Tag Archives: Joseph Conrad

June 2007 Reading/Watching Recap

I did not watch or read a lot of great stuff in June. I think I gravitated toward somewhat mindless fare on the movie side due to the effort of reading (skimming?) two novels a week for class, and the reading was dictated completely by the class–which was on Joseph Conrad, D.H. Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf. I’m glad I read the Conrad and the Lawrence for the experience of it, but I didn’t really enjoy either of them. Woolf, of course, I’m in love with. Her writing. That is. After the jump, reactions to Babel, Pretty in Pink, Dogville, Anchorman, Zoolander, Ocean’s Thirteen, Borat, A Woman is a Woman, Paris, je t’aime, Ratatouille, Nostromo, Sons and Lovers, Women in Love, To the Lighthouse and others.

(There are a lot of links in the post…let me know if you try one and it’s broken, okay?)

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Ford Madox Ford on Joseph Conrad’s writing style

This is the greatest description of Joseph Conrad’s writing style ever. From Ford Madox Ford’s 1911 essay “The Critical Attitude” (Ford and Conrad were close friends and sometime collaborators).

Mr Conrad is much less concerned [than Henry James] with spiritual relationships and much more with a sort of material fatalism. For him every one of the situations of a book must be rendered inevitable. The actual situations thus set up he is less careful to define. In that way he is an impressionist. If he had to describe, let us say, a murder, he would give his story the true tragic note. The motive for the murder would be overwhelming, the circumstances in which it was brought about would be so described that we should imagine ourselves to be present at the actual time. But not only this, Mr Conrad would find it necessary to describe minutely the knife with which the murder was committed, the manner in which it fitted into the murderer’s hand. Nay, more; supposing the murderer to be an individual of a wild or an excited appearance, Mr Conrad’s conscience would make it necessary that he should minutely describe the man who sold the murderer the knife. He might provide us with the genealogy of the seller in order to prove that owing to the idiosyncrasies of his father and mother he was predisposed to the selling of lethal instruments to men of wild appearance. Or he might give us an account of the vendor’s financial ups and downs for the preceding two years in order absolutely to convince us that the vendor was inevitably forced by destiny to dispose of the knife. In the former case the cap of the vendor’s mother and the photographs over her parlour mantelpiece would be carefully described in order to render her real; in the latter, the knife-seller’s account-books would be sedulously projected before us, and at the moment when he was hesitating whether or not to sell the knife there would float before his eyes, written in red ink, the amount of the balance against him at his bank. But these digressions, if they serve to take up time, do give to Mr Conrad’s work its extraordinary aspect of reality. Without them we should not feel that we are experiencing–at least to the extent that Mr Conrad would experience them–the actual scenes that he describes for us. Without them, indeed, it is very likely that Mr Conrad’s impressionism would fail of its effect. For having minutely described the purchase of the dagger, Mr Conrad would go on to render for us the journey of the murderer in a four-wheeler through a thick fog. We should be conducted to the door of a house where the crime was to be committed, the rust of the knocker would be felt, not seen, because of the thickness of the fog. The door would open upon a black hall and there the episode would end. The point would be that Mr Conrad would by this time so entirely have identified us with the spirit of the expedition that we should take up the tale for ourselves. We should go up the creaking stairs which Mr Conrad beforehand would have described for us with such intimacy that we should feel ourselves simply at home; we should push open the door and in the shadow of the bed-curtains we should perceive a sleeping form. But Mr Conrad, having dropped his story with the knocker upon the front door, would begin his next chapter with an observation from Inspector Frost, of the Secret Service. He would describe the room in which Inspector Frost sat and he would give us the inspector’s biography, with an episode of his school life which would go to prove how inevitable it was that the inspector should pass his days in the detection of crime. And so once more Mr Conrad would take up the story of the murder with the inspector’s description in colloquial English of what the corpse’s hands looked like.

I don’t know if this is applicable to all of Conrad’s stories–certainly Heart of Darkness isn’t quite this detailed–but it is EXACTLY how Nostromo is arranged. He gives the background on the fictional South American country, its political history, its geography, the political and personal backgrounds of some fifteen characters, and lots of detail of the events of the beginning of a revolution, and then just at the climax when the title character is heading off to save the day, he stops, jumps forward in time, and has a minor character relate how the revolution came to an end. It frustrated me a lot, but various other people in class came up with acceptable reasons for him bypassing the climax (like, he didn’t want the revolution itself to take on undue importance, he wanted to continue his practice of using suspect secondary narrators, etc.), so I’m okay with it now. I can appreciate Conrad, and a lot of his prose is lovely and evocative, but I find his narrative style maddening. I think Ford was rather delighted with it, by contrast.