Classic Thoughts: An uphill slog with our man: Colin Sedgwick tries, and fails, to admire Conrad's Nostromo (1904)

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
I FIRST read Conrad at school. I remember 'doing' The Rover, Youth and Heart of Darkness. There was a sufficient appeal - in the salty atmosphere, the evocation of far-off places, the sad romance of lonely, broken men washed up in exotic settings - to attract me a little later to Lord Jim and The Outcast of the Islands and The Secret Agent. So obviously Nostromo was a must: this, apparently, was his King Lear. Arnold Bennett, according to the blurb on the Everyman edition, considered it 'the finest work of this generation (bar none) . . .'

Whatever my faults, lack of perseverance isn't one of them. I've read Under the Volcano and Riders in the Chariot to the very last page. So I didn't anticipate any problem with Nostromo. But - and there's no point in beating about the bush - I was beaten. At first, I wasn't too downhearted. After all, I was still in my twenties; perhaps I simply wasn't ready for this great experience. I would come back to it in a few years. Which I did. And with the same result. The very subtitle seemed to mock me: 'A Tale of the Seaboard' a mere tale, the very essence of inconsequentiality, a lightweight trifle.

Recently, having began life again at 40, I decided to give it a third try. This time I would not give up. And, indeed, I got further than ever before - over a third of the way through. But then it happened again. Nearly 200 pages. And nothing has actually happened. There has been virtually no development of plot. People pop up only to disappear again as soon as I become interested in them. And the prose seems more excruciatingly self-conscious than ever. It becomes more and more impossible to resist the thought: what's the point of absorbing all this imaginary information, of wading through all these subordinate clauses?

The galling thing, of course, is the thought that if only I could manage, say, just another five pages, the light might suddenly dawn; just one more ridge and the walker might find the panoramic view spread beneath his toes. But a hope deferred makes the heart sick, as Solomon's proverb says; and I reckon he wasn't too wide of the mark.

What I urgently need to know is if there is anybody on the planet who actually enjoyed it. Perhaps there is a wife, somewhere out there, shouting nightly down the stairs, 'Come to bed, George', only to hear the rustle of another page and the reply, 'You just go to sleep, darling, I won't be long'. And it may be, of course, that when I am old and white-haired and my eyes are rheumy, I will gather my grandchildren around my knee and extol to them the virtues of this greatest of all Conrad novels: this, his undisputed masterpiece. And then again, it may be that I won't.