Departing From the Ordinary

Conrad and Wells

It is fair to say that Polish-born Joseph Conrad changed the course of the novel completely. His novels, written in the last years of the 19th century and well into the 20th, offered something new: an autobiography fictionalized and spread over many different books. Only usually humorous in passing or in the darkest way imaginable (see the ‘harlequin’ in Heart of Darkness (1902) or the hapless exploding boy in The Secret Agent (1907)), Conrad the ex-sailor offered a genuinely worldly vision inspired by, and drawn from, experience. He compacted the novel and instead of writing at great length like so many in the 19th century he wrote extremely dense, poetic prose. Only in Nostromo (1904) did he stretch his tale far over 200 pages. His brevity did not lead to lack of substance. Far from it, he set the length if not the tone of the novels of the 20th century as a whole and drew fiction away from the excess of the Victorians.

H G Wells contributed a great deal to this new, condensed form of fiction. The science fiction he wrote was more extravagant in its imaginings even than Jules Verne’s but proved to be popular in its bleakness and one of the main fascinations of later 20th century fiction, particularly in the cinema. Wells, although technically not the most inspired of writers, began the 20th century tradition of looking to the dark possibilities of the future: alien invasion (in War of the Worlds (1898)), a dehumanized underclass (in The Time Machine (1895)) and so on. In doing this, he laid the foundations of dystopian (anti-utopian) novel writing as espoused later in the century by Orwell and Huxley. His homely social fiction was, notably, of much less interest to the public than his earlier novellas. The end was near for 19th century-styled marriages-and-moodiness realistic novels.

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