I decided to reread Joseph Conrad’s novel Nostromo, which I first read in college. Over the years, I have tried to give it another shot since I recall the complexity, the difficulties, and my love of the language, the settings, descriptions, the dramatic phrases, the poetry of story, and the ambiguity of its telling. But each time I would crack it open — and to the left is the little paperback edition I’ve had since college — I would feel intimidated, overwhelmed by the density of the text.
It took a dose of sciatica and recuperation to finally read it. It also helped that I had a bigger hardback edition that was more pleasant to hold and read.
I’m not sure I actually finished the book back in college, or even read it in its entirety. I also suspect I read it as part of a writing class, since I can hear my teacher’s voice lecturing us about the book. It also felt like it was summer term at Yale — I had taken a semester off and was catching up to rejoin my class. The writing instructor was David Milch, later of Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue fame. I remember him pacing furiously, pronouncing the words Decoud, and Dr. Monygham, and telling us that the name Nostromo was a contraction of the Spanish words Nostre and Hombre — meaning Our Man. (Actually in the Introduction to this edition, Robert Penn Warren states that it is the Italian Notre and Uomo, which also makes sense since the character is of Italian origin.)
Rereading this classic — some call it the greatest novel in our language — was an almost shocking experience. I remember being knocked out by the the chapter titles themselves: “The Silver of the Mine,” “The Isabels,” and “The Lighthouse,” so simple, so powerful not unlike good Hemingway. I remember loving Captain Mitchell’s work as narrator, his elegant, pompous turns of phrase, somehow reminding me of art history lectures by Vincent Scully I attended at Yale. Conrad frequently uses his characters to tell the story — Mitchell speaking to an anonymous tourist in the future, post-revolutionary Costaguana, Decoud to his sister telling the details of the fight in a lengthy letter which describes the furious actions almost as they happen.
I remember as a student and then as a writer being fascinated by the issue of the narrative voice. The narrator Marlowe is used in Heart of Darkness and other stories, and when I wrote in classes at NYU, I would tend to establish a narrator in the story, something we would call “bracketing” in screenwriting. You see, I loved Conrad, and read everything he wrote, and thought it was normal to use a narrator. My real first writing hero was Jack Kerouac, so far the opposite in his use of his natural voice to tell his story. I had found that impossible to do. I sort of knew there was a long learning curve to finding your narrative voice for beginning writers, but I had no patience, and thought I could easily use the Conrad trick and place the burden on a fictional character. I was wrong.
But back to the book. The first section seemed like endless setup with no action at all. And the telling of it seemed obscure, confused, the author backtracking and repeating the same information over and over. What a job getting through this! Conrad broke every rule I know as a writer now: “Show, don’t tell” in particular. Why was he not placing his characters into action? Was this all background? All setup? A few hundred pages in, he’s still introducing new characters! Why? This was not natural story telling?! Isn’t Conrad called a Naturalist writer?
Somewhere in the second section we start hearing about the “revolution” but don’t know if he’s talking about previous revolutions, the ones involving Charles Gould’s family predecessors? It is hard to tell if the Ribierists are right-wing or left. Same with the Montero gang, at least pretending to be a People’s revolution, but really just a bunch of scoundrels, not unlike the time of Guzman Bento, the bloodthirsty megalomaniac under whom many of our characters suffered.
Why does the essential character Decoud enter so late in the book? It seems clumsy that he wasn’t interwoven far earlier, since we have Jose Avellanos — his future father-in-law — established early on. Same with his daughter. We barely hear about Antonia til very late in the book. It seems that their close involvement with the Goulds would have brought Antonia in the picture far earlier. I understand that Decoud was abroad for awhile, but did he return at the point where he enters the story?
The actual events seem to be told sideways, sort of slipped in around the relentless establishment of characters and their characteristics. They are told in retrospect, not while they are occurring, which seems peculiar to me now. Things like the death of Theresa Viola appear to be foregone conclusions and I can’t figure out why the revolution in itself is enough to cause her demise.
The scene in the warehouse with Monygham and Nostromo is very good — the great man’s thoughts in the shadow of Hirsch’s hanging body. I love all the talk about Mrs. Gould as a focal point of all that is good and civilized in Sulaco, but really don’t end up with a clear picture of her. I was shocked and depressed by the death of Decoud. I could see clearly the difference between Linda and Giselle and why Nostromo would go with Giselle. Linda reminds me of an ex-wife, despite the initial glamor, ultimately a lumpen hausfrau paralyzed by neurosis, and Giselle would be Sierra… wildly attractive, ever elusive. The fact that Nostromo didn’t have the courage to state his case to Old Viola seems like a moral failing and diminished our hero a lot in my eyes. That idea that Nostromo was a seeker of fame but had not a farthing to show for it is something I did not understand as a student, and know all too well living in Los Angeles.