Mining Conrad

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I once met a girl who was writing a thesis on Conrad. Her opinion of Nostromo was nothing if not passionate. ‘It’s like Conrad means to bore you to death,’ she recommended. ‘You must read it!’

So I did. I set out into the novel one morning and then kept on going for a couple of days, crouching by the coal fire of a scruffy student kitchen, staving off hunger with big basins of porridge.

I can remember every now and then looking out of the window and being almost astonished to see the Edinburgh streets. As far as I was concerned, I was living not in Scotland but in an exotic Latin American republic. My world had long ago ceased to be that of the old biddies and grey buildings, and buses that rumbled over wet cobbles. It was the world of Conrad instead: of the trading port of Sulaco and its steamers, of silver mines set in tangled green gorges, of a smooth depthless gulf and towering snow-capped mountain peaks. It was a land of ambitious colonialists and washed-up idealists, of drunk, swaggering dockers and black-eyed Indian workers, of mule trains and moustaches and revolutions and red dust.

In Nostromo Conrad creates an entire country. The book is an astonishingly ambitious feat. And yet, in the hundred years that have passed since it was first published, it has come to be treated as a sort of love/hate thing. For every person who admires it not only as Conrad’s supreme imaginative achievement but also as a pioneering masterpiece of early Modernism, there are two more who will swear that the only great thing about it is the great effort that must be gone through to get to the end.

Even Conrad appears to have been a bit wary. Nostromo was the most anxiously meditated of his longer novels, he explained in the author’s note that accompanied its first publication exactly a century ago. ‘I hesitated as if worried by the instinct of self-preservation from venturing on a distant and toilsome journey into a land

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About the contributor

Rachel Campbell-Johnston is the art and the poetry critic for The Times.

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