Monday, June 11, 2012

Book a Week, June 10

Reading a review or something like a review about the recent movie Prometheus, I came across the name of the ship, which is Nostromo, and it sounded very familiar. And indeed it was familiar; it is the name of a book by Joseph Conrad. I have a nice Heritage Press edition (New York era) sitting on my shelf that I've never had the chance to crack open, so meet the next book of the week.

Joseph Conrad was, of course, Polish; he was born with the name Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski. English was not his first language -- in fact, it wasn't even his second language, since he spoke French fluently and with a decent French accent by the time he was sixteen, but didn't speak English fluently until well into his twenties, and never managed to get the accent quite right. He left Poland at sixteen and went to England, but very soon signed up for the merchant navy and sailed all over the world. This would end up being important to his career as a novelist; most of Conrad's works are based on episodes in his very eventful life. He eventually had to give up the sea due to health problems, at which point he settled down in England and devoted himself to writing.

Nostromo, subtitled 'A Tale of the Seaboard', was written during a very difficult period of Conrad's life. He was deep in debt with an uncertain income, his wife became crippled, and he seems to have suffered from depression. He desperately needed the book to be written and sent off to the publisher, but it grew and grew -- telling the story he intended kept requiring a little more and a little more until the book was more than twice the length he originally had expected it to be.

According to the Author's Note, the basic idea for the story was first seeded when he was in the Gulf of Mexico and heard about a major theft of silver. He forgot it about it, until many years later he was reading a "shabby volume picked up outside a second-hand-book shop" and came across what seemed to be the same story; the writer of the book had actually been on the ship of the man who stole the silver. Out of this rose the fictional Latin American country of Costaguana, with its province of Sulaco, set against a background of mounts that looked down on "the passions of men short-sighted in good and evil." There is actually some dispute about whether this account of the origin of the story is true; some have argued that it may well be part of the fiction.

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