What’s going on with the narrator in Lord Jim? It puzzles me. Not Marlow-the-narrator, but the other one, the semi-invisible, semi-omniscient one. He has the first four chapters and twenty pages to himself before Marlow appears, his performance already in motion, to circle around the story of what happened to Jim out on that ship, what he did that was so bad, why he acts like it is worse than it was. I think I basically get what Marlow is up to, at least.
My misreading of Lord Jim is that Marlow stretches a simple martyr complex to unnecessary lengths for his own dramatic reasons – another presentation of the Great Marlow Show. “You thrilled to the spear attack, you shivered at ‘The horror, the horror’! Marlow is back with another existential shocker” etc. etc. I would have to reread the novel to build this up, though.
In the meantime, Omniscient Conrad. Here’s how he writes (Jim is on the deck of a cargo ship which for some reason is full of passengers to Mecca):
The thin gold shaving of the moon floating slowly downwards had lost itself on the darkened surface of the waters, and the eternity beyond the sky seemed to come down nearer to the earth, with the augmented glitter of the stars, with the more profound sombreness in the lustre of the half-transparent dome covering the flat disc of an opaque sea. The ship moved so smoothly that her onward motion was imperceptible to the senses of men, as though she had been a crowded planet speeding through the dark spaces of ether behind the swarm of suns, in the appalling and calm solitudes awaiting the breath of future creations. 'Hot is no name for it down below,' said a voice. (Ch. 3)
This narrator mostly simulates a Flaubert-like objectivity, but he bursts into these adjective-packed passages, the kind of thing lazy reviewers now call “luminous.” Jim is on deck, and the first sentence may attach itself to his point of view – perhaps he was looking at the moon, or is feeling the pressure of the stars. The second sentence, though, is explicitly not Jim’s or anyone’s. The motion is imperceptible, available only to the disembodied author and his lucky reader.
The more I look at the line, the less it seems to mean. The ship is crowded, so the planet it resembles is likewise. But it the planet is in a strange place – behind the stars – and not just in any old empty space but one where Yahweh moves over the waters. For a line, Conrad creates a mythological space, but the voice that dispels it is not a demon from the underworld but just the ship’s second engineer.
I wonder what imagery or reference I am missing later in the book that should bring me back to this point and others like it, these little glimpses into the Cosmic. Perhaps they are just flourishes, Conrad flexing his poetic impulse, giving me some enjoyably flavorful and chewy sentences. But more likely they mean something.
I’ll do an entire week of this with some book. Day 1: What does this mean? Day 2: How about this? And so on. Not all that different from what I usually do.