Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The inimitable Joseph Conrad

{Photo by rocketlass.}

From Joseph Conrad's The Secret Sharer (1909):
She floated at the starting point of a long journey, very still in an immense stillness, the shadows of her spars flung far to the eastward by the setting sun. At that moment I was alone on her decks. There was not a sound in her--and around us nothing moved, nothing lived, not a canoe on the water, not a bird in the air, not a cloud in the sky. In this breathless pause at the threshold of a long passage we seemed to be measuring our fitness for a long and arduous enterprise, the appointed task of both our existences to be carried out, far from all human eyes, with only sky and sea for spectators and judges.
Those who know Conrad understand that the young captain, in setting this scene, has left out a far more terrible judge--next to whom the relatively forgiving judgments of sky and sea will seem as nothing: the implicit judgment posed by a man's idea self, honorable and brave--at least until it faces its first real challenges.

I deeply admire Conrad; Victory and Lord Jim are among the most important books in my development as a reader, my memories of first reading them still powerful fifteen years later. Yet he occupies an odd place among writers I love: I can go for a year or more without reading him . . . and then the urge will come over me, and absolutely no one else--not even his most obvious descendant, Graham Greene--will do.

That urge is what led me to The Secret Sharer last week. Of a piece with Conrad's other novel of young, inexperienced command, The Shadow-Line, it presents a narrator who is similarly young and uncertain in his command, and like that novel it verges on the uncanny--the captain's account of the discovery of a would-be stowaway reads like nothing so much as the set-up for a classic, Jamesian (Henry or M. R.) ghost story:
In the end, of course, I put my head over the rail.

The side of the ship made an opaque belt of shadow on the darkling glassy shimmer of the sea. But I saw at once something elongated and pale floating very close to the ladder. Before I could form a guess a faint flash of phosphorescent light, which seemed to issue suddenly from the naked body of a man, flicked in the sleeping water with the elusive, silent play of summer lightning in a night sky. With a gasp I saw revealed to my stare a pair of feet, the long legs, a broad, livid back immersed right up to the neck in a greenish cadaverous glow. One hand, awash, clutched the bottom rung of the ladder. He was complete but for the head. A headless corpse! The cigar dropped out of my gaping mouth with a tiny plop and a short hiss quite audible in the absolute stillness of all things under heaven. At that I suppose he raised up his face, a dimly pale oval in the shadow of the ship's side. But even then I could only barely make out down there the shape of his black-haired head. However, it was enough for the horrid, frost-bound sensation which had gripped me about the chest to pass off. The movement of vain exclamations was past, too.I climbed on the spare spar and leaned over the rail as far as I could, to bring my eyes nearer to that mystery floating alongside.
I love the detail of the cigar plopping into the water, and the way the horror simply presents itself, unmoving, for the captain's mind to amplify and expand. The tale remains just this side of the supernatural, but it does make me dream of a parallel body of work by some alternate-universe Joseph Conrad, writer of ghost stories.

Having mentioned Henry James above, it seems right to share some of Conrad's take on James, which I came across in a letter included in the wonderfully small and chunky copy of The Portable Conrad that I found at my local library during this most recent eruption of Conrad fever. In a letter to John Galsworthy of February 11, 1899, Conrad offers this rousing defense:
Dearest Jack,

Yes, it is a good criticism. Only I think that to say Henry James does not write from the heart is maybe hasty. He is cosmopolitan, civilized, very much homme du monde and the acquired (educated if you like) side of his temperament,--that is,--restraints, the instinctive, the nurtured, fostered, cherished side is always presented to the reader first. To me even the R. T. [The Real Thing] seems to flow from the heart because and only because the work approaching so near perfection, yet does not strike cold. Technical perfection, unless there is some real glow to illumine and warm it from within, must necessarily be cold. I argue that in H. J. there is such a glow and not a dim one either, but to us used, absolutely accustomed, to unartistic expression of fine, headlong, honest (or dishonest) sentiments the art of H. J. does appear heartless. The outlines are so clear, the figures so finished, chiselled, carved and brought out that we exclaim,--we, used to the shades of the contemporary fiction, to the more or less malformed shades,--we exclaim,--stone! Not at all. I say flesh and blood,--very perfectly presented,--perhaps with too much perfection of method.
This seems a clear case of the best qualities of one writer appealing directly to the best qualities of another, superficially quite different writer: minute variations in self-understanding and self-assessment are crucial to both men, despite the very different settings and characters they deploy to explore them.

All of which, now that I've temporarily sated my appetite for Conrad, may just set me off on a long-overdue James binge. Perhaps OGIC will be willing to point me in the right direction?

1 comment:

  1. Victory is my personal favorite. I think Shirley Hazzard said that it was an important novel for her growth as a writer, as well... don't know if I heard that in person at her reading or read in an interview...