Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Nostromo and Dance

I started reading Joseph Conrad's Nostromo last week. The jury is still out for me on Conrad. I read Heart of Darkness probably almost 10 years ago, but didn't get much of anything out of it. Last year, I read The Secret Agent and really liked it. It was straight forward and not difficult to read and understand. However, I see now with Nostromo why I didn't get Heart of Darkness. The prose is dense. I'm finding it difficult to follow along, which is extremely frustrating. It seems that the narrative is jumping around in time, and inserting side stories, but it all flows together in a manner that I'm not always instantly aware that time has shifted, which is causing me to get very lost. To make matters worse, I have been unable to find any worthwhile resources about this novel on the internet...which I find odd because this is considered Conrad's masterpiece. I just want a chapter summary, dag nabit!

Last night I finished book #4 (At Lady Molly's) of A Dance to the Music of Time. I am really enjoying this movement much more than the first. I am still slightly frustrated by Nick's non-involvement in the story. For the most part, nothing really happens in the stories, so far as a traditional plot is concerned. Instead, things happen 'off-stage,' and we the reader learn about them through the gossip of the various characters. Nick, however, only appears to be the collector of the gossip, and his life is virtually left out. In book 4, we are introduced to Isobel Tolland, who Nick makes clear he is going to marry. By the end of the book, they have become engaged. You would think that in between, we would have some details as to their courtship...or at least that he would have taken her along to one of the parties he frequents. But no...they meet at her brother Erridge's place (where Nick is with Quiggin and Mona) and a few chapters later, they are suddenly engaged. As was the problem with his tryst with Gypsy Jones, Nick skirts around the issue of his being engaged, refusing to give details. This is all he says: "A background of other events largely obscured the steps leading up to my engagement to Isobel Tolland." (203). It's like your closest friend mentioning off-handedly in a casual conversation that he has just become engaged to someone you never really heard him talking about: "What? You're engaged? When did this happen? I didn't even know you two were dating!"

I'm getting through this movement a lot quicker than the first, which is mostly because I enjoy it now...I get it. I feel invested in the characters, if for no other reason than that I'm spending so much time with them. "Yeah, I knew that thing between Mona and Quiggin wasn't going to last. He's so...Quiggin-like. No wonder she up and went to China with that Tolland weirdo. And Widmerpool...did he really expect us the believe that Mildred was actually going to marry him? What a lark!"

Speaking of Widmerpool...ok, he was engaged to Mildred and then they broke it off due to something surrounding their first physical encounter. It's not clear exactly what happened...we only know of it through gossip, of course, and we know Widmerpool will never speak of what really happened, because he's so wrapped up in himself and his image (like Gen. Conyers said, he's probably a narcissist) he would never admit to failing in that department. Anyhoo... Nick, when contemplating Widmerpool, who kind of approaches Nick for advice on whether Dogdene (someone's estate) is a romantic enough place for, you know (they never come out and say anything, but you know what's going on - or at least I know now...I didn't in the first movement...but I digress)...when contemplating what Widmerpool said in that instance, Nick asks us the following: "Could it be that his love affairs had always fallen short of physical attack?" (pg 195). This confuses me because Widmerpool was mixed up in the business with Gypsy, when he had to pay for her abortion. (see here) While the movie version made me realize that Gypsy was pregnant prior to Widmerpool coming onto the scene, I assumed that they had had relations, particlarly because he mentions being indiscrete in the affair. But from Nick's comments, I wonder if he just paid for the abortion for god knows what reason...maybe she would blackmail Widmerpool and tell everyone it was his? Maybe he just lied to Nick about why he paid? Or did Nick forget about that mess when he made the comment? I wish that I could ask him what the hell is going on.


tim said...

Just a quick comment on =Dance=. The invisibility of Nick is not an accident or quirk of the author. A strong theme running through the text is egoism, and most of the characters are displaying one flavor or another of it. Of course, Widmerpool is the central ego in the tale. Nick, in contrast, the central character and tale teller, has so little of that egoism that you hardly know him at all.

Everyone likes to think of themselves as the central figure in a drama that unfolds for them. At the airport *you* are the one with the story and the person walking by chattering on the cell phone is just a walk-on part in your narrative.

Powell has flipped that on its head, and Nick, the main character, is the background walk-on role in all the goings on in which he is involved.

Kristin said...

I assumed that Powell was doing it on purpose, and your comment about turning egoism on its head is very insightful. The unique thing about Dance is that it is so long, and so vast, that I really feel like I know these people. I've spent almost every night for the past six months with Nick telling me all about the other characters, that I wish I could interupt him and say, "So what about you?" When it took him about fifty pages to tell me why his wife was in the hospital I just wanted to shake him!

It's a very neat trick of Powells. The more I read of this tome, the more I appreciate the author's massive effort. After all, it takes a lot of talent to write a book that spans probably 3,000 pages and not have it be utterly boring.