Posts Tagged ‘Nostromo’

English Literature and me

August 28, 2015

A friend has reminded me of the tricky territory which is the distinction between English and British. We don’t (often/usually) talk about ‘British’ literature, but when we speak of ‘English’ literature, what do we mean, exactly? Not literature written in English, but sometimes it seems to include writers from other areas of the British Isles than England. So, for instance, James Joyce was on my ‘English’ Literature syllabus at A level, and at university. It gets more complicated the more I look at it, so I will try and be as careful as I can with terminology…

English is my language, and I love it, and always have, its weirdnesses and idiosyncrasies, its vastness and its splendours, the ways it sings in the writings of Shakespeare and Milton, to name a couple of my favourites. And yet I can only claim to have scratched the surface, as far as our literature is concerned: yes, I met all the usual greats at school and university, and taught a fair few of them during my time as a teacher. But there’s so much that no-one can now claim really to know it all: the broad sweep, perhaps, but no more. Because I did a joint degree, I never had to go further back in time than Mediaeval English, so the joys of Anglo-Saxon are unknown to me, other than through translations of Beowulf.

How brilliant is Shakespeare? How does one get beyond centuries of hagiography, and academia? I found myself wondering this summer, when I saw a Marlowe play (The Jew of Malta) and two Shakespeare plays (Othello and The Merchant of Venice) at the RSC: there’s some wonderful language in Marlowe, but the play was let down by wooden characterisation and unsubtlety of plot in comparison with Shakespeare. Shakespeare is pretty consistently powerful across his entire career, and there’s clear and evident change, development and experimentation over time. And yet, though I enjoy his sonnets, as a lyric poet I find him somewhat limited in comparison with his contemporary John Donne, who is much more experimental and bold, as well as more wide-ranging in style and subject-matter.

My love of Milton is a minority taste nowadays, I find, when I wax lyrical about Paradise Lost to anyone. The language flows beautifully, he experiments and invents words as much as Shakespeare does, he tells a marvellous story, bringing his characters to life in a way that the book of Genesis does not.

I have grown to love Jane Austen‘s novels as time has passed, despite being faced with the most demanding one for close study at university (Mansfield Park, since you ask, and it’s still my favourite); her style and command of the nuances of the English language is masterly, particularly given the narrow focus of the world of her characters. Somehow she is quintessentially English (and what do I mean by that?). I have developed avoidance strategies for a great deal of nineteenth century English fiction over the years – Dickens really does (over)-write by the yard (though I make an exception for Hard Times) and Hardy is just too laden with heavy symbolism which gets in the way. I can cope with Charlotte Bronte, and love Villette even more than Jane Eyre. At the turn of the century I have plenty of time for Joseph Conrad, perhaps partly because he was Polish, and certainly out of admiration for the fact that he was writing in his third language. The characters and atmosphere of Nostromo are wonderful, and seem to lay the foundations for the worlds of Gabriel Garcia Marquez several generations later.

I haven’t found a lot to admire in the twentieth century. Joyce I’ve mentioned earlier: Ulysses is a masterpiece, though some of it has to be endured rather than enjoyed or marvelled at; I find his skills with our language astonishing, on a par with Milton’s, though very different. Lawrence we had to study at university and I now find him absolutely toe-curling in his approach to sexuality – almost unreadable, and I do wonder how much longer he will be widely read, if at all. Graham Greene I admire for the moral dilemmas he explores with such nicety, and keep meaning to go back and re-read his oeuvre but haven’t so far; I like what I’ve read of Anthony Burgess, and I really enjoyed Anthony Powell‘s Dance to the Music of Time, but other than those, I haven’t really read that much…

For me, the golden days of English Literature are past: we developed the drama and more or less invented the novel, but have passed the baton on to other writers and nations, at least at the moment; my perception is that currently we are very uncertain of ourselves and our place in the family of nations, and this shows in many ways, including our literature…

Joseph Conrad: Almayer’s Folly

December 1, 2014

51HlPDwijGL._AA160_I discovered Conrad at university, and have always enjoyed his novels, perhaps partly because he was Polish. I have the impression of a novelist slowly fading into obscurity, perhaps because his major theme – white men’s colonisation of the world – is now deemed to be part of the past, and can therefore safely be forgotten. Perhaps Nostromo and The Secret Agent may survive, along with the supreme Heart of Darkness.

Almayer’s Folly was Conrad’s first novel, and it seems to foreshadow much of what came later. Almayer, the white Dutchman who has never seen Europe, stuck in the middle of nowhere in the Dutch East Indies, fails to make his fortune, loses out to other commercial rivals, makes an unhappy marriage with a native Malay woman, and eventually disowns his beloved mixed-race daughter because she chooses a Malay… and the background is small groups of people squabbling with each other, striving to get one up on each other, trying and failing to outwit the Dutch masters. It feels almost tragic: why did he waste his life on all this?

And this is what, to me, Conrad seems to understand, as a result of his own origins, and his travels as a merchant seaman in those faraway parts of the world – it is all a waste. Colonialism is a nightmare, an insanity for the people engaged in the actuality of trying to make it work. He has been criticised for not being politically correct in his approach to race and to indigenous populations; this is of its time, I think, and does not invalidate his picture. Conrad is very perceptive, in many ways.

He sees the sadness of a white man isolated in alien surroundings – where he does not belong and never can, where he can never be happy because he does not understand – lonely, prey to all kinds of disease and illness, fearing those who must live there because they belong and can be fulfilled. Almayer’s life, like the lives of many others in his novels, leads a wasted and pointless existence, driven by never satisfied cupidity, dreaming increasingly crazed dreams of a wonderful future to mask the empty present.

And the outsiders, the colonists are resented and loathed by the indigenous people: Conrad sees this clearly and presents it mercilessly; they delude themselves when they think otherwise. The only ones who get anything from this are the anonymous, faceless ones that inhabit the mysterious Brussels offices in Heart of Darkness.

Of course, Conrad’s perceptiveness did not stop any of this. But he saw through it all, from a white man’s perspective – and who else’s could he see it from? – and presents an indictment of a dreadful episode in our history through fiction, just as others have detailed it in personal narratives and historical analysis. I do not think we should overlook his achievement.

Joseph Conrad: Nostromo

June 13, 2014

41SC8pityRL._AA160_It took me a long time to settle into this re-read (fifth); I thought perhaps I had gone off Conrad, and his greatest novel, but it was not so. As I reached the end, the powerful sense of tragedy gripped me again: truly, the desire for money is the root of all evil, and the undoing of many.

This time round, I was very aware of Conrad’s cynicism, perhaps symbolised in the character of the journalist Decoud, whose shallowness is the ultimate cause of his suicide. At university I hated Conrad’s anti-revolutionary stance, his distrust of any attempt at change; now I perceive him not as conservative or reactionary, merely totally without faith in any good or improvement ever coming from anyone’s attempts, which are futile. It’s a dark view, perhaps understandable in view of Conrad’s personal background… I just thought about Tony Blair and New Labour, with much sadness.

So, in this imaginary South American land beset by dictators and revolutionaries (it does remind me of Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude) the evil dictator Guzman Bento ruthlessly tortured and killed his opponents, but brought a long period of peace to Costaguana (Saddam Hussein, anyone?). Ribiera, his replacement, is more human but ineffectual and easily challenged by the Montero brothers, who are powerful, but brutes.

For Conrad, idealists talk and have fine ideas, but ultimately achieve little; real things are achieved by others circumventing these idealists. Perhaps the Englishman Gould and his silver mine show this most clearly: economic power interacts with secular power, merely to serve its own ends: it is amoral; the mine that was a force for some good initially has become another instrument of oppression by the end of the novel. Everyone is either venal or ineffective in Conrad’s world; no-one comes out of it well. On this re-reading the parallels with our twenty-first century world were quite stark, Conrad very prescient. Or I’ve got older.

The eponymous Nostromo, who lives for his reputation, is ultimately corrupted by the silver, too: everyone has his price, and I was struck by the way his eyes were suddenly opened to the way he was used, manipulated by the rich and powerful.

Conrad is a masterful storyteller: the tale is complex, the characters develop slowly, and he plays with the time sequence of events in his story to draw the reader in; the conceit of the silver mine is skilfully woven throughout the novel, its tentacles touching and sullying every character. I am glad I came back to this fine book.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez: One Hundred Years of Solitude

May 5, 2014

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After his death the other week, I told myself it was time to re-read Marquez’ classic One Hundred Years of Solitude; imagine my surprise on taking my copy down from the bookshelf, when I discovered it was twenty years since I’d last read it… and I’d been recommending it to friends and students alike all that time, on my memory of the book alone.

So I re-read it, and it’s still brilliant. I found myself comparing it with Love in the Time of Cholera, which I’ve re-read more recently: the former has a much broader scope: a town, a huge family, a century, whereas the latter, though covering many years in the story, seems more narrowly focussed on a group of people, and especially, the intensity of personal relationships. I felt that One Hundred Years was a more youthful, a more playful novel, whereas Love felt like a work of more mature years, more reflective, and, in my memory, more expressive in its language and imagery. I think I might find it harder to say which was the better (if that means anything!) of the two novels.

Everyone says ‘magic realism’ when Marquez comes to mind, and it’s useful genre shorthand, but what does it mean? what is it, exactly? It’s not a fantasy world, in the Tolkein vein, though the setting counts as ‘exotic’ for the Western reader, perhaps (there were times when events in the novel, such as the civil wars and the banana plantation, reminded me of Conrad‘s Nostromo, with its civil wars and silver mine). The sequence of narration is not always linear, but that’s not exclusive to magic realism. The characters seem real, plausible, as do the events and places, but somehow – I think partly through a lyrical written style – Marquez manages to weave in increasingly unlikely happenings and have his reader accept them as part of the story, and eventually some completely impossible events occur, and we are so enmeshed, so drawn in, that we continue… yet the characters never become completely unreal.

In Macondo, which is totally cut off from the rest of the world, travellers arrive with new objects and discoveries, and these amaze and captivate the innocent inhabitants; some of these things verge on the fantastical, or seem like magic to the townspeople; though we know they aren’t, we partake of their sense of wonder, and we are not surprised when a person becomes obsessed with one of them. The story focusses on the Buendia family and its increasingly bizarre descendants – perhaps partially explained by intermarriage and even incest – some of whom are mad, some visionary, some very old: these last eventually becoming ancient caricatures of their original selves, adding to the sense of strangeness, but also endearing us to them because of their permanence. I am still unable to fathom what Marquez is suggesting through the character of the ageing matriarch Ursula, or Colonel Aureliano of the thirty-two civil wars and the gold fish, but there is something about the cyclical nature of time (which leads to the great cleverness of the ending which leaps on you unexpected and left me breathless) and the impossibility of really achieving anything permanent.

One Hundred Years of Solitude is a work of genius (I think I’ve read it four times now and my feelings haven’t changed) and I’d agree with whichever critic it was whorecently said it was the most important or best novel written in Spanish in the twentieth century. It retains its place in my top three novels of all time.

Isabel Allende: The House of the Spirits

July 23, 2013

9781400043187This novel had sat around for a long time waiting for me to get to it; what a revelation, as it was well worth waiting for. Isabel Allende’s uncle was Salvador Allende, the Marxist elected President of Chile in 1970, and murdered in a US-backed coup in 1973. This event was one of the most shocking of my younger days, and made me realise just how difficult any meaningful political change anywhere in the world was going to be.

Allende writes in the familiar Latin American ‘magic realism’ genre, reminding one easily of Marquez’s great novels. She traces the history of her country – never named, but clearly Chile – through the story of the successes and failures of several generations of one family, against the backdrop of more general social and political change; this family becomes more closely involved with the movements that led up to the events of the 1970s as the story nears that time.

The lyrical portrayal of a loved country and people develops very effectively; one comes to know and love the range of – sometimes bizarre – members of the family, their houses and country estates. It is magical realism at its captivating best, but obviously there is always in the back of the reader’s mind the traumatic events of forty years ago, and one of the things that drew this reader along was wondering how Allende would integrate them.

The chapters that deal with the coup and murder of the president are a kick in the crotch to the reader; the brutality leaps out, and characters we have grown to know and like are sucked into the nightmare; the magic vanishes and the reality is devastatingly effective.

I was drawn to compare this novel with an old favourite of mine, Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, which is also set in Latin America, although the fictional land of Costaguana is less readily identifiable than Allende’s Chile. Again, the backdrop is the economic development of the country against the backdrop of scheming and coups and revolutions, and how revolutions – at least to Conrad – inevitably seem to corrupt those who make them or are involved in them. Both writers seem to me to raise the question of whether, and how, it is possible to make a better world, that encompasses all people, rather than benefiting only those ruthless and fortunate ones at the top of the heap. They don’t offer an answer, though…

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