Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Joseph Conrad

Now this is how you open a story:
Napoleon I, whose career had the quality of a duel against the whole of Europe, disliked duelling between the officers of his army. The great military emperor was not a swashbuckler, and had little respect for tradition.

Nevertheless, a story of duelling, which became a legend in the army, runs through the epic of imperial wars. To the surprise and admiration of their fellows, two officers, like insane artists trying to gild refined gold or paint the lily, pursued a private contest through the years of universal carnage. They were officers of cavalry, and their connection with the high-spirited but fanciful animal which carries men into battle seems particularly appropriate. It would be difficult to imagine for heroes of this legend two offices of infantry of the line, for example, whose fantasy is tamed by much walking exercise, and whose valour necessarily must be of a more plodding kind. As to gunners or engineers, whose heads are kept cool on a diet of mathematics, it is simply unthinkable.
That's how Joseph Conrad begins his novella The Duel. I know there are those who dislike Conrad's prose--Ha Jin, for example, has written that it "tends to be purple at the expense of immediacy and penetrativeness"--but I find it almost always suited to his aims at a particular moment. What better way to begin a somewhat ridiculous, satirical account of a decade-long running duel than with the gentle irony of these sentences? The opening sentence alone, with its almost immediate interpolation of opinion, instantly reveals a narrative voice at some remove, both temporally and intellectually, from his subject, the perfect location for a Conradian narrative voice. (It's the position in which we find Marlowe at times, Heart of Darkness aside--though his emotional connection to the stories he tells prevents him from ever being as wry as this opening.)

One of the pleasures of Conrad is that he feels almost inexhaustible: there are nearly twenty novels, a handful of memoirs, and countless short stories. A reader can pick up one or two each year, when the hot late summer breeze brings thoughts of distant islands, and not run out for a long time. Such a summer night is this one; I'm glad The Duel is here.


  1. Conrad's 'The Duel' is a wonderful book: I found it so funny, and so good on the embarassment and growing horror of being pursued by an obsessive loon.

  2. I know! At times it calls to mind Monty Python--think Arthur's incredulity at the Black Knight's defiance, or any number of situations on the TV show where the premise was essentially, "reasonably sane person tries to deal ethically with person who is clearly batshit."

    Which makes me think of Conrad as more English than ever . . .

  3. George Marques (Brazil)9:20 AM

    Conrad has many virtues to admire. For example, I love the way he manages to shift the narrative structure, either by moving ahead and backwards in time ("Lord Jim") or changing the narrator's voice ("Nostromo"). Besides that, there is enduring fascination in following what characters do, fail to do, what they think and what thought of them we are not allowed to know.

    Conrad is a consumate master of elusiveness, ambiguity and complexity.