Saturday, February 18, 2006

Lord Jim

by Joseph Conrad

I've always enjoyed novels about the sea which is what attracted me to this book, though it is not so much about the sea as Jim, a boy who goes to sea early in his life with dreams of great deads and heroism. He is first mate on a passenger ship, the Patna, ferrying Muslim pilgrims across the Red Sea but when a storm arises and the ship threatens to sink the four-man crew, including Jim, jump ship and abandon the passengers to their fate. The ship doesn't sink and when it arrives in port an inquiry is begun where Jim is stripped of all duties and titles leaving him a maritime pariah. Captain Marlowe attends the inquiry and is fascinated by Jim and his story. He uses all his connections to find Jim a means of support which though unsuccessful at first eventually leads to the island of Patusan where Tuan Jim (Lord Jim) builds a new life for himself as the white-man god of the community.

Joseph Conrad has an strange and twisted diction, one that is hard to follow in places (perhaps because English is not his native language?) but then he has a few places where he shines such as this example from page 77:

"An outward-bound mail-boat had come in that afternoon, and the big dining-room of the hotel was more than half full of people with a hundred pounds round-the-world tickets in their pockets. There were married couples looking domesticated and bored with each other in the midst of their travels; there were small parties and large parties, and lone individuals dining solemnly or feasting boisterously, but all thinking, conversing, joking or scowling as was their wont at home; and just as intellignetly receptive of new impressions as their trunks upstairs. Henceforth they would be labelled as having passed through this and that place, and so would be their luggage. They would cherish this distinction of their persons, and preserve the gummed tickets on their portmanteaus as documentary evidence, as the only permanent trace of their improving enterprise."

Most of the novel is enclosed in quotation marks as it is quoted from the mouth of Marlowe of Heart of Darkness fame. The story mixes around chronologically, trying to give the strongest drama possible, but which leads to narrative disorder in parts. In places Conrad doesn't properly attribute his dialogue, making me wonder who said what, and the occasional vague pronoun reference or unnamed character adds to the confusion, leaving me stuck in someone's stream-of-conscious ramblings.

The parts that are lucid and concrete are fabulous, the parts that wander aren't. Jim, through his tragedy, represents each of us at our moral crossroads and that universality is the meat of the story and prose which when understood is highly satisfying. "'Ah! What a chance missed!'" he says on page 83 "'My God! What a chance missed!' . . . but the ring of the last 'misssed' resembled a cry wrung out by pain." It's worth a read for this experience and a few moving descriptions and significant aphorisms but isn't as good as Heart of Darkness.