Thursday, August 16, 2012

Three dirty owls - Conrad and Kipling, compared and contrasted

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.


  1. Truly, I like the *idea* of liking Joseph Conrad. I just find that in the moment of reading him, I never quite do, with the possible exceptions of "Heart of Darkness" (mostly because I am keen on sussing out the whole E.D. Morel and Leon Rom thing, being as sadly obsessed with the ghastliness of the period as I am) and "Nostromo." I find the whole "melancholy as resistance against an uncaring, indifferent universe" completely wearing, particularly at the length of "Lord Jim." If I have to wallow in this kind of attitude, give me Sebald every time. Culture doesn't necessarily lead to dissipation, dehumanization and defeat. It reminds me of your long-ago criticism of that peculiar 80s artifact, Pink Floyd's "The Wall." "So Roger Waters is asking, 'What is to be done,' is he? He goes through a scarring wartime childhood, a repressive and demoralizing educational experience, rock and roll stardom, a terrible breakup, and substance abuse...and this implicit endorsement of isolationism and peculiar sympathy for Fascism is all he got out of it? Are these really the best options he could come up with to put on the table?"

  2. Yes, yes! It is possible that Marlow is getting a little too much enjoyment out of pretending that Jim is a mystery.

    That business about "The Wall" sounds like me. I do not remember how the record ends. Everything turns out fine, I suppose. Stiff upper lip and all that.

  3. Looking back on "Lord Jim", I can barely remember the storyline - certainly not in any detail. I can remember individual scenes, and, of course, the writing - that peculiar texture of the prose. This is rather strange given that "Lord Jim" is, in outline at least, a boys' own adventure story - the sort of thing one might expect to be plot driven. Similarly with Nostromo: I don't think I could summarise the plot.

    I have liked what I have read of Conrad: in some cases, I have liked it a lot - even though his utter pessimism about everything is not something I can personally share. But one doesn't read books merely to agree with them.

  4. The storyline is deliberately fragmented which makes it hard to remember. Told as a straight adventure story, it would be much easier. I am assuming that I will have the same trouble as you, Himamdri, as time passes, that the difficulty is built into the way Conrad tells the tale.

    I am more of an extremist regarding your last point. Drop the "merely" - I do not read to agree or disagree at all. It would be like agreeing with a vase or a lacquer box. I am not recommending this approach - it is an intellectual flaw.

  5. I suppose it would smack of irreverence (it isn't) if I suggested that you rewrite all of Conrad as a series of Edward Lear poems?

  6. I second seraillon's suggestion.

    I've only read a little Conrad, but whenver I read him I'm struck by two things: the connectedness of his work with a larger body of writing (Heart of Darkness reminds me of Moby-Dick and Arthur Gorden Pym, etc), and the way his prose is specific and active, jumping off the page. I really love, in Heart of Darkness, his way with landscapes. Here's the first glimpse of the Company outpost:

    "I came upon a boiler wallowing in the grass, then found a path leading up the hill. It turned aside for the bowlders, and also for an undersized railway-truck lying there on its back with its wheels in the air. One was off. The thing looked as dead as the carcass of some animal. I came upon more pieces of decaying machinery, a stack of rusty rails. To the left a clump of trees made a shady spot, where dark things seemed to stir feebly. I blinked, the path was steep. A horn tooted to the right, and I saw the black people run. A heavy and dull detonation shook the ground, a puff of smoke came out of the cliff, and that was all. No change appeared on the face of the rock. They were building a railway. The cliff was not in the way or anything; but this objectless blasting was all the work going on."

    It's all very visual, sure, but it's also symbolic (like everything else in that book). Conrad gives us nice unified narratives. Kipling's settings, I don't think, work on the same metaphorical level. There's almost no description of the setting in The Man Who Would Be King, for example.

    Conrad's owls are nice. I should read this book.

  7. Conrad is such a difficult writer to enjoy. I've read so many of his books, and my favourites are The Secret Agent and Of Nostromo and Lord Jim I retain some passages and images and a general impression that I liked them, even if I can't remember much of them now. Typhoon, The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' and Under Western Eyes I know I didn't care at all; UWE is dreadful, an utterly dull book. I can't believe that was his answer to Dostoevsky, whom he hated. But it has to be said, old Fyodor was much more fascinating.

    His prose is beautiful, with serpentine sentences, and his non-linear narrative opened up new possibilities, but I never find the content very interesting.

    1. Hm, strange typo. I meant to say my favourite novels were 'The Secret Agent' and 'Heart of Darkness.

  8. The seafaring tradition, as Scott - oops, two Scotts here - Bailey suggests, is a big, rich world of its own. Conrad is actually late in the tradition.

    We are pretty close to a consensus. Everyone who has stopped by is at least a little suspicious of Conrad, although we all can enjoy his pleasures. He does with fair frequency lay out a lip-smacker of a sentence. That bit Bailey quotes is a favorite of mine, too.

    Now The Secret Agent, the only other longish novel I have read, really stands out. Different tone, different structure, different kinds of characters. Funny.

  9. Can I be totally unsuspicious of Conrad? Just worship him? Well, a little bit at least. Lord Jim is almost a perfect book for me. Of course, I say that through the veil of time, wondering how much of the "story" I actually remember. But I do remember the telling!

    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.

    For me, it's not so much that I don't care how likely this simile is coming from Jim—after all, there is plenty of possibility that it is really coming from Marlowe anyhow—but in fact that it does seem surprising coming from Jim when and where it does. His whole all-nighter with Marlowe is a bit surprising in this respect. Marlowe is obsessed with not really understanding Jim, and as he tells us about this night with him, we don't really understand him either. He's not what we might expect. And, since we know so little of the story at this point, we don't know why, and we don't know whether it will end up seeming more of a piece later. I think it does, but then I would disagree with your statement that Jim is a coward. Jim makes a terrible, terrible mistake, but if he were a coward, he would not be talking to Marlowe about dirty owls at all.

  10. Kinda curious, ain't it, how ambivalent everyone is.

    That's a good point about the moment of cowardice - I am oversimplifying, just taking Jim's post-mortem as the truth.

    And then the other point is addressed in your next comment. Onward!