Joseph Conrad and I have always had our ups and downs. Our relationship is not stable. Approaching him, I never know if I’m going to be blown away or left in the dust.
We started to get to know each other when I was 18 years old and I tried to read Heart of Darkness. I say tried because I didn’t understand a word that I read. I see now that I wasn’t ready, but I wanted to be cool and say I read the book that Apocalypse Now was based on. Because at that time, I thought being able to talk about Apocalypse Now was part of the definition of cool. Not so much anymore, though that has nothing to do with Conrad.
After that embarrassment, I didn’t pick up Conrad again for eight years; then in 2007 I read The Secret Agent. Damn that was a good book. If you want to read something by Conrad that isn’t so, well, Conrad-esque, read The Secret Agent. Now that book is cool. So cool, in fact, that Hitchcock made a film version of it. But if you are looking to watch it, don’t watch The Secret Agent, because that’s an entirely different movie. Confusing, I know.
Ok – I thought – Conrad, I’ve got you now! Well, not so much. Nostromo in 2008 was, well, I don’t know. I didn’t have any expectations. I knew that plot was dissimilar enough from The Secret Agent to not hope for a repeat of that novel. It turned out to be 2/3 boring, the rest decent. Not a book I intend to pick up again – or at least for a very long time.
So I came to Lord Jim with mixed feelings. It’s a book I’ve wanted to read since I was in high school, when my A.P. English teacher said she could never get through it. Reading a classic novel that even your teacher couldn’t finish? Very cool. Also, it’s about sailors and islands in the South Pacific. Double cool. But then I have this history with Conrad which made me suspect – maybe I was being set up here.
Well, I wasn’t set up. From the very beginning – from the very first paragraph, I settled into this novel like I haven’t settled into a book in a very long time – perhaps since I read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close a year ago. It felt like curling up in bed, with familiar sheets and blankets and soft, soft pillows - being surrounded by comfort. Why certain books make me feel that way I couldn’t say, but this was definitely one of them.
Jim was a first mate on a ship filled with Muslim pilgrims. One night on the journey, while all the passengers are asleep, the boat hits something and springs a leak. The crew are convinced that the ship will sink, and to wake the passengers would cause complete pandemonium and nobody would get off the ship alive. So, they abandon the ship and leave the passengers to drown. At the last minute, Jim, who has always dreamed of being the Big Hero who Saves the Day, abandons the ship with them. He is embarrassed and disgraced. The crew manages to get safely to shore and make up a story about the sinking. Turns out, though, that the ship didn’t sink. It was towed to land and everybody is safe. Big oops. There is an inquest, Jim is left to take the brunt of it all, and is stripped of his seaman’s papers. At the inquest, he meets a man, Marlow, who sees that Jim is “one of us” (a gentleman, not a regular seadog). Marlow goes about helping Jim find various jobs, all of which he leaves once talk of the Patua comes up. He is so thoroughly ruined in his own mind my his cowardice – he just cannot forgive himself for acting in a way that was completely contrary to who imagined himself to be. Marlow finally gets him a job as the manager of a trading post on the island Patusan, replacing the “slinking” manager, Cornelius. Jim arrives there, orchestrates and attack on a local tyrannical lord and is loved by the people of the island. He picks up with Cornelius’s step-daughter and is generally hated by the former manager. Marlow comes to visit and finds Jim about as happy and satisfied as he could possibly be, essentially able to restore his dignity far away from his past. Then, something bad happens – a group of thieves come to Patusan to find some food, and discover an island ripe of the taking. The natives launch an attack, and the thieves – lead by a man named Brown – is stuck in the river. Eventually, Jim and Brown talk, and he decides to let them go back down the river and leave. It was a trick, and on their way out they attack a group of natives further down the river, killing one of Jim’s close friends and the son of the local leader along with many others. This incident completely breaks down Jim’s world. He is no longer the infallible authority – he told the natives to let Brown & company go, and look what happened! Jim knows his time is up – another disgrace, another breaking of trust. His loyal servants and his girlfriend ask if he wants to fight, or to try to escape, but he is resigned to his own fate – tired of running away, but there is nothing to fight for – an honor he never had in the first place. He took full responsibility for everything that happened, went to the local leader’s camp and allowed his friend’s father to shoot him in retaliation for the death of his son. The end.
Conrad could tell this story chronologically, from beginning to end (as I have just done), and have a decent narrative. But he doesn’t do that. He tells the story through Marlow, who hears some of it through Jim, some through Brown, some through Stein, etc. It’s more complicated, and you get the story jumping around. That may annoy some readers, but I don’t mind. Conrad does it seamlessly here, as I don’t feel he did with Nostromo. One original reviewer complained that "[Conrad’s] story is not so much told as seen intermittently through a haze of sentences . . . like a river-mist." I can see this point, and definitely feel there was a haziness about Nostromo, (and The Heart of Darkness, though that might have been my own fog); I felt that Lord Jim was much more straight forward and easy to understand. Or maybe I’m just evolving. But compared to Henry James, Conrad is a sunny, cloudless day.
The blogger at mopie.com – a newly discovered site for book reviews wrote the following about Lord Jim: “All about how a whiny white man redeems himself by solving all the problems of the “natives” with his wise white wisdom, and sacrificing himself to them. So condescending. And the narrative is this one guy delivering a florid book-length monologue…and pondering the “nobility” problems of the main character. Oh no, a young imperialist failed to be noble when he was supposed to be noble! Thank god he could go tame the natives and reclaim his nobility! I hate Joseph Conrad…My notes in the margins read: ‘Oh quit whining, you giant effing baby’ and ‘Stupidly British imperialist honor nobility bullshit.’ Which makes no sense, but you get the point, I think?”
Ok – yes, Conrad’s writing is colored by the times, but he wasn't a British imperialist. His trip to the Congo (which inspired The Heart of Darkness) allowed him to see firsthand the treatment of “natives” by the imperialist/capitalists, and he recognized the inhumanity of it. The residents of Patusan didn’t follow Jim because he was white, but because he was successful and trustworthy. They did see him and the other whites as “others” and set apart, but I didn’t get the impression they saw them as better, or that Jim felt himself superior to them because he was white and they weren’t. There wasn’t any “taming” involved. Maybe I missed that and am completely interpreting it wrong, but I didn’t feel any of that. Of course in today’s post colonial world it seems racist, but looking at it from a turn-of-the-century perspective, it was much more progressive than other contemporary works. After all, what year did Birth of a Nation come out?
Yes, he was a little whiny about the whole thing. At times you did want to say, get on with this nobility and honor. But it was a big deal. People would have gotten that a hundred years ago in a different way than we get it. Maybe a gang member would understand it. That may be an interesting modern interpretation - what happens when a Blood acts cowardly and has to get away?
I think, too, that a lot of this is addressed by his confrontation with Brown. Jim questions Brown about why he came to their island and started causing trouble. Brown realizes – from his conversations with Cornelius (who snuck to Brown and tried to double cross Jim) – that Jim has something to hide. Why is this brilliant white kid of some class here on this outpost? And Brown ignores Jim’s question and knows how to get to him. He asks, “well why are you here?” Brown tells him he’s on the run too – that they aren’t any different. They’ve both lived their lives and done things that dog them. Brown is the other side of Jim – Jim thought that he had escaped his past, had been able to put it behind him and move on, starting over. But your past always follows you, if no where else but inside you. And Brown shows up, almost like Satan in the desert, to remind Jim. Is Jim any more honorable than Brown? Has he really redeemed himself in any way? Probably not really. In the eyes of other "gentleman," (Marlow) he clearly has somehow.
Conrad definitely isn’t for everyone. He can be boring, tedious, and foggy. But something about his writing continues to attract me back to him again and again. I couldn’t describe it, but its observations like, “the nights descended on her like a benediction” that I just eat up. The beauty of that phrase both crushes me and fills my heart with joy. It’s so beautiful. And Conrad’s language is riddled with that kind of stuff. So if you love just great writing in a style that really is no more, than maybe Conrad is for you. After Lord Jim, I am definitely excited to revisit Heart of Darkness in a year or two. I think that this time, I’ll understand it.