What I’ve been reading

Back in March, I read a set of essays by Javier Marias. He’s a big fan of Joseph Conrad, who also happens to be my favorite novelist. I first read Conrad’s novels and stories when I was young (in 1977) and always planned on rereading them when I retired. I’m not yet retired, but the coronavirus lockdown seemed like a good time. After the NBA shut down, I figured that Conrad would cheer me up.

And he did. I like him just as much as in 1977, although in a bit different way. Then I liked his descriptions of nature, as well as the psychology of isolated men, the politics, and the almost Lovecraftian vision of a meaningless universe.

Now I have a better ability to understand novels with more complicated social structures (which helps with works like Nostromo.) Nonetheless, the shorter novelas in exotic settings are still my personal favorites, even if Nostromo is in some sense the “greatest” of his novels, with Lord Jim and Victory close behind. The travel to faraway places aspect of his writing now seems slightly less thrilling, as we know so much more about what exotic places look like than back in 1977, when we just had small pictures in National Geographic to look at, not “Planet Earth in 4k”. And now I’ve actually visited countries like Malaysia.

For me, Conrad’s books are escapism (as are Stevenson, Kipling, Melville, Hawthorne, Poe, Chesterton and other 19th century writers.) I prefer to live (mentally) in the period around 1900. It’s an escape from the depressing 21th century. Of course if I’d lived in 1900, I’d long for the Napoleonic Era, as did Conrad. He hated steamships.

Javier Marias is a strong opponent of fascism (he’s Spanish) and also a strong opponent of political correctness. That sort of describes Conrad’s politics (although the issues were a bit different back in 1900) and also basically describes my views. Conrad has views that appeal to both the left and the right. When I first read Conrad in 1977 (53 years after he died), his books seemed sort of prophetic, and 43 years later they seem even more so. That must count for something, right? Other author’s views don’t hold up nearly as well.

As far as I can tell, here are some of Conrad’s views:

1. The beauty of nature is very important to life.
2. The universe is cold and meaningless—most people live by comforting illusions—fairy tales. But look for meaning anyway.
3. Integrity is all-important. Do a good job.
4. Don’t be impressed by worldly success. A good inner life is better than becoming “successful.”
5. Men and women are quite different.
6. Utopian ideologues are fools.
7. Don’t envy (and attack) those who have more success.
8. Don’t look down on (and exploit) primitive people—we are no better.
9. The previous two mistakes (#7 and #8) cause much of the evil in the world.
10. Physical labor is healthier than mental labor.
11. Meaning drains out of life as we age. The world becomes less “romantic”.
12. Thinking is the enemy of action. (Hamlet seems to influence his writing in Lord Jim, Victory, The Rescue, etc.)
13. Life is romantic (when young), or not worth living.
14. Suicide is understandable.
15. Good fiction is truer than most non-fiction.
16. The telephone is an abomination.
17. Maps are interesting, and easy to understand.
18. The natural world is full of marvels and the supernatural is boring.

Conrad was probably a better person than me in almost every way: morally, aesthetically, intellectually. But I look at the world in much the same way, agreeing with most of the list above. He never saw the sea until he was about 16; whereas I didn’t see salt water until age 20. (I was in Tampico, Mexico, and I smelled it before I saw it. Until I was a junior in college I had no idea one could smell the ocean from 100 yards away.)

Reading his essay on the sinking of the Titanic makes me think he’d have been good at blogging.

My opinion of Conrad’s books isn’t of much value. I’m no Harold Bloom. I suppose it’s no more complicated than the fact that among the great writers, some connect with us more at a personal level. I don’t have the mental make-up to appreciate Jane Austin as much as I appreciate Conrad, no matter how hard I try. It has nothing to do with “who’s better.”

But FWIW, the biggest surprise was “Romance”, coauthored with Ford Maddox Ford, which I finished just an hour ago. (I believe that Conrad wrote most of it.) It was the final volume in a set of 26 books by Conrad that I read over the past three months, and had missed this book when I was young. Critics didn’t much like at, and I see why. They tried to write a popular romance like Treasure Island, but ended up with something more ponderous and bloated. Nonetheless, its 541 pages are full of entertaining sections, some beautifully written, and I didn’t want it to end. I only wish I’d read it when young, when I might have enjoyed it even more than Nostromo. Whereas Treasure Island is a book for 13-year olds of all ages, Romance is a book for 23 year olds of all ages. (I also missed “Suspense” the first time around, which I found worthwhile despite being unfinished when Conrad died.)

Nostromo might be the best book on Latin America ever written. And has any other great writer ever written stories convincingly set in 6 widely separated locations (East Indies, Africa, London, Russia, Latin America, the Roaring 40s)?

If you are interested in reading his best shorter pieces, pick up “Tales of Land and Sea”. Only Heart of Darkness is famous, but at least 6 of the 12 stories/novelas are brilliant.

PS. Here’s Lovecraft on Conrad:

“Conrad’s reputation is deserved — he has the sense of ultimate nothingness and the evanescence of illusions which only a master and an aristocrat can have; and he mirrors it forth with that uniqueness and individuality which are genuine art. No other artist I have yet encountered has so keen an appreciation of the essential solitude of the high grade personality — that solitude whose projected overtones form the mental world of each sensitively organised individual”

Yeah, Lovecraft is a snob.