolutely expresses these themes with conviction.

As a final note, I'd add that the Gould's mine silver, not coal. The ingots produced have no practical value, which is critical to understanding Conrad's cynicism.

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