Friday, October 9, 2015

We need to talk about Conrad

Clive James's recent essay on re-reading Joseph Conrad reminds me of a writer I have not read consistently for over a decade, but whose work, like Dickens', has a persistent influence. I have on my shelves a rather fine hard-bound collection of Conrad's major works: the best of which, not counting the superb Heart of Darkness, are Lord Jim and Nostromo.

As James points out, Conrad's work anticipates with startling clarity the grand terrors of the modern world: revolution and totalitarianism, political violence, terrorism, and the disorder we see presently from Africa to the Middle-east and beyond. Whereas Dickens turned his fiercest satire on his contemporaries, Conrad focused his irony on colonialism and what we might class as issues of globalization, the open, shifting world of the seafarer.

It strikes me that Conrad anticipated so much: in Nostromo the "material interest" in the great silver mine that dominates the novel and drives the central conflict could stand as a precursor to our  corrupting material interest in fossil fuels, the toxic treasure trove of the Middle-east. As Mrs. Gould realizes at the end of the novel,  the colonial intervention, even when idealistic and successful, is also a form of oppression: "She saw the San Tome mountain hanging over the Campo, over the whole land, feared, hated, wealthy; more soulless than any tyrant, more pitiless and autocratic than any government; ready to crush innumerable lives in the expansion of its greatness." This is a strange prescience into Western interventions: as these material interests bring both wealth and "development", they also corrupt the best moral intentions, sowing the seeds of resistance and revolution, and pitiless conflict, in return.

Conrad's ability to wed the action and danger of a thriller to substantial moral scope and purpose, to show without judging, to examine evil as well as good without flinching or hedging, is a heavy challenge for any writer. In his characters we often see how idealism, the illusion which we create to sustain our sense of self, also leaves us blind to the fatal realities of ourselves and others. It's certainly time to revisit Conrad and remind ourselves just how precise his insights were.

Leafing through Nostromo, I realized that several characters in A Hangman for Ghosts share names with characters in that novel. This was entirely unconscious, but the background to this murder mystery is a colonial venture, and the protagonist is a fallen idealist. I hope the reader will of course see one or two Dickensian ghosts in the story, but I wonder now how the spirit of Conrad inhabits the novel as well.

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