Friday, August 7, 2015

"Pass the bottle" - Conrad's narrators narrate ("Youth" & "The Secret Sharer")

“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.


  1. I hope to try a second read of his Nostromo this year, last one forty years ago.

  2. "uncover his own secrets". i've enjoyed conrad off and on for many years, but i'm still not sure i understand him. his work seems to have something hidden behind it and that makes it hard to interpret sometimes. i remember the first time i read "typhoon" i thought it was supposed to be humorous, with the chinese and others rolling around in the bottom of the ship as it was tossed about by the waves. all in all, his work seems written by an old mariner, which he was of course...

    1. The " something hidden behind it" in Conrad's work is nearly always Poland and Russia. It's notable with Heart of Darkness that Kurtz's great admirer is a Russian - what's he doing in the Congo Free State in that book except pointing up Conrad's own concerns?

    2. If that's the secret in "The Secret Sharer," Conrad does not give such a clear clue. Still, something in the narrator's past, that is a good guess.

    3. The important aspect of Conrad's past was Poland and his characters reflect it. His father had died because he tried to recreate Poland. Other members of his family tried to revive Poland or had made some kind of peace with the occupiers or did both at different times. Because Conrad wasn't the "real" Conrad he could or should have been - the cultured country squire - he and his alteregos could so easily imagine and meet the alternative people they might have been

    4. Roger, I am so glad you expanded on your comment. I misunderstood it, badly. The alter-egos clearly solve a major problem for Conrad - artistic, psychological, whatever it is.

  3. My Conrad came and went quickly, a few years ago: I found him tiresomely dour and opaque and not particularly rewarding; but Heart of Darkness, The Secret Agent and "An Outpost of Progress" are fictions I hold in very high esteem.

  4. Nostromo is my big Conrad Humiliation at this point. Not just Conrad - so much Latin American literature, so much Faulkner, has roots in Nostromo. Or so I am told.

    Miguel, I think you would enjoy "Youth," which is such a strong adventure story. Like Heart of Darkness, and unlike Lord Jim or "The Secret Sharer," it is not such a mystery why the narrator is telling this story.

    The Secret Agent hardly seems like it is from the same author.

    That bit from "Typhoon" is a perfect example of how I think Conrad works. It is a moment of horror that erupts in a humorous adventure story. But the poor reader has to be pretty nimble with the tone. I, too, find him hard to interpret.

    1. Oh, I should have clarified that although my Conrad phase came and went quickly, it was pretty wide reaching, save for the Ford Madox Ford collaborations. I read Youth and Typhoon, but I confess very little of them stayed in my memory.

      Although Nostromo is difficult and dull as hell, there was a bizarre synchronicity at the time I read it: as the IMF was marching into Portugal I thought it was eerie that the novel was about foreign capitalists manipulating the destiny of a nation, and a national debt crisis being part of the plot. For that reason I retain a strange affection for it.

      The Latin American connection is probably true: for one thing the chronology is all over the place, there's a lot of Gabo and Varguitas in that. And the political themes: foreign interference, yearning for national freedom, revolutions, and dictators.

    2. I see, a lot of Conrad in a short period.

      I have found it frustrating that I have not been able to hear Faulkner anywhere in Conrad, but perhaps that is a reminder that I have been away from Faulkner for a long time.

    3. The fragmented narrative line of “Nostromo” is clearly an influence on Faulkner, but other than that, I can’t say I see much of a resemblance.

      I see Conrad as an author whose domain is really the boy’s own adventure story, and who, despite soon outgrowing the genre, never quite perhaps left it. “Lord Jim” is very recognisably within the genre, and so, I think, is “Heart of Darkness”. Even in “Nostromo”, there are passages that could only have bene written by a master of the adventure story: there are a number scenes of edge-of-the-seat excitement.

      “Nostromo” does run out of steam towards the end, and, from all accounts, Conrad was physically exhausted and finished the novel as best he could. But what comes before the ending seems to me exceptional.

      “The Secret Sharer” obviously hints at some deeper meaning, but I, for one, am not very good at digging out deeper meanings. The captain seems to recognise the stowaway as a sort of ghostly double of himself, and seems even to share in his guilt – but why, and to what purpose, I really do not know. I take it as a sort of enigmatic fable, and am not really very worried by what it signifies: even without digging out its hidden meaning, it intrigues, and that’s good enough for me.

      With “The Secret Agent”, the content is that of a spy thriller. Other than the fragmented story-line, it seems to be looking forward to Greene rather than to Faulkner. “Under Western Eyes” is also in this mode, although I think this is Conrad trying to show that he could do a Dostoyevskian novel better than Dostoyevsky (Conrad reputedly hated Dostoyevsky).

      Despite the various links to adventure stories (of a kind that I grew up with – Stevenson, Rider Haggard, and the like) – what I find most notable about Conrad is his utter pessimism. The man did not believe in anything at all – autocracy, democracy, plutocracy, oligarchy, the anarchists, the security forces … he disliked them all. I think one has to go to Flaubert to find such constant negativity – and even Flaubert mitigated his pessimism with a sadness that thing should be so. But one does wonder how a man could go through life without having any kind of faith in anything at all!

      Conrad's literary hero, incidentally, was Henry James. And no - I can't see any hint of influence there at all.

  5. What a helpful comment, Himadri. Helpful because knowledgeable, but also because you have not overthrown my ideas or prejudices or whatever they are.

    Some of the fun of "Youth" was that it worked so well as an adventure story. Stevenson or Kipling could have written good versions, although they would not have told it like Marlow.

    Like you, I take "The Secret Sharer" to be about the mysteriousness of the narrator's sympathy rather than as a puzzle with a solution.

    The great "influence" of James on Conrad is a mystery to me, too. Presumably I have not read the right James. One can always say that with James.

    Flaubert did believe, deeply and firmly, in art.

  6. I've never been able to finish any Conrad other than The End of the Tether, but my guess would be The Princess Casamassima: Hyacinth Robinson's fate seems very Conradian.

  7. How funny, I just mentioned The Princess Casamassima from the other direction. Turgenev -> James -> Conrad: plausible.

    I was assigned Heart of Darkness in three separate classes as an undergraduate, so I am in that sense inured to Conrad.