There are certain large-scale and demanding modernist masterworks that render society’s organizing edifices as they loom over and crush human lives. Among these works is Conrad’s longest novel, Nostromo (1904), which forces the English-speaking reader to face the great weight of imperial entitlement at work in the very language and form of the English novel. The Polish-British novelist’s courage in writing that work is not only a function of the writing itself – facing the blank page and creating there a world in language; his courage involves his difficult, even precarious situation as a writer, quadruply displaced (Russian exile, then the return to Poland, the years in France, and finally the arrival in Britain – though first there is service on British Merchant ships and only after 1894 permanent residence in England).
Earlier I discussed Under Western Eyes (published in 1911), in which Conrad portrays the harrowing site of his childhood exile in Russia, and in Heart of Darkness there is the courage of a European writer in 1900 confronting Europe’s pervasive imperialist megalomania. And as I mentioned, in Nostromo it was risk-taking and courageous in 1904 for him to focus his most ambitious novel on the experience of a British imperialist and his wife; Conrad was a foreigner and naturalized citizen undertaking to reveal some of the most difficult truths about his adopted British homeland. A similar risk is implicit in his 1907 novel, The Secret Agent, which exposes London’s political underworld of radicals, agent provocateurs, and police.
In the first decade of the twentieth century, Conrad develops a vision of British life as the site of social, ethical, and personal self-deceptions and collisions, and in doing so he employs the destabilizing strategy of perspectivism, of presenting the “truth” of a story not as singular, but as a multiplicity of truths narrated from differing points of view. Both the content and the ‘contrapuntal’ form of his vision achieve what Conrad describes as a “somber” and “sinister” impact; in the preface to Heart of Darkness, he writes, “the somber theme had to be given a sinister resonance, a tonality of its own, a continued vibration that, I hoped, would hand in the air and dwell on the ear after the last note had been struck.” (The “sinister resonance” in Conrad’s fiction is analyzed more fully in the first chapter of my Fullness of Dissonance: Modern Fiction and the Aesthetics of Music.)
That “sinister resonance” is in part a matter of Conrad's use of a certain psychological realism, which presents each character’s stream of inner perception in order to render the most difficult truths about him or her, and each internal monologue or self-disclosing dialogue does not exist in isolation, but is in ‘counterpoint’ with other characters’ monologues and dialogue. As well, like still another character, there is Conrad’s evocative and symbolic use of the external atmosphere of setting, which his characters internalize – whether it is the experience of going upriver in the Congo darkness or exploring the anarchic, sun-drenched streets of a disintegrating Latin American city or negotiating London’s dim settings, whether seedy or sumptuous.
A continuously destabilizing turbulence emerges from the perspectivism of Conrad’s multiple viewpoints and settings, and their colliding views and truths give the reader the often dizzying responsibility of deciphering and judging Kurtz, Charles Gould, Verloc, Razumov, and Conrad’s other haunting and powerful creations. In this way the novels’ modernist perspectivism magnifies the power and capaciousness of its core characters. The result is a version of the modernist “gigantism” I’d discussed in an earlier post, a breadth of self-consciousness and power. Particularly his core characters are possessed by a consuming self-consciousness and self-absorption, yielding enormous force yet blinding them to the damage done by their egotism and megalomania (Nostromo and Decoud are amateurs of self-consciousness and egotism compared to the imperial master of rationalized exploitation and brutality, Charles Gould. And of course colossal Kurtz bestrides them all.) In my final post on Conrad, I’ll try to detail the perspectivism and “gigantism” of Conrad’s presentation of these compelling and revelatory characters.
About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art
A new book about Beethoven gathers together (and reconfigures and edits) my blogs on Beethoven into a short introduction to the composer, Ways of Hearing Beethoven, which I'm now circulating to publishers. My novel The Fall of the Berlin Wall, completed a year ago, is about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. Five years ago, my 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, which I sometimes circulte. One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962, which is as yet unpublished. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]