Upbeat Cynicism

what do you mean i lost my mind?

Nostromo by Joseph Conrad, 1904

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That Conrad is a major stylistic influence over Poul Anderson is now a dead certainty.

That Nostromo or Gould are models for Francisco D’Anconia is questionable, though in a general sense there are a number of similarities that are curious, at least.

That this novel represents Conrad’s greatest technical achievement as a novelist I am willing to accept on a provisional basis. Here he created an entire country complete with history, geography, economy and polity, and orchestrated them in an exciting and unique plot. In science fiction, that’s called world-building — but in 1904, few writers (if any) attempted it on the scale that Conrad did.

That this is his best novel I dispute. I found Lord Jim superior in both theme and execution, with fewer flaws or weaknesses in the telling.

The influence over Anderson I will dwell on another time but, in sum, here is why I’m convinced: Apart from many other, vaguer, less-easily-pinpointed similarities, Conrad in Nostromo pulls a narrative stunt that Anderson made use of several times, at least, something I’ve seen no other writer manage in quite the same fashion.

The “stunt” is this: Conrad documents the beginnings of, and mounting momentum toward, an event that will affect all aspects of the narrative and every surviving character — a revolution. He meticulously sets up every facet and builds reader expectations for it.

Then he skips it entirely, jumps several years between chapters, and carries out the tricky business of simultaneously laying out the new circumstances, indicating the bulk of what was skipped, and filling in any relevant details about the years in between.

He doesn’t manage it perfectly — the chapter in question is a big lump of exposition, and focuses more on the past than on moving the narrative forward — but it is not boring, either.

(For those wishing to compare, Anderson does much the same thing in “No Truce With Kings” — and early in that one! — Harvest of Stars, The Fleet of Stars, and something else that I’m forgetting at the moment. This does not include stories where such leaps must be expected, as Tau Zero, The Boat of a Million Years, Genesis, and others covering vast spans of time.)

I am even more suspicious of the originality of my claim, now. It is too blindingly obvious for me to be the first to see it.


A hundred pages after I posted my D’Anconia suspicions, I got to a passage which scuttled them:

“The only thing he seems to care for, as far as I have been able to discover, is to be well spoken of. An ambition fit for noble souls, but also a profitable one for an exceptionally intelligent scoundrel. Yes. His very words. ‘To be well spoken of. Si, senor.’ He does not seem to make any difference between speaking and thin king. Is it sheer naiveness or the practical point of view, I wonder?”

In other words, Nostromo is a total, if stylish and engaging, second-hander.Upon further reflection, Nostromo does make a good model for Frisco in a limited sense. Frisco is a second-hander through much of Atlas Shrugged, even though it’s clear that he’s aiming for a particular, though unknown, end. Nostromo does not have that extra layer of complexity driving him. (I just implied that an Ayn Rand character is more complex than the central figure of Conrad’s “masterpiece”. Somewhere an English prof just had a suden, stabbing urge to pillory the heathen. 🙂 )

The character of Gould is built up a great deal early on, but more or less peters out. His wife declares that his mines have stolen his soul, but this is not dramatized, or at least not well. What actually happens is that Conrad draws him farther and farther offstage as the story progresses.

The world-building is impressive, especially in what Conrad left out or merely sketched. The “Occidental Province” lives in the mind of the reader, its people and geography clearly pictured. It is isolated by mountains from the rest of its country, the rather improbably-named Costaguana. The political life and history of the country are both narrated and dramatized, mostly by their effects on life in the Occidental. Apart from that, and distant reports of activities delivered by rider or ship or cable, the reader is as isolated from the rest of the country as are the characters.

As for the reverence this novel receives from academe, critics, and intellectuals, I’m at a bit of a loss. The first half had the narrative “dislocation” of Lord Jim without the justification — this is not framed as a tale being told by anyone. In fact if there was a method to it, it eluded me.

None of the characters is a depraved monster or betrays his fundamental humanity. Gould supposedly is changed for the worse in defending his property but, again, this was stated without being effectively dramatized (at least in my opinion). Another character is driven to madness and suicide from sheer loneliness (which I initially didn’t buy from his character, though I revised that opinion later). But there’s no heart of darkness here, no absence of morality that snobs love so much.

The flaws in the book are considerable.

The ending, for one, is unsatisfying in almost every regard. It feels completely removed from the main plot, and therefor rather arbitrary. What happens in the last few dozen pages, as against the hundreds that preceded them, occurs years afterward and proceeds from different motives. In a sense this is necessary — Nostromo’s secret would eat at him over time — but it also leaves the reader far too much room to ask “why this? why not something else?” If a plot is a logical progression of events, then the book is really two stories — the main novel, and the closing chapters, which sharea characters in common, but are really separate (though connected) stories.

Gould’s characterization, as mentioned, is seriously flawed if Conrad intended, as I believe he did, to show ho attachment to his mine dehumanized him.

Then there are things which seem meant to be interpreted one way, but which make much more sense when read the opposite way. Characters who seem intended to rouse boos and hisses from the audience do nothing bad, and some little that is good, though from self-centered motives.

The flaws, however, are surmounted by the strengths of the story. It is of colonialism, civilization, and savagery. Of what is necessary to overcome tribalism and jealousy and leave behind the rule of men in favor of the rule of law. Conrad is suspicious of the compromises required, the prices paid, in achieving a civilized rule of law (and whether it can be truly maintained). On the other hand, he shows that it is clearly superior to the alternative and that half-measures, real compromises, lead only to more savagery in the long run.


Written by [IMH]

24 March 2006 at 3:11 pm

Posted in Literature

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