Read an Excerpt
From Brent Hayes Edwards's Introduction to Nostromo
Joseph Conrad called Nostromo his "largest canvas," and since its publication in 1904, it has rightfully been considered one of the first great modernist novels in the English language. He also called it an "achievement in mosaic," and in some ways this is the more precise description: for Nostromo is not just a single novel, but a stunning orchestration of many novels at once. It is an adventure story, narrating the extraordinary exploits of the courageous Italian sailor of the title; it is a comedy of errors, offering scene after scene of the entire spectrum of human failings, from unmerited arrogance to the self-destruction of the grandest plans; it is a masterful symbolic architecture, as the silver of the San Tomé mine comes to take on a diabolic significance for every character who comes near it; it is a story of hidden treasure; it is a novel of political intrigue, the double-crossing and scheming behind the scenes of monumental historical events; it is the tale of a particular place and people, recounting the violent origins of the Republic of Sulaco; it is a love story, drawing the reader into the courtship between the strong-willed daughter of the aristocracy, Antonia Avellanos, and the skeptic Martin Decoud, the "idle boulevardier" and disillusioned journalist who is driven to action by his passion; it is a novel of imperialism, a many-layered portrait of the effects of European and U.S. intervention in the affairs of a small country in South America. In his "Author’s Note" to the 1917 edition (included here), Conrad explains that for him, Nostromo marked "a subtle change in the nature of the inspiration [for his writing]," and the novel is important in his oeuvre not only because it is his most ambitious work, but also because it signals the transition between his two most fruitful periods: from his works dealing with European colonialism in Asia and Africa, especially Lord Jim (1900) and Heart of Darkness (1899), to what are sometimes termed his political novels, stories of revolutionary unrest set mainly in Europe, including The Secret Agent (1907) and Under Western Eyes (1911). For the first time, Conrad attempted in Nostromo a novel more of the land than of the sea ("A Tale of the Seaboard," as the subtitle puts it almost wistfully), and a novel only tangentially based on his personal experience as a sailor.
The novel began as a short story, and expanded in length and scope as Conrad worked on it assiduously from December 1902 until August 1904. From the beginning, it was a traumatic enterprise. Conrad had traveled to South America only once in his life, when in 1876, working as a nineteen-year-old steward on the French ship the Saint-Antoine, he sailed to the Caribbean, stopping in St.-Pierre in Martinique, Cartagena in Colombia, Puerto Cabello and La Guaira in Venezuela, St. Thomas, and Haiti. He was ashore only briefly in South America: twelve hours in Puerto Cabello, three days in La Guaira. Not surprisingly, when he attempted to draw on his memories of this experience for Nostromo, he was not able to dredge up much. As he began working on the book, Conrad wrote to his lifelong friend R. B. Cunninghame Graham, the famous Scottish aristocrat, radical socialist, and accomplished writer who had lived many years in South America, almost shamefacedly asking for help: "I want to talk to you of the work I am engaged on now. I hardly dare avow my audacity—but I am placing it in Sth America in a Republic I call Costaguana" (May 9, 1903, in Collected Letters, vol. 3, p. 34; see "For Further Reading"). Cunninghame Graham provided invaluable information to Conrad, but in July 1903, the latter was still writing to say that he was "dying over that cursed Nostromo thing. All my memories of Central America seem to slip away. I just had a glimpse 25 years ago—a short glance. That is not enough pour bâtir un roman dessus [to build a novel upon]" (July 8, 1903, in Collected Letters, vol. 3, p. 45).
Conrad’s correspondence of the period is filled with elaborate descriptions of what he termed the "atrocious misery of writing": In one letter to the novelist H. G. Wells, he wrote that he was "absolutely out of my mind with worry and apprehension of my work. I go on as one would cycle over a precipice along a 14 inch plank. If I falter I am lost" (November–December 1903, in Collected Letters, vol. 3, p. 80). In his autobiographical A Personal Record (1912), describing the composition of Nostromo, Conrad would again figuratively describe the writing process as a kind of extreme nautical distress:
Neglecting the common joys of life that fall to the lot of the humblest on this earth, I had, like the prophet of old [Jacob in the Old Testament], "wrestled with the Lord" for my creation, for the headlands of the coast, for the darkness of the Placid Gulf, the light on the snows, the clouds on the sky, and for the breath of life that had to be blown into the shapes of men and woman, of Latin and Saxon, of Jew and Gentile. These are, perhaps, strong words, but it is difficult to characterise otherwise the intimacy and the strain of a creative effort in which mind and will and conscience are engaged to the full, hour after hour, day after day, away from the world, and to the exclusion of all that makes life really lovable and gentle—something for which a material parallel can only be found in the everlasting sombre stress of the westward winter passage round Cape Horn (pp. 98–99).
By December he was calling it a "disastrous year," and moaning, "if I had written each page with my blood I could not feel more exhausted at the end of this twelvemonth" (Conrad to David Meldrum, December 26, 1903, in Collected Letters, vol. 3, p. 100). Conrad had reason to worry, because he had agreed to publish the novel in serial form starting in a few weeks. Nostromo appeared in TP’s Weekly from January 29 until October 7, 1904, and Conrad found the regular demands of this pace nearly impossible to meet. The Conrad family was renting lodgings from the novelist Ford Madox Ford during the spring of 1904, and—having already established a close friendship and an (unsuccessful) series of collaborations (including the novels The Inheritors in 1901 and Romance in 1903) with the younger writer—Conrad was forced to ask Ford to help him keep up with the installments. Ford composed a small section of Nostromo: about sixteen manuscript pages of chapter 5 in the second part of the novel. (Ford would also be integral to the composition of Conrad’s The Mirror of the Sea , and scholars have suggested that he may have written part of Heart of Darkness as well.)