“Youth: A Narrative” (1898) and “The Secret Sharer” (1910), by Joseph Conrad, perfect epitomes of Conrad in fact. Sea stories in the Far East with voluble ship captain narrators. Although there are degree of volubility. I was going to write that the narrator of “The Secret Sharer” is not Conrad’s alter ego Marlow but might as well be, but then I thought to read “Youth,” the first appearance of Marlow (“at least I think that is how he spelt his name,” ha ha). If Marlow had narrated “The Secret Sharer” it would be twice as long. Marlow is much more digressive. He performs his stories, like a bard, with a refrain of “Pass the bottle.”
Conrad and Marlow are almost cheating in “Youth,” since it is about a ship with a cargo of coal that catches fire, an adventure that does not need a writer as good as Conrad to make it exciting and original.
“Between the darkness of earth and heaven she was burning fiercely upon a disc of purple sea shot by the blood-red play of gleams; upon a disc of water glittering and sinister. A high, clear flame, an immense and lonely flame, ascended from the ocean, and from its summit the black smoke poured continuously at the sky. She burned furiously, mournful and imposing like a funeral pile kindled in the night, surrounded by the sea, watched over by the stars. A magnificent death had come like a grace, like a gift, like a reward to that old ship at the end of her laborious days. The surrender of her weary ghost to the keeping of stars and sea was stirring like the sight of a glorious triumph.”
All of this spoken, late at night, “round a mahogany table” to an audience of “a director of companies, an accountant, a lawyer, Marlow, and myself,” all former sailors who knew that when Marlow is ready to tell a story, stop what you are doing – unless what you are doing is getting out the booze – and settle in.
It is not clear whom, if anyone other than himself, the narrator of “The Secret Sharer” is addressing. He is a captain with his first command who comes across an officer who has fled his own ship because he killed a man during a storm. The captain ought to arrest the man, but instead makes him a stowaway, hiding him in his cabin. Much of the text of the story is about the elaborate steps the captain has to take to prevent the discovery of the stowaway. Finally, the captain endangers his own ship to allow the fugitive to escape.
The narrator does not appear to know why he behaved so strangely, and at such risk to himself and others, why he feels alienated from his own crew, why he was so unthinkingly sympathetic to the fugitive, who he appeared to take as some kind of double. I suppose the text is the result of the narrator searching his own story for clues. As in Lord Jim and perhaps Heart of Darkness and possibly even “Youth,” the narrator’s obsessive attention to the story, the significance with which he imbues the story, becomes the real story. I see why Conrad could not use Marlow here, though. Marlow is too self-aware. In “The Secret Sharer,” the narrator seems to be trying to uncover his own secrets.
I do not know what he finds. I am not such a good reader of Conrad. File all this away.