Jospeh Conrad’s Nostromo represents his lone appearance in the The Novel 100, and it’s apparently considered his best novel. It is an intensely political and psychological work, a comment on the inherent and perhaps inevitable corruptibility of man when confronted with temptations of power or money. Set in the Sulaco province of the fictional South American nation of Costaguana, which sits on the brink of revolution at the novel’s start, the novel’s plot centers around the re-opening of the San Tomé silver mine, owned by an Englishman who has become a full-time resident of Costaguana, and that mine’s relationship to the ensuing power struggle.
The plot weaves several storylines together on top of this structure, including a doomed romance, several independent searches for redemption, and the shadowy presence of the folk hero and reluctant revolutionary Nostromo. (Although I don’t believe it’s ever spelled out, “Nostromo” is a contraction of the Italian phrase nostro uomo, meaning “our man.” In spoken Italian this would sound very much like “nostromo.”) Nostromo barely appears in the first section of the book, but his own corruption as he feels the betrayal of the people of Sulaco becomes the central theme and driving plot element of the novel’s final half.
Conrad’s stories are always strong, and his characters are well-developed, but his prose is a little slow, so I don’t think it makes sense for a reader new to Conrad to start with a complex novel that runs a little over 400 pages. Either the novella Heart of Darkness (the book that became the movie Apocalypse Now) or the more straightforward intrigue The Secret Agent would be better introductions to Conrad’s work.
John Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is one of the better spy novels I’ve read, built around a simple deceit that folds back on itself repeatedly, leaving the reader to try to figure out who’s lying and which characters are the “good guys.” It revolves around a British spook who’s out on one last mission, ostensibly to try to eliminate one of the top men in the East German intelligence service. The spook, Alec Leamas, goes through an elaborate charade to make it appear that he’s lost his marbles and is ready to turn traitor, only to find himself embroiled in a power struggle between his target and that man’s top lieutenant, with accusations of treason flying in both directions. Leamas’s situation is complicated by his brief fling with a girl, Liz Gold, who ends up folded into the drama as well. I won’t spoil the end, but the entire meaning of the book hinges on what happens in the last five or six paragraphs, which also reveal just how deep the deception runs. Great airplane reading.
I’m a big Graham Greene fan, and Orient Express was the ninth of his works that I’ve read, and probably my least favorite. ( Our Man in Havana remains my favorite, the perfect blend of the styles of his serious works and of his “entertainments.”) Orient Express revolves around a group of people on the famous train, headed for Constantinople but largely sidetracked in Yugoslavia when one of them, a Communist returning from exile to face trumped-up charges and certain execution in Belgrade, is pulled from the train by the authorities. Each character is flawed, some more deeply than others, and while every character has a goal or set of goals, none of them is remotely admirable. I understood the novel’s themes of alienation and the fungibility of many of the relationship types we employ in our lives, but the lack of a compelling character and the somewhat awkward way the novel ends (failing to really wrap up the plot line of Carol Musker, perhaps the most sympathetic of the characters) overshadowed the novel’s depth.
And I finally read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein â€¦ I’m not sure there’s much I can add here, other than to say that I was surprised to find that it’s not a horror story at all, but a morality play that’s built on a horror story, and a generally sad and bleak book at that. Anyway, that brings my tally of Novel 100 books read to 61, which is about the best I can say about this particular book.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows review to come Sunday or more likely Mondayâ€¦