Tuesday, June 14, 2005

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

Another audiobook. It was really great to have read Huck Finn before reading Tom Sawyer. Knowing about Huck Finn, you can see the seeds of Huck Finn in Tom Sawyer, places where Twain the writer begins to wrestle with this question of when a boy becomes a man—the question of Huck Finn—but has to remind himself that this is a story about a boy, not a man. Places like when Tom and Huck witness Injun Joe killing the doctor, or like when Tom slips back to town while playing pirate to observe his family mourning his death, or when Tom and Becky get lost in the cave. In all these places Tom is forced to confront adult realities, but always responds to them not as an adult would, but as a child.

Indeed, Twain even reminds us in his conclusion that this has been a story about a boy—not a man—and therefore must end before his characters grow too old to start leading adult lives. I think the only grown-up thing Tom does in the whole book is decide to break his vow to Huck and risk the wrath of Injun Joe by testifying on Muff Potter’s behalf. But shortly after this, Tom is right back to his games and foolery, extending an imaginary treasure hunt at one point into a game of trying to steal Injun Joe’s booty. Compare this Tom to the one at the end of Huck Finn. This Tom is likeable, the other is not. But they both put their own lives and the lives of their friends in jeopardy in pursuing their childish games and imagination. The difference, I guess, is Huck, and the way we see Tom through Huck’s adoring child eyes in Tom Sawyer and through Huck’s exasperated adult eyes at the end of Huck Finn.

I still believe Twain played Tom a little stronger in Huck Finn than he did in Tom Sawyer. Huck’s Tom, after all, is oblivious to the danger around them, and forces Huck to stick to the letter of his childish requirements despite the obvious danger, while Tom’s Tom is aware of the danger, and readily abandons the game when it is prudent to do so. But still, the difference in Huck’s perception of Tom is there, and that’s what Huck Finn is all about—that change in perception from boy to man. Knowing that and then reading Tom Sawyer, it makes me wonder how much of Tom Sawyer is about that too, is about setting the stage so that change can take place.

Monday, June 6, 2005

Nostromo by Joseph Conrad

Took me a long time to read this one and as I did so I came to refer to it as “my stupid book.” That’s probably too harsh. I found myself nodding off a lot, but probably largely because I read it at night before going to bed. On weekend afternoons, I found it a better read. It seemed to take a long time for the actual story to begin, the first 200 pages seemingly devoted to exposition and character development. Characters, that is, except for Nostromo, who is kind of a ghostly figure until he makes a late appearance in part two and suddenly makes the story his own.

In retrospect, it may have been an effective structure because the characters in the story feel like they have unique histories behind them, but those first 200 pages were kind of tough to get through. Everyone in the novel thinks Nostromo has unassailable integrity, but through a series of accidents and circumstances, he finds himself the only person who knows where a fortune in silver is buried. Rather than reveal his secret and return the silver to its owner, even after the danger that brought the accidents and circumstances has passed, he decides to keep it to himself and “slowly get rich” under the guise of a successful shipping business with his schooner. His penalty, in the strange morality of fiction, is death by accidental shooting by someone who thinks of him as a son.

That’s the story, but the book is much larger than that, encompassing a revolution in a fictional South American republic and the plunder of its natural resources by foreign commercial exploits at the expense of its own citizens. Although Nostromo’s story fills fewer pages, it seems more real and immediate than its overpowering and sometimes indistinct backstory. I doubt I’ll put any more Conrad on my reading list.

Nostromo shook his head resolutely. He did not believe in priests in their sacerdotal character. A doctor was an efficacious person; but a priest, as priest, was nothing, incapable of doing either good or harm. Nostromo did not even dislike the sight of them as old Giorgio did. The utter uselessness of the errand was what struck him the most.

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In our activity alone do we find the sustaining illusion of an independent existence as against the whole scheme of things of which we form a helpless part.