Sunday, August 23, 2009

Overdue Book Report

The best part of "Lord Jim" is the sentence, near the end: "With these words Marlow had ended his narrative..." But it turns out Joseph Conrad is only fooling. You're not as near the end of the book as you hoped you were.

Marlow is just a character, not really the narrator. But apparently nobody told him that. So he rambles on interminably, his speech embellished with elaborate imagery, profound metaphor, and enough subordinate clauses to smother a rhinoceros.* Every so often, after slogging through several pages, you'll realize that somewhere back there Marlow began relating a story told to him by some other character, and that for the last page and a half you've been reading somebody else's subordinate clauses.

Not that it's a bad story, and even thought-provoking, once you can get past all the damn words. Our hero, Jim, when a very young man first making his way in the world, is serving as first mate on a steamer carrying eight hundred Muslim passengers on a pilgrimage. The boat strikes something, and the rest of the crew, convinced that she's doomed, abandon ship in a lifeboat, leaving their human cargo to a watery grave. Jim, with the most romantic notion of his own courage, coldly ignores their calls for assistance with the lifeboat, intending to go down with the ship - but in one instant his nerve fails him and, after the lifeboat casts away, he dives in after it. His crewmates invent a story that they took the lifeboat down to examine the damage, and while they were in the water, the steamer sank. But the steamer doesn't sink, and a couple of days later, it's found, rescued, and towed safely into port. There's a hearing, and the crew are disgraced and stripped of their credentials. Jim's problem is that he can't get past it, that nothing he ever does can redeem himself in his own eyes. Marlow meanwhile does quite a bit of hand-wringing about whether any of us can really trust ourselves if someone as bright and promising and right as Jim could fail so terribly. He's not the only one - about a third of the way into the book, the fine, upstanding old sea captain who had presided at the hearings commits suicide. Right out in the middle of the ocean, just up and jumps overboard, leaving everything ship-shape with detailed instructions and a written recommendation of promotion for his first mate. Oddly, Marlow is not talking to him at the time.

Not so much out of pity for Jim (whom he meets at the hearing), but rather out of an effort to quell the disturbing questions Jim has raised about himself and all his fellow sailor men, Marlow sets out to help Jim find gainful employment. But the story of Jim's desertion eventually turns up wherever the boy goes, and he flees to some new locale. Of course, after this happens a few times, everybody in the whole dang maritime industry knows Jim's terrible "secret"** - and finally, Marlow conveniently remembers an old friend who has an insect collection, a penchant for armchair psychology, and a job opening on a remote Malaysian island. Jim is sent there to be the only white guy and serve as a lord protector for a bunch of stupid natives.***

This goes simply swimmingly for Jim, who becomes a hero by setting local politics to rights and rescuing a pretty girl from her nasty old stepfather, until Marlow abruptly ceases droning on and his listeners "drifted off the verandah in pairs or alone without loss of time, without offering a remark," and you can hardly blame them.

But Marlow isn't done. A couple of years later, one of his listeners receives a very long letter from him, and wouldn't you know the bastard writes just like he talks? In a rather strange ending, which has the feeling of being tacked on as hastily as the use of about a half-million words will allow, a nasty old reprobate of a pirate invades Jim's island paradise with a view towards provisioning his ship for further plunders. He's surprised and angry to find the islanders organized and capable of self-defense, and his small crew is immediately besieged on top of a hill. So he falsely negotiates a deal with Jim to be allowed to escape. But, through the treachery of Jim's girlfriend's nasty old stepfather (remember him?), he ambushes the forces that have been staged to escort him back to his ship and kills several of them before escaping, including the son of the chieftain with whose blessing Jim's been lording over the island.

The thing is, Jim's people didn't want to let the pirates go, they wanted to kill them; Jim, still trying to redeem himself for his one moment of ignominy years ago, insisted on the merciful approach and gambled the trust of the islanders that everything would go well. The betrayer knew that Jim's hold over the islanders would be destroyed by this. Jim surrenders himself to the grieving chieftain, who shoots him dead. The girlfriend's quite upset.

And with that, my friends, I have saved you the trouble of reading 271 pages (in 6-point type, too) of stuff like this:

"He was silent again with a still, far-away look of fierce yearning after that missed distinction, with his nostrils for an instant dilated, sniffing the intoxicating breath of that wasted opportunity. If you think I was either surprised or shocked you do me an injustice in more ways than one! Ah, he was an imaginative beggar! He would give himself away; he would give himself up. I could see in his glance darted into the night all his inner being carried on, projected headlong into th fanciful realm of recklessly heroic aspirations. He had no leisure to regret what he had lost, he was so wholly and naturally concerned for what he had failed to obtain. He was very far away from me who watched him across three feet of space..."

...and so on. I made myself read 20 pages a day.

So there it is, "Lord Jim" in a single blog post. I was assigned to read this book in high school. It's the only reading assignment that was ever too much for me - the only Cliff Notes I ever bought. The book was in my dad's basement, so I brought it back with me after my visit, determined to read the damn thing or die in the attempt. And here I am!

But it did get me to thinking about human nature, about learning from mistakes, about redemption and forgiveness, about moving on. And fate and stuff, you know. But then, I'm 40. Why on earth anyone would possibly think a high school student would get anything out of this other than a profound desire to punch Joseph Conrad in the face, I couldn't say.

*Rhinoceroses are noted for their dislike of complicated grammatical structure.
**I like this touch; I tend to think this is generally true. Everbody knows the things about us that we thing are terrible secrets, only nobody else thinks they're that big of a deal.
***Nobody had ever explained the concept of racism to Joseph Conrad, I don't believe.

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