I have attempted and failed to penetrate past the first chapters of Nostromo at least four times. The scene painting was too suffocating, and Nostromo himself seemed to be an operatic puppet way too empty to thrust a crowded, long narrative upon. Recently, however, as I am writing fiction again, I resolved to past the coastline of the novel, knowing that it is one of the rare English English novels of the twentieth century that has actually effected writers in other literatures (Gadda, Garcia Marquez, etc.). The English English novel – as compared to the Irish and American English novel – lacks the cosmopolitan air, the epic sloppiness, as it busied itself tucking in corners and marking the chasms opened up by the minute violation of the decorum based on class distinctions. This, at least, is the reputation – which isn’t quite fair, but does represent a distinct trend. Going back to Henry Green or Elizabeth Bowen, one sees how those chasms, explored with a high intelligence, intersect with the underground territory of the great Continental novels. Still, there was an obscure, amputating moment in the English novel – for instance, in the rejection of Joyce – that did real damage to a writer like Rebecca West, perhaps the most cosmopolitan of British 20th century writers who could not quite shake off provincialism in her fiction. Instead, she turned to another form, the travel narrative, in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon to write the only English prose equivalent to Magic Mountain – just to be George Steinerish for a second here. And a parallel move occurred in British philosophy, which became obsessed with how we know – or rather, how we say we know. The conjunction of a language philosophy that was born in the breakdown of the liberal Austrian-Hungarian empire and the traditional English concern with understanding resulted in something rather amazing: a diminished philosophy, a philosophy of endless contraction, and endless, inbred justification of that contraction against all foreigners.
But returning to Conrad: V.S. Pritchett, in the fifties, commented that it could easily have been written last year. It still has that air. In fact, Nostromo is an eerily appropriate book to read on the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, since it involves the same elements: the diabolical greed which haunts economies that are premised on the extraction of primary products (in Nostromo, silver, in Iraq, oil) (which contrasts with the prudent self-advancement that is the more negotiable spirit of manufacturing and the service economy); the weird amalgam of liberal idealism and the cruelest power plays of colonialism; and the alliances of convenience that traverse societies in which political structures are merely the translation of clashing charismatic claims – that is, political structures that are not structures at all.