i just finished a novel by joseph conrad. and it wasn’t heart of darkness. and i liked it.
you see, this is a problem. because for many years now i’ve built my love of and philosophy about literature on one foundational and unshakeable fact: the fact that i hate joseph conrad with the fire of a thousand suns. i realized that my hatred, while unshakeable, was unfair. i had only read heart of darkness. but i had read this one novel so many times that i felt somehow justified in developing a whole vocabulary of horrible horrible no-good words to describe conrad: unreadable, pompously abstract, and, of course, author of literature that smells of putrid carcass.
okay. that last one was a little much. but you get the idea.
but i just finished the secret agent, which was assigned for my around 1900 seminar. and wow i liked it. i liked it a lot.* here i find a conrad who pays attention to details that seem to do something really different and exciting. he even managed to be innovative while describing the general filth and grime of london. this is difficult to do, as i read a lot of dickens. and dickens talks a lot about the filth and grime of london. but check this out:
His descent into the street was like the descent into a slimy aquarium from which the water had been run off. A murky, gloomy dampness enveloped him. The walls of the houses were wet, the mud of the roadway glistened with an effect of phosphorescence, and when he emerged into the Strand out of a narrow street by the side of Charing Cross Station the genius of the locality assimilated him. He might have been but one more of the queer foreign fish that can be seen of an evening there flitting round the dark corners.
SO. GOOD. anyone who has cleaned a fish tank knows this. and it’s not just the details that are good. the plot is complicated in this really exciting way. not only does it completely explode toward the end — which is ironic, because the novel is based on the attempted bombing of the greenwich observatory, and the “plot explosion” in this novel occurs not at the moment of detonation — but it also is complex enough that when i reread it, which i will do someday, i am convinced it will still seem complicated and interesting. because the plot twists here aren’t gimmicks. they’re commentary.
so if you hate conrad, you should read this novel. if you love him, you probably already have. but you should read it again. and call me so we can talk about it.
* not the first 35 pages or so, in which some of the central characters have a few conversations about capitalism and anarchy that border on the aforementioned pomposity, in my opinion.