Monday, December 03, 2018

'If We Hope to Understand'

“We must look to the novelist if we hope to understand.”

Murray Kempton, in December 1989, when the world seemed to be changing for the better, is writing about Joseph Conrad. He looked to Nostromo for reliable insight into the permanent horror plaguing El Salvador and other Central American nations. He calls Nostromo the “most enlightening guide.” Kempton’s assumptions about good novels are no longer fashionable, nor are they any longer true about most fiction. The so-called social sciences have usurped one of the roles played by the novel in the nineteenth and occasionally in the twentieth century. The last writer confident enough to write authoritatively about the world, alongside George Eliot, Tolstoy and Henry James, was the late V.S. Naipaul. To Daniel Deronda, War and Peace and The Princess Casamassima we can add A House for Mr. Biswas and A Bend in the River. Nostromo set the standard for “political” novels, a fact acknowledged by Naipaul. Here, from one of my notebooks, is some of the evidence for such a claim:

Martin Decoud says: “Of course, government in general, any government anywhere, is a thing of exquisite comicality to a discerning mind.”

“Solicited incessantly by the considerations affecting its fears and desires, the human mind turns naturally away from the marvelous side of events.”

Charles Gould to his wife: “What is wanted here is law, good faith, order, security. Any one can declaim about these things, but I pin my faith to material interests. Only let the material interests once get a firm footing, and they are bound to impose the conditions on which alone they can continue to exist. That’s how your money-making is justified here in the face of lawlessness and disorder. It is justified because the security which it demands must be shared with an oppressed people. A better justice will come afterwards. That’s your ray of hope.”

“Action is consolatory. It is the enemy of thought and the friend of flattering illusions.”

Conrad’s pessimism is invigorating. Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski was born on this date, Dec. 3, in 1857, in Berdychiv, then part of the Russian Empire. Other writers born in the same city were Vasily Grossman, Der Nister (Pinchus Kahanovich) and Mendele Mocher Sforim (Sholem Yankev Abramovich).

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