Saturday, 28 March 2009

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

With Lord Jim, as with many of Conrad’s books, the background is surely auto-biographical. In describing Jim’s background he tells of precisely the sort of experiences of seagoing and sitting masters’ and mates’ exams that Conrad himself knew. Much of the material from the Bangkok trilogy, for example, (Falk, The Secret Sharer and The Shadow Line, a definite trilogy though written at different times in his life, and only the last as a full novel) is thought to be lifted straight from his very earliest experiences of seafaring in Asia, with little more then the names having been changed.

Jim is first mate of the “Patna”, but when danger looms he abandons ship in panic, abandoning his crewmates to the unknown. This single moment of cowardice comes to define his life as he seeks atonement or, as a religious rather than a humanist novelist might have put it, redemption. Finding himself a white man in the tropical jungle, the Lord Jim of the title, he seeks to regain his lost honour, even at the expense of needlessly sacrificing his own life in recompense for a broken promise.

So far, so good. What I have just outlined could be the staple fare of any 1900 melodrama, replete with colourful native characters, heroic derring-do and a determined, noble sacrifice made in pursuance of the white man’s burden. Except, of course, that Conrad is an incomparably greater writer than that, perhaps even the greatest English novelist ever, and certainly the greatest of his time. His contemporaries included Wells, Conan Doyle, Ford/Hueffer, James, Galsworthy, and Bennett, all of whom he knew, incidentally, and many of whom formed a circle of writers who all lived within a few miles of each other on the south coast at places such as Sandgate (Wells), Rye (James) and Winchelsea (Ford/Hueffer and, at various times, Conrad). Yet though Galsworthy would be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, a decision that seems difficult to justify today, and Conan Doyle would perhaps sell more books than all of them put together, it is in my view Conrad who has the strongest claim to greatness.

There are certain composers whose music sounds unmistakeably their own, as well as something that nobody else could possibly have written, and perhaps something that nobody else will ever emulate; Wagner would be an obvious example. So it is with literature. In modern times one might think of the Rushdie of Midnight’s Children, or the Durrell of The Alexandria Quartet, for example, but with Conrad this is true perhaps even more so than with any other writer. T.E. Lawrence said that Conrad wrote in paragraphs rather than sentences, and that his books always felt much bigger then they really were. That is why he has always been a novelist’s novelist; apart from his contemporaries, who instantly recognised his genius, his fans have included Anthony Powell, Evelyn Waugh, Kinglsey Amis, A.N. Wilson and Graham Greene. Greene, indeed, was so obsessed with Conrad that on his travels he used deliberately to target hotels where Conrad himself had stayed, and insist on being given the same room.

Conrad speaks to us down the generations of the essential human condition. Jim, having literally jumped ship from one world, tries to construct another for himself, one in which he plays a part of the “tuan”, the “Lord Jim” of the title. Life, as Conrad knew, is composed of fresh starts and new directions as individuals try to rebuild their lives to move away from past troubles. Usually, of course, they are ultimately unsuccessful, as is the case inevitably with Jim.

“Then Jim understood. He had retreated from one world, for a small matter of an impulsive jump, and now the other, the work of his own hands, had fallen upon his head … without a word, he came out of his room and sat before the long table, at the head of which he was accustomed to regulate the affairs of his world, proclaiming daily the truth that surely lived in his heart … the girl he loved came in and spoke to him, but he made a sign with his hand and she was awed by the dumb appeal for silence in it. She went out onto the veranda and sat on the threshold, as if to guard him with her body from dangers outside.”

This is a perfect example of Conrad’s unique prose style. It speaks of simple, almost mundane actions, yet it does so in a way which brings out the true hopelessness of the human condition, and transforms the trivial into the tragic, the mawkish into the overpoweringly emotional.

There are those who feel this represents an essentially negative view of the world, one in which there are few happy endings. A world in which there is ultimately but one pre-ordained ending, which is rarely happy for anyone, and in which the only comfort for which one can hope is that one might reach that ending at least without havng learned the true awfulness of which man is capable. Remember that by the time of Lord Jim Conrad had already written Heart of Darkness, perhaps the most influential work of fiction in the English language, with Kurz’s famous last words echoing as its ending: “the horror, the horror!”

In fact Conrad’s world view is not so bleak as some would have it. From the female characters in both Lord Jim and Victory we can surmise that, like Goethe, Wagner and Schopenhauer, he believes in the redemptive power of human love. It is Conrad’s greatness that he also recognises, and ruthlessly portrays, the constant ability of the male of the species, of whom Jim is a perfect example, to spurn their last chance of happiness without even really understanding why they are doing so.

He also recognises that life is not just transient but fragmentary. Any single life is but a passing moment in the totality of existence, but that life itself is divided up into a number of fragments which may or may not seem connected, and which simply blur into each other. Death, when it comes, is merely another such moment.

“There is never time to say our last word – the last word of our love, of our desire, faith, remorse, submission, revolt.” (Lord Jim)

It is this view, and his ability to express it at an almost subliminal level in his wonderful prose style, that sets Conrad apart, and gives him that ability to echo down the ages as the definitive portrayer of the essential human condition. Forget the exotic foreign locations, the sea-going tales and the colourful natives, for they are but theatrical props. What matters is his ability to communicate that life is essentially trivial, the odds against individual success huge, and that depravity or even simple chance are always likely to triumph over efforts at heroism, nobility or greatness. Yet none of this really matters, since that one pre-ordained ending will suddenly represent simply the next moment, will come, and be gone again. The last word is never uttered.

As one of Conrad’s biographers, John Stape, puts it:

“resolutely refusing to pronounce that ‘last word’, Conrad speaks for an awareness of fragmentation so quintessentially modern that his voice, a century and a half after his birth, remains powerful and authoritative … his essential loneliness and sense of the horror of existence (found) existence in highly wrought prose and in fiction of coruscating insight…”


Sunday, 15 March 2009

"Major Benjy" back on the best-seller list

Major Benjy has briefly re-appeared in the best-seller lists (#54 in historical fiction, into which category Amazon have rather quaintly put it). I think this could have something to do with an article in the Ham and High last week, which may have prodded the book-puchasing classes of London NW3 into action.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Two bits of news

First, let us rejoice that there is a new Fred Vargas book available in English, The Chalk Circle Man. I suppose we should be thankful for small mercies, but why on earth could they not have translated them in the right order? This is actually the first in the Adamsberg series.

Second, clcking here should take you to a working URL for my talk at the Sunday Times Literary Festival in Oxford on 1st April. It's principally about E.F. Benson, though onviously my own Mapp and Lucia book Major Benjy may get a passing mention ...