I read Lord Jim (1899-1900) a couple of weeks ago – when was I in France – a month ago. Conrad’s novel has a lot of surface similarities to Captains Courageous which I thought would make for a facile post. I am sure I meant to type “fascinating.” For example, they were published around the same time, and they are both seafaring novels. Probably a lot of other similarities.
Or differences. The core of the Conrad book is an episode in which Jim, older than fifteen but still untested, behaves shamefully during an emergency at sea. His great desire is to be a hero, and instead he finds himself to be a coward. That covers about half of the novel; the rest tells of Jim’s attempt, perhaps successful, perhaps not, to efface his humiliation. I likely had Lord Jim in mind while reading Captains Courageous. Because Kipling is writing a boys’ book, he will form his hero’s character until the boy demonstrates his heroism in the climax, saving the cod fishers from pirates, for example – the notorious Newfoundland Pirates, led by the bloodthirsty Captain Cod – while the adult novel begins with the emergency and explores its consequences.
I can see how that could make up a little post.
I won’t write it, though, because, leafing through Lord Jim, I find myself distracted by other things. Like this:
“’They sat in the stern shoulder to shoulder, with the skipper in the middle, like three dirty owls, and stared at me,’ I heard him say with an intention of hate that distilled a corrosive virtue into the commonplace words like a drop of powerful poison falling into a glass of water; but my thoughts dwelt upon that sunrise. I could imagine under the pellucid emptiness of the sky these four men imprisoned in the solitude of the sea, the lonely sun, regardless of the speck of life, ascending the clear curve of the heaven as if to gaze ardently from a greater height at his own splendour reflected in the still ocean.” (Ch. 10)
I tell you, that passage if nothing else is written. Conrad wrote the heck out of it. I find it hard to tear myself from the “three dirty owls” – that really took me by surprise. Conrad’s prose is full of surprises. I am not sure that particular simile is a likely one coming from this character (Jim in disgrace) in this situation (telling how he was adrift on the Indian Ocean), but I do not care much about that. I can see them there, as if in an Edward Lear poem. “Jim and three owls went to sea. \ Jim was clean, the owls dir-tee.”
I direct attention to the extra quotation marks. The owls belong to Jim, but the poison and “pellucid” and ardent gaze and splendor are all Marlow, Conrad’s favorite distancing mechanism, who is supposedly saying all of this and hundreds more pages much like it in a single nighttime story-telling session, which is also not exactly likely, although I buy it, completely. If you hear that Marlow is telling a story, do not hit the hammock early. Stay for the whole story, even if you have to get up early the next day.
Bibliographing nicole wrote about Lord Jim a long time ago. She covers Marlow more sensibly. Here’s the great similarity between the Conrad and Kipling novels: the telling in both is more interesting than the substance, but Conrad’s telling is far more complex, and is in fact part of the subject of the novel.
I see, in nicole’s comments, a pretty decent parody of Javier Marías which has my name on it, although I do not remember writing it.