Saturday, January 20, 2007

Review: Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

The first thing to say about this book is that it is a work of genius. It is simultaneously a tale of adventure, a masterful display of technique (like a modernist building, the structure is on the outside), and a profound study in human nature. You will notice that I feel it is three novels in one: the author himself seems very taken with the number three.
The book falls naturally into three parts: The first section, with a traditional narrator, a second, which is a verbatim record of a long anecdote given by Conrad's repeated character Marlow (also hero of 'Heart of Darkness' and 'Youth'), and the third, a long letter from Marlow, concluding the tale. Also, Conrad often describes things three times, rising to a crescendo: "This was one of those cases which no solemn deception can palliate, where no man can help; where his very Maker seems to abandon a sinner to his own devices.".
This tendency was the first thing that reminded me of William Faulkner. (For example, from Absalom, Absalom: "...out of the biding and dreamy and victorious dust"). After this initial hint, a torrent of connections struck me. Both authors use the technique of breaking up the chronology of the story. Both use unreliable and untrustworthy second-hand reports, rejecting the concept of an objective 'true' story. In fact, in 'Lord Jim', the hero (in my opinion, a kind of 'anti-Kurtz') is always described as being seen through a mist, or a cloud. Both have the ability to write hypnotic prose, which works like a piece of music: taken word by word, it can make no sense, but taken as a whole, it weaves a rich tapestry.
Conrad is ironic when writing about human behaviour, like the far-travelled and world weary man he was. But, although he accuses the hero of Lord Jim of being 'a romantic', he cannot hide his own romantic nature. This is a wise and thought-provoking book, with themes that will stay with me for a long time.
I was put off Conrad as a young man, as I found the prose dense and unrewarding. I am delighted I was so superficial: I have saved him up until such time as I am better able to understand his world view. I also want to listen to 'Heart of Darkness' all over again.

I know I said I would not be reviewing readers, but for solo recordings I feel I must sometimes make an exception. Stewart Wills manages to make his reading sound like he is not reading at all, but rather is just telling an anecdote, in an ironic and sometimes humourous way. His knowledge of the text seems absolute: this can be a complex book, but his reading always makes it seem natural and accessible. If you know someone who has not yet heard a LibriVox recording, and doubts the value of the project, this may well be the recording to prove him or her wrong.

Next: The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells


Stewart Wills said...

Chris -- very interesting review; thanks for posting it (and, once more, thanks for the very kind words about the recording).

It's interesting you bring up the "groups of threes" bit. I noticed on the Wikipedia article about Conrad that they attribute his fondess for "triple parallelism" in sentences to the influence of French and Polish prose styles on his writing. But the connection with the three-part structure of the novel hadn't occured to me, nor had the comparison with Faulkner. (It's interesting, too, that you mention Absalom, Absalom! in particular, as I *just* finished re-reading that amazing book. Got a lot more out of it this time than the last -- though still, of course, a *lot* left unplumbed!)

Anyway, thanks again for listening, for the review, and good luck -- I've added your blog to my RSS reader, and will be following your project with pleasure!


Kristin said...

I started listening to this work while MCing for it, and now you've reminded me of it. I think I'll listen to the whole thing through once I'm done with A Tale of Two Cities.

ChrisHughes said...

Stewart: I can only thank you for getting me in touch with this great book. Thanks for the wikipedia reference: don't I look like a plagiarist! The Absalom wikipedia page is interesting in this context too: "Akin to the modern detective story, Absalom, Absalom! also juxtaposes ostensible fact, informed guesswork, and outright speculation, with the implication that any and all narratives--any and all reconstructions of the past--remain irretrievable and therefore imaginative."
Faulkner and Conrad sitting up a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G.
Pity we can't have a Faulkner LibriVox recording for another few decades...

Charlene said...

Thanks for writing this.