I hope you will take a look at the links here describing my new political novel about Israel, Acts of Terror and Contrition: A Nuclear Fable (or follow that Amazon link to read/explore and “search inside the book”).
In this post, I want to place Conrad in the context of the century just past. There’s a fine book by Ian Watt about the novelist's relationship to the previous century, the nineteenth, in which he was born and became an adult, and to the movements in art which came to fruition in the 1870s and 1880s – that is impressionism (exemplified by Monet’s or Renoir’s paintings) and symbolism (embodied in Mallarme’s poetry). Clearly these two wondrous movements relate to Conrad’s ability to capture the atmosphere and symbolic resonance of characters’ minds and their settings. But Conrad’s willingness to portray the extremity of reality and finally his hardness of mind, which exposes and strips away hypocrisy, situate him as a novelist who inhabits and confronts the twentieth century, with its corrosive rationalizations justifying millions upon millions of deaths.
Conrad’s most powerful characters dramatize and embody those exploitative, murderous rationalizations: for example, Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, Charles Gould in Nostromo, and the ensemble of Russian autocrats, functionaries, and revolutionaries in Under Western Eyes. There are also the less society-encompassing exemplars of these delusions: Lord Jim himself is an example. And there are the behind-the-scenes perpetrators – Holyrod in Nostromo, Mr. Verloc and Mr. Vladimir in The Secret Agent, the Manager in Heart of Darkness, and Stein in Lord Jim. As well, there are the fellow-travelers, detached yet enabling participants: Nostromo in Nostromo (even the passive Decoud there), the Assistant Commissioner and his entourage in The Secret Agent, or the deeply skeptical Heyst in Victory. These last are also observers who witness the atrocious events, the suffering of characters, and the delusions of Kurtz and the other enactors of inflated, rapacious dreams. Marlow is the model for such witnesses.
The character of Marlow possesses an extraordinary astuteness about other humans; for a character that comes into existence in the last years of Queen Victoria’s reign, he is far in advance of the late Victorian gentleman he ought to be (and who sometimes manifests himself in occasional defensiveness and compensating behavior). Conrad creates him as the teller of the novel’s story, and his flaws and his courageous sensitivity both situate the reader so that we become aware of what is at issue in the very act of speaking, of narrating (our critical awareness about the narrator’s perspective is intensified also by Conrad’s frequent use of multiple narrative viewpoints); the Conradian self-consciousness stirred in us about how to speak the truth is a crucial feature of the novelist’s modernity. Marlow’s own advance into modernity is a matter of two qualities of his mind, two capacities which Conrad describes in other contexts: One is the ability ‘to see the truth,’ to keep his eyes open in the face of extremity; the arc of plot and revelation in Heart of Darkness depends on the intensity of Marlow’s commitment to the truth. Marlow’s second gift is what Conrad called the “sympathetic imagination” – that is, he is able to intuit and empathize with the mental state of another human being, to establish a sort of ad-hoc community of two humans struggling with what tortures the mind of the other, of a Kurtz, of Lord Jim, and of lesser characters. And what possesses the mind of one haunts the mind of the witness; as Marlow is made to say, “Since I had peeped over the edge myself, I understand better his stare [into the abyss]….It is his extremity I seemed to have lived through.” Before the existential void, he makes the moral choice of solidarity with Kurtz who faces and voices “the horror” of his own imperial enterprise, with its deluded rationalizations of his rapacious violence.
In Nostromo, the imperialist Charles Gould has his witness in his wife, Mrs. Emilia Gould, and she too faces the abyss of what she calls “material interests.” In Conrad’s novels, women often bear both of Marlow’s gifts; Mrs. Gould sees the truth of what the silver mine has done to the lives of owner and worker, of master and servant, alike, and she is haunted by the self-conscious realization of the void the mine creates in the vast world of the novel, which is narrated from a wide range of narrative viewpoints. Mrs. Gould also possesses a sympathetic imagination, which draws the pained souls of Gould’s world to her, the intellectuals and the desperate aristocrats, the deluded movers and shakers and the enabling underlings. And she is left with a deep sense of the imperial void, absorbing the Latin American nation in the midst of celebrating still another revolution. Even an endangered sense of justice or a provisional community in Conrad’s vision must draw upon the capacities of a Marlow or of an Emilia Gould.
[Here are links to these extraordinary novels, on Amazon.com: Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin), Heart of Darkness (Penguin Classics), Under Western Eyes, Lord Jim: A Tale, The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale (Penguin Classics), and Victory (Penguin Classics).]
About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art
A new book about Beethoven gathers together (and completely rewrites and supplements) my blog posts on Beethoven into a short introduction to the composer, Ways of Hearing Beethoven, which I hope to see published. 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 would love to see published. One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962. 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, which I think would be of value to a conventional publisher. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a full 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).
[My blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]
[My blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]