There’s a neat use of telling (not showing) in part one, The Silver of the Mine. The character Nostromo is considered by Mitchell and Sir John (a visiting Brit dignitary) and all of the native citizens as a great man, a “one man in a thousand” who is to be trusted and relied upon without question. But he isn’t shown doing anything noble or enlightened in part one, other than escorting Sir John across the mountain into Sulaco. It’s a strange choice Conrad makes, to make Nostromo in the eyes and words of others. When we do learn of him it is from his intimate friends, the Viola family and a woman he fancies. Old Viola thinks of him as his dead son reincarnated, Mrs Viola sees him as a selfish braggart yet not without qualities. The two Viola daughters are too young to have opinions of their fellow Italian.
I continue with Joseph Conrad, and having just finished his wonderful unappreciated The Rescue I jumped into Chance, Conrad’s last go-around with Charles Marlow as the narrator.
Marlow this time is on land—I mean to say that Marlow himself, as he participates in the tale, is soil-bound. Certainly the novel involves some aspects of the sea, but Chance is concerned with domestic life, with women and society. And Marlow—a man who hates walking anywhere but a ship deck—has much to say about early 20th Century womanhood.
There’s a fascinating Chapter 5 in part one where Marlow and a Mrs Fyne have a long conversation over tea about how women behave and what they ought to do with their lives. Marlow admits to us readers that he doesn’t know the first thing about women (we are meant to take this as exaggeration) but he does enjoy pestering Mrs Fyne a bit, as she is in a state—her brother has run off with a house-guest, a young woman named Flora.
Marlow isn’t rude to Mrs Fyne but he is in a playful mood, as Mrs Fyne is determined to talk her brother out of this union—if she can reach him. Marlow verbally pokes at Mrs Fyne’s reason and arguments, if only to get different reactions out of her. Marlow is keen to know a woman of Mrs Fyne’s stature—he is a fan and chess partner of Mr Fyne, and admits that the Fynes have a good and healthy marriage.
Marlow of course is without a wife or companion, making sly jabs at his own preferred state of isolation from the opposite sex. But to see femininity through his eyes is helpful in knowing not only Marlow but Mrs Fyne as well, for we all become better when prodded by the curious mad people we encounter in life.
I started 2016 reading and rereading Conrad’s three great novels, Nostromo, Under Western Eyes, and Victory, and I couldn’t get enough of these books having read them and read them again, so I picked at them throughout the year, a mad compulsion for Conrad’s prose. “Conrad’s prose” is the exact synonym of “good writing” so that whenever I found myself reading a contemporary book and complaining about it, specifically its lack or lightness, I’d pick up Conrad to prove to myself that it is possible for man to do better, to do so much better, with words, ideas, and stories.
And so a week rarely passes where I don’t think about Axel Heyst and Razumov, the main—but not the most interesting characters—in Victory and Under Western Eyes. With Nostromo, there is place to think about as much as persons, and this is done by design—the first quarter of Nostromo is expository, with casual insights into the characters, and the story doesn’t properly start until Martin Decoud arrives. These three novels are so rich as they can be reread constantly with a reader gaining new and different insights with each pass.
I’ve put the trio of good books aside now, and have started again on Lord Jim, a novel that is so much sadder than I remember. But there’s a strange sparkle to the sadness, because Marlow is telling Jim’s tale, and Marlow is the liveliest narrator ever conjured by a modern novelist. The pleasure of great novels is that they don’t let you slide out of them, they invade your life waking and sleeping, and having a Marlow tell one’s story—one couldn’t ask for better.
So it is Conrad, waking and sleeping—and jogging. This morning on a run I finally listened to the Orson Welles version of The Secret Sharer. It is slightly abridged but wonderful, and I take it Welles was beat and worn during its recording, for his voice is labored, but he has spry moments, giving all characters a unique hiss or bark. No escaping this Conrad.