Saturday, January 28, 2012

Review: Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

We’ve wondered before whether Conrad really deserved to place four novels on any Top 100 novels list. He’s one of the greats, to be sure. But four out of a hundred? If you scratched your head along with us, you might be asking yourself ‘why read Lord Jim?’ Well, I answer that question with a few of my own: When was the last time you read the word “inexpugnable” in a novel? When was the last time you saw someone use “abject” seven times in one paragraph (none of which described a failure)? When was the last time someone lobbed an alliterative locution like this line: “daylight came like a glow in a ground glass globe?”

Never, that’s when. Only Conrad, bless his heart.

Lord Jim is a fascinating tale with its roots in actual events- but then, that deserves a blog post of its own some day. Very briefly, Jim is the first mate of a ship called the Patna, which is filled to the brim with pilgrims bound for Mecca. The ship's hull is ripped open by some floating debris, and the only thing keeping it from sinking like an anvil is a precarious, rusty  bulkhead which is barely holding steady in the lower levels. Only the ship's crew knows the situation, and when a squall threatens them in the open sea, they are overcome with fear of drowning.

In a lot of ways, this is a book about things that don't happen. Despite his sense of duty Jim does not stay with the Patna; the Patna does not, in fact, sink in the storm, but is later rescued to the crew's great shame; And unlike the rest of the officers, Jim does not clear out and escape the wrath of the courts, but rather takes all the blame on himself.

I won’t rehash the rest of the plot, which takes place in the remote Indonesian jungle, but I will  talk a little bit about the story's structure, because it gives the book an interesting effect. We never see Jim’s story play out first-hand, but we get it in bits and pieces, after the fact, and from numerous different people. Rather than concentrate on the linear series of events, the reader is forced to analyze as he goes, and to put the story, and Jim’s mental state, together on the fly.

Conrad uses a frame story, told by his alter-ego Captain Marlowe, the narrator of several of Conrad’s other books. Within that surface story we see Jim’s testimony in court, his conversations and confessions to Marlow, reports of conversations or interactions that others had with Jim, later relayed to Marlow, and even some letters that help fill in the missing pieces. This seemingly scattershot approach turns Lord Jim from a straight-up adventure story into a complex psychological examination. You get other characters’ value judgments along the way, and you’re forced to ask yourself, “Sheesh. What would I do in Jim’s situation?”

I think that’s why the book has secured itself a position of such lasting literary importance. Besides doling out heaping scoops of adventure and the mystique of exotic ports and life on the high seas, it's a book that really makes you think. Don’t deprive yourself of the pleasure of reading it.

1 comment:

  1. Quote:

    Doramin and his little motherly witch of a wife, gazing together upon the land and nursing secretly their dreams of parental ambition; Tunku Allang, wizened and greatly perplexed; Dain Waris, intelligent and brave, with his faith in Jim, with his firm glance and his ironic friendliness; the girl, absorbed in her frightened, suspicious adoration; Tamb' Itam, surly and faithful; Cornelius, leaning his forehead against the fence under the moonlight -- I am certain of them. They exist as if under un enchanter's wand. But the figure round which all these are grouped -- that one lives, and I am not certain of him. No magician's wand can immobilise him under my eyes. He is one of us.


    I was hoping to find someone expert in the positive critiques of Joseph Conrad's books and the negative criticisms of his "stereotypes" which became widely publicized in the 1970s.

    My wonder is are there any extensive critiques that counter the criticisms that Joseph Conrad was a bigot shown especially in his shallow representations of the Malay characters. I do not possess the skills to analyze the novels. But with the repetition of "He was one of us" (not so much that Marlow is Conrad's alter-ego which I doubt to some degree rather than a well-honed mouthpiece sans alter-ego as Marlow stands autonomously to my mind) I wonder if Joseph Conrad is criticizing even more the Imperalism (and all its other national names) of the times.

    I was hoping to find an email address for the author of this blog. But did not.

    Can anyone point me to criticisms which counter the infamous thesis that Joseph Conrad was as bigoted as .... "all" the others? Are Joseph Conrad's representations of the Malay characters shallow in contrast to the non-Malay characters? Less developed or so simple as to portray them unjustly?

    By the way, I agree that Joseph Conrad deserves to be called one of the greatest novelists of the pre-modern and modern era. I hope his works survive an even longer test of time. His use of language is exquisite!

    Thank you.