I think every reader has an author that they struggle to get on with. In some cases it’s difficult to know why – it could be the writing style, the subject matter, the language. It’s particularly hard for me if the author is one of the so-called ‘classic’ writers in the literary canon. I feel dispirited with my travails, and worry if there is something that I am just not getting that is so blindingly obvious to others. This problem reared its head on our first book club choice this month, but I soon found I was not alone in my difficulties.
I first encountered Joseph Conrad at university, when I studied Heart Of Darkness as part of a modernism module. I remember finding the book, despite its brevity, pretty dense and impenetrable on first reading. As time progressed I began to appreciate its merits more, its comment on important themes of imperialism and racism, especially with the knowledge that it inspired one of my favourite movies Apocalypse Now. But I never shook off my trepidation of Conrad’s work, and I’m sad to say that reading Nostromo for this month has done little to dispel my fears.
Interestingly I was one of only two people who manged to finish the book. Everyone who failed gave up around the same point, a third of the way through. I can understand this completely, because the opening of the book is a morass of scene-setting and background, setting up the geography and politics of the fictional island Costaguana. This stuff, whilst important, is dry to the point of tedium. I was waiting to hear more of the exploits of the hero Nostromo and his attempts to smuggle silver out of the city of Sulaco. Frustratingly for this reader at least, Nostromo is relegated to a peripheral role in the novel. For me, just when the action starts to get interesting, we return to another diatribe about mining or revolutionary politics. I greatly admire the art of creating a world that is believable and Costaguana is convincingly drawn, but sometimes this stuff impacts on the story, which after all is what we are here for.
I learnt a good lesson from this book, though. It would have been easy to follow my fellow members and put the book down, and I was very close to doing so. But it is good to persevere with a book you find challenging, it’s good for the mind and can be an accomplishment. I felt I did a lot of heavy lifting with this, something I haven’t done with a book for a while. Whether I really got anything from continuing probably requires further reflection.
Another classic followed from this, and in terms of length and style couldn’t be further from Conrad. John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men runs to barely more than a hundred pages, but it really packs a punch in that time. Steinbeck wrote the novelette (that hideous term again) so it could be read like a play, with minimal scene setting and heavy with dialogue. I didn’t realise this until after finishing it, so the changes in scene come across as quite abrupt and jarring, but otherwise the book is a triumph.
Steinbeck’s early work deals with the lives of poor agricultural workers in Southern California. He explores the power of male friendship in the face of poverty and the hopelessness that stems from it. The hand-to-mouth existence and the loneliness of constantly being on the road are brilliantly described, and the dreams that our heroes George and Lennie take on a tone of melancholy due to being always one step away, just out of reach. Lennie, a man of limited mental capacity, needs constant reminders that the dream is still alive and that a settled life is possible.
The novel builds to a violent act committed by Lennie, a man who is unable to take care of himself. Emotional and physical abuse forms a large part of the story, with the dangerous jealousy of Curly creating an environment of menace and a suffocating air of inevitability that wrongdoing will take place. These men are lonely, frustrated, powerless, and this toxic brew couple with the manipulations of Curly’s wife, herself suffering from broken dreams and emotional deficiencies, leads to tragedy. It seems fate that the character’s aspirations will be destroyed, and Steinbeck paints this world with terrific aplomb. The sparse length of the novel accentuates the urgency and poignancy of these men’s lives and accelerates to its shocking conclusion with breakneck speed.
An aspect of the book that is ugly to read is the explicit racism expressed towards Crooks, the stable-hand. I didn’t find it shocking, as it reflects the pre-war period when such language was acceptable. but it is still quite difficult to read. Steinbeck paints Crooks with dignity so it is clear where his affections lie, but the language does carry extreme power and led to numerous attempts (some successful) to ban the book in modern times. A position that I fundamentally disagree with. Books of such importance need to be widely read and discussed.