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Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Conrad’

The Secret AgentThe Secret Agent (1907) is the story of Mr and Mrs Verloc (along with the latter’s simple young brother). The former is ostensibly an anarachist in London, but he is also in the pay of the embassy of a European power (it’s never specified which). On being called in to see the new ambassador, he is given an ultimatum: provoke the anarchists into some act of terrorism or lose his income. The consequences of this are, without giving too much away, tragic and somewhat farcical.

The novel is subtitled ‘A Simple Tale’, and so it is. The book is centred on the terrorist action and takes a long time to really work up to it. Once it happens, indeed, the narrative takes a step back to work through the sequence of events from other characters’ points of view. Besides the Verlocs, there are Ossipon, an anarchist and ladies man, the Professor, an intensely dour little purveyor of explosives, Chief Inspector Heat, who is aware of all of London’s anarchists but takes quite a laissez faire aproach to them, and Heat’s superior, the Assistant Commissioner, who takes the investigation into his own hands for his own ends.

The storytelling is pretty inconsistent, moving from one character to another, perhaps in an attempt to give equal thought and prominence to each. The technique leaves the novel with no real focal character; the story is almost a baton passed from one protagonist to the next.

Joseph Conrad

There is lots of time given to the minutiae of each character’s personality and motivation, but none of them really comes to life before they’re forgotten by the narrative. In effect, the plot is less a story (in the literary sense) and more a series of consequences, a toppling chain of dominoes that leaves you with nothing but a mess of fallen dominoes. The two policemen are quite interesting characters, but their rôle in the outcome of the story is so slight as to call into question why so much time is spent in their heads; ditto the Professor.

Actually, all the characters were quite interesting and I would happily have read a longer book if there had been more story to go around. As the introduction points out, it’s a very dark tale; perhaps the narrative style was a way of diluting the impact of that darkness, to make it more palatable to Edwardian sensibilities. Having read and enjoyed Lord Jim earlier this year, I was disappointed by this book, although it contained lots that was worthy of reading (such as the descriptions of London as a wet and dismal place, the streets and buildings forming slimy chasms like the bottom of a drained ocean).

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I read perhaps Conrad’s most famous novel, Heart of Darkness (upon which Apocalypse Now is based), a few years ago and it didn’t make too much of an impression on me. (I read it because it was a book Stephen R Donaldson recommended in his Gradual Interview.) I saw this book in a bookshop in Reykjavik and I wanted to buy a cheap book to supplement my travel reading matter. After I bought it, I realised I already had a copy somewhere amongst my possessions back in Britain; for which reason, I handed it on to my friend Botond once I’d finished it.

The novel has many similarities to Heart of Darkness – mainly that is narrated (mostly) by the character Marlow. However, it begins as a third person narrative about the youth of a young seaman made known to the reader only as Jim. Without introduction by the authorial voice, Marlow begins telling Jim’s story to a group of listeners one night. Jim is afflicted – to the core of his being – by being involved in some shameful episode on board a ship for which he served as first mate. The tale is Jim’s attempt to flee from this shame and redeem himself from it.

The first part of the book tells, in a very indirect way, what happened in this shameful incident – revealing one fact crucial to its understanding only two-fifths or more of the way through the novel. In the second part, Jim has taken up work as a trading representative in a native village, apparently somewhere in Indonesia. He is virtually the only white man the locals have ever seen and, when he gains their respect, they start to call him Tuan Jim – Lord Jim. This latter part of the book resembles a kind of benign version of Heart of Darkness. Marlow breaks off his nighttime narrative and only resumes the story in a letter addressed to one of his listeners who took an interest in it.

In some ways, the text is extremely tedious – although it never falls short of an evocative (if slightly prolix) pulchritude. The story is constantly related in a series of sub-stories regarding the other characters from whom Marlow has learned Jim’s story. Even the long interview he has with Jim himself after his appearance at an inquiry flits back and forth between Jim’s words and Marlow interpretation. This is, of course, a crucial part of the author’s intention. The whole story is a matter of hearsay and ambivalence. Even the very moment that Jim commits himself to his shame is related in a way that suggests he wasn’t responsible for his own actions, that his own memory is a narrative he doesn’t quite believe.

The second part of the book is a little more to the point and the dénouement is inevitable and both satisfying and unsatisfying. Given all his self-doubt and the slings and arrows that the world throws at him, Jim finds the only peace he can find. Jim is an unlikely protagonist for a novel – he is continually described as, and shown to be, ineloquent by the loquacious Marlow. He stumbles over his words, he jumps to conclusions only to be embarrassed by them, he is full of juvenile imagination. If he was presented in a happier scenario he would be a lovable character – instead he is desperately pathetic.

So, although it’s slow and verbose (though ultimately not too long), Lord Jim is a great book. It tells a complex, human story in a complex, human way. It reminds the reader that all stories are interpretations – even memories. I enjoyed it a lot, in the end. I’ll have to dig out my copy of Heart of Darkness and give it another go.

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