Monday, May 15, 2017

his profound knowledge of men and things - notes on Nostromo

What a relief – I have been reading Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo (1904) – that some novelist finally figured out that 1) stories do not have to be told like a medieval chronicle – “and then, and then” – and 2) that entire scenes – important­ scenes – can simply be skipped.  And there the story is, as intact, as told, as ever.

Henry James had figured this out around the same time as Conrad, as I saw in The Wings of the Dove.  I know, we can think of plenty – well, some – earlier examples. There’s that sequence in Ivanhoe (1820) of parallel chapters, right?  At the siege?  You know.

Nostromo is a bit of a thriller, even a bit of a heist story, so the time jumps could be used for suspense, but are instead generally used for irony.  Conrad moves me forward in one strand of the story so that when he goes back to pick up another strand, I know more than the characters.  This is a form of suspense, I suppose, but the question is what events will erupt when the characters learn what I know.  I bet they’ll be surprised!

The first chapter is hardly something that belongs in a novel at all.  It is more of a geography, but of a fictional town in a fictional country, Costaguana, that has some resemblance to Colombia.  Much of the chapter is about the exact arrangement of the islands in the harbor, some of which can be immediately forgotten, some of which is crucial to understanding the story.  A little inset tale about the ghosts of doomed treasure-hunters foreshadows the plot, but otherwise there are barely people in this chapter.

The second introduces some people, including Captain Mitchell, “’Fussy Joe’ for the commanders of the Company’s Ships, Captain Joseph Mitchell prided himself on his profound knowledge of men and things in the country – cosas de Costaguana” (I.2).

All of the Conrad I have read, aside from The Secret Agent (1907) and “The Secret Sharer” (1908) has been from the fertile period of 1897 to 1902, the time of the southeast Asian seas or his stand-in narrator Marlow or both, in Lord Jim (1900), say.  My understanding is that Conrad had something of an artistic crisis that moved him elsewhere, to the London anarchists of The Secret Agent and here, earlier, to the remote Pacific province of a South American country that he had visited once, twenty-five years earlier, and that he mostly patched together from a couple of books.  He fooled me, at least.  I was convinced.  Some of the extraneous history Conrad includes made me think that that Nostromo was a precursor of The Lord of the Rings.  World-building is what I believe people call this.

The other break is the Captain Mitchell character, an anti-Marlow.  In a novel by an ironist, we can guess that anyone who prides himself on his profound knowledge is actually a fool, which makes Captain Mitchell a great recurring narrative device: when Conrad needs someone who does not really understand what is going on, here he is.  Irony ensues.

Patrick Kurp writes that he is currently reading Nostromo for “moral education.”  I wonder what he is learning.  I will likely write one more repetitive post about how events are not quite in order.  That’s what I learned.


  1. Man, I've really got to read more Conrad. My wife just finished Ford Madox Ford's book on their friendship and collaboration, which she highly recommends.

  2. Under Western Eyes is truly fascinating, both as a response to Crime and Punishment and as Conrad working out his Russia issues on page. Also it's just a good read.

    Haven't read Nostromo but I gather I should.

  3. I am looking at what I have written with just the slightest twinge of dismay. Just to be clear, this Captain Mitchell figure, despite my attention to him, is a minor figure, and his narration an occasional device. But it is a device that links to a major figure and major device from several earlier Conrad works; thus my obsession.

    Nostromo is narrated in a number of ways, with great fluidity and ingenuity. It has a great "something for everyone" quality.

    The FMF book is a must for me, someday.

  4. Under Western Eyes and Victory were the last books I bought, so I am ready to follow Maya's suggestion.

  5. I remember being badly defeated by Nostromo about 25 years ago. Time to revisit. The Secret Agent is a real favourite of mine--will you be (re)reading that one soon? Maya's comment makes me want to read Under Western Eyes stat.

  6. Will I read The Secret Agent soon? Maybe. It is short, punchy, funny, has a ticking bomb, etc. Fun. Also quite fluid with the point of view.

  7. Yes, interesting play with POV. It *is* funny. And also really not funny. Stevie is one of the great characters.

  8. It's half horror and half Man Who Was Thursday.