For some reason, in my high school, we never read Joseph Conrad. Which I came to think was a good thing, especially after I spoke back then to a few o my friends who hated Lord Jim with passion. For some reason Polish schools back then selected this novel, and not a much more compact Heart of Darkness. After being duly warned I delayed my first meeting with Mr Conrad for quite a few years.
I finally came to Heart of Darkness in my late twenties. I had to start it three times, but when I finally got through it, I understood that it was a matter of language (my first two tries were a Polish translation, the final and successful attempt was the English original). After that, I quite quickly read The Secret Agent, which interested me because the plot centred around Greenwich Park, so 15 minutes walk from where I live. I liked both books a lot, but I was still dreading Lord Jim.
At the beginning of this year, I happened to be in the National Maritime Museum (in the said park) with my mum. As always we went to the museum shop, and there it was…I decided the time has come. I probably read another three books before finally getting to this one, but once I started I was determined to finish.
And thank heavens for that, because if I was a less motivated individual I would never have finished. It’s been a while since I had to force myself to go back to a book, and it’s not a small one at that, my copy had 352 pages (so just over my border of a scarily long book).
Most of you probably know the story or the gist of it, but let’s go over it for clarity’s sake. Jim, after being injured, gets a job on Patna, the ship taking pilgrims to Mecca. During the storm when it looks like the ship is going to sink, he makes a split second decision (it does not feel like a split second when you read it, but I think that was the idea) and with the rest of the crew abandons the ship. Only the ship does not sink and the story comes out. Jim is the only one of the crew that stays to bear the consequences and go through the inquest. This is when Marlow, our narrator, meets him.
Something in Jim makes an impression on Marlow and he decides to help him. Thanks to Marlow Jim gets several various posts (none of them at sea, that part of his career is clearly over), but every time anyone mentions Patna Jim ups and leaves. He cannot bear the shame, of what he did but also of not meeting his own expectations about himself. His fate changes when Marlow with the help of a friend, Stein, manages to get Jim a post in Patusan. I’ll leave the plot at that, with one minor addition – as much as I knew the plot before, everyone always failed to mention the ending to me, so I admit I was a bit surprised about it (not a lot, because it basically is one of the three possible ones, but still I expected something else).
Marlow narrates the story as if he’s telling it to a group of friends and acquaintances sitting on a verandah, smoking, after having a good dinner. And I do think the book would work a lot better for me if someone would read it aloud in that exact setting. Unfortunately, this was not to be, so I had to rely on myself. And the text read quietly was very uneven, with lots of slow moments. Also, Marlow is prone to rambling and getting off topic, to tell an anecdote or something that happened later, a device that makes the narration setting very realistic, but makes it more difficult to follow the story.
I do admit the book had its moments, but overall it felt too long for me. Something which Conrad actually addresses in his author’s note:
When this novel first appeared in book form a notion got about that I had been bolted away with. Some reviewers maintained that the work, starting as a short story, had got beyond the writer’s control. […]They argued that no man could be expected to talk all that time, and other men to listen so long. It was not, they say, very credible.
After thinking it over for something like sixteen years, I am not so sure about that. […] If I hadn’t believed that it was interesting I could never have begun to write it.
I do also think that maybe reading the book as a serial as it was first published was also a better option, than going in one big bang. Either way, I did it, I liked some things, found a few treasures and was bored for some time. I don’t think I will be going back to it, but I do not regret reading it. I still thing Conrad had a great gift for prose that makes you think and also immerses you in the atmosphere while depicting the inner life of the protagonists.
Now probably this posts feels to you like I’m trying to compete with Conrad, so I’ll stop here.
Have you read it? Did you like it?