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Its name was “The Otago,” the emblem a sailing ship.
By early 1897, Galsworthy had assembled a book of short stories, and his Polish friend, who had engineered a midlife career change of his own from British seaman to English novelist, under the name Joseph Conrad, was writing to Edward Garnett, who worked as a publisher’s reader—a sort of grand scout—asking him to look out for a manuscript by “my literary!
friend.”Mostly, though, the favors travelled in the other direction.
The ship is a setting as well as a symbol, a microclimate as well as a microcosm. Recalling the Judea, the bark on which he served as second mate, Marlow says that, to him, it was not “an old rattle-trap” but “the endeavour, the test, the trial of life.” Youth is what Marlow saw with and what he saw.
But it’s possible to see Conrad chafing at the constraints of realist storytelling in his use of philosophical digression—and hinting at future priorities in the book’s final paragraphs, which shift from a collective viewpoint with moments of omniscience, a “we” that behaves like a “he,” to an unabashed first person: “I never saw one of them again.”Next came the breakthrough—a startlingly original narrative voice that not only severed Conrad’s fiction from realism but questioned the idea of a consensual “reality.” In January, 1898, the month after “The Nigger” was published, Conrad wrote the story “Youth,” introducing the forty-two-year-old merchant seaman Charles Marlow, who recalls his maiden voyage to Eastern seas. Places tell us about the people who visit and inhabit them.
Coming upon a group of natives labelled “enemies,” he identifies men who were “nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom.” But bafflement is futile.
The world has been rewritten in accordance with the white man’s vocabulary. Conrad’s theme is familiar from countless earlier writers, notably Flaubert, who in “Madame Bovary” and “Sentimental Education” measured the gulf between fact and fantasy.Marlow doesn’t celebrate the role played by passion or prejudice in our descriptions of the world; it’s just something he acknowledges.In Conrad’s next Marlow story, “Heart of Darkness” (1899), set in an unnamed colony whose rulers talk exclusively in propagandist falsehoods, Marlow is the one person willing to call a rattletrap a rattletrap.It had taken him a little while to find his favored route to abstraction.In his great novella, “The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ ” (1897), about a sailor who refuses to accept that he is dying, the material world—the sailors’ “forecastle,” the London streets—is solidly present and correct. Simmons explains in his new scholarly edition, part of Cambridge’s complete printing of Conrad’s works, the novelist distinguished between writers who treat the sea as simply “a stage” and writers in whose work the sea represents “a factor in the problem of existence.” “The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ ” straddles the border. a whispering ‘daemon,’ ” Marlow is more specifically a vehicle for exploring the perspectival nature of human affairs—the idea that, for example, the Indian Ocean has no stable essence or identity beyond the excitement it inspires in one excitable twenty-year-old sailor.Conrad welcomed the idea, but, fearing it wouldn’t come off, asked Galsworthy if he could write to his friend Alfred A.Knopf, the Doubleday, Page employee who, in Conrad’s words, had formulated “this plan of ‘taking me up.’ ”Knopf was twenty years old and brimming with ideas for remedying the outrage that “a great writer” could fail to command “a large audience.” Among his promotional schemes was an illustrated pamphlet, a press release parading as an essay.It concerns the spiritual odyssey of a young “water clerk,” drawn to the sea by “light holiday literature,” who abandons a sinking passenger ship called the Patna.The story, mostly delivered as a dinner-table anecdote, has been cobbled together from Marlow’s own “impression” of Jim—at the Patna inquiry and during the warm friendship that followed—and from the reminiscences of various bit players, including the dying mercenary “Gentleman Brown” and “an elderly French lieutenant whom I came across one afternoon in Sydney, by the merest chance, in a sort of cafe.” But the witnesses, far from helping him to “get at the truth of anything,” only reinforce Marlow’s sense that “there are as many ship-wrecks as there are men”—logic that holds not just for “belief” and “thought” and “conviction” but also for “the visual aspect of material things.” Although “Lord Jim” departs from the previous Marlow tales in its use of an authorial narrator, the novel opens with this putative God’s-eye view unable to determine whether Jim is one or two inches “under six feet.” (In “The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus,’ ” we are left in no doubt that James Wait is six-three.),” he declared, in 1902.A synopsis of Conrad’s life at sea that begins “He had been to the corners of the earth” culminates in “He had read widely in English and French.” Conrad objected to being defined as “the greatest sea-writer,” and Knopf instead celebrated a man who “has attained a distinction as a master of the art of fiction as great as that of any living writer.”Thanks to Galsworthy’s intervention, Conrad became a best-selling Doubleday author, but Knopf quit the company soon afterward, leaving Conrad’s work with those who hadn’t been so closely coached.In 1916, Conrad received the galleys for a uniform edition of his work.