Friday, August 17, 2012

The appalling and calm solitudes awaiting the breath of future creations - some Lord Jim puzzles

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.


  1. Not sure what is the import of this, but I read 'the crowded planet' meant that the ship travelled on a reflecting surface of so many many stars--so the planet/ship do not contain crowds but instead is hemmed about with the glittering stars on the water surface. Regardless, now that I've read this, I'm going to have to reread Conrad. Thank you much.

  2. Ah crowded by the stars. That's good. It gives the word a double meaning. The ship is crowded with passengers, the plenty with people, the sky with stars, the planet by the stars.

    The paradox is that space is empty - but so is the sea, and the next thing that happens is a surprising accident in which the ship has a collision in the empty sea, which was more crowded than it looked.

  3. I am always happy to see Melville's work mentioned, because his life breaks my heart.

  4. "The kind of thing lazy reviewers now call 'luminous'" is my favorite line in this Melville and/or Conrad appreciation post of yours, Tom. In the meantime, will have to watch out for that dual narrator trick once I dip into The Secret Agent. Do you recommend that one, by any chance?

  5. Yes, The Secret Agent, yes: it's the second-greatest comic novel of terrorist anarchism of its time. It's also a strangely European British novel. Only one narrator in that one (some expert limited third) but the time-scrambling is quite good.

    "Luminous" is now close to a curse word for me.

    Conrad seems to have so much in common with Melville, although I do not believe that Conrad knew M.'s work. They were just plowing the same row, I guess, sailing the same seas.

  6. 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.

    I love this. You should do it!

    The question of the outside-narrator is one I mostly dodged when I wrote about this. Re-reading my post on Marlow and the French lieutenant, I'm thinking that Conrad is at least using the double-frame for something—it gives Marlow a chance to tell and retell and tell differently, always reminding us that Marlow is doing this, and holding up the possibility that there is a "real" story that happened that Marlow is trying to tell, trying to learn enough to tell properly. (Marías strikes again!)

    Or, making absurd the idea that there is such a real story—is that narrator for the first four chapters just a cosmic joke on the idea that anyone but Marlow could ever really tell us anything?

  7. I should read the other Marlow books, too, I guess - that one and the other one. I will have to look them up.

    The performance aspect of the novel, Marlow's rhetoric, is so pronounced that this seems promising. But of course this is also my usual obsession, that fiction is so often about fiction, narrative about narrative.

    I wonder if Marías translated Conrad? He did! I wonder what he translated? El Espejo del mar / The Mirror of the Sea. Well, that means nothing to me. There is a Conrad chapter in Written Lives, but I do not remember anything about it.

  8. Conrad in bathrooms, Conrad in bathrobes, Conrad absentmindedly setting fire to things. But!

    "they say that his tone [in the company of friends] was more like the tone in his book of essays, The Mirror of the Sea, than in his stories or novels."

  9. And besides, I think it's clear that that was an obsession of Cnrad's too--fiction being about fiction, narrative about narrative. Have you read Ford's essay on literary Impressionism?

  10. Oh, yeah, it's all about domestic Conrad. I guess to counter any idea of world traveling adventuresome Conrad.

    No, I have not read that Ford essay - I guess I have read the chopped up hash of it that is sprinkled through The March of Literature.

  11. Yes, exactly--"like all good sailors, Conrad actually hated traveling" (I'm paraphrasing now).

    The essay is good; I've got it in one of my Norton Criticals of The Good Soldier. I'm pretty sure Conrad like disowned it or something later. Or do I only think Conrad disowned things because that's part of the Marías story too?

  12. The Norton Critical Edition of The Good Soldier is an amazing piece of work. I must use it when I next read Ford.