Latest Readings - Clive James (2015)

Revisiting Conrad

AMONG THE DISADVANTAGES of COPD, which used to be called emphysema, is a susceptibility to chest infections. Despite one’s daily intake of antibiotics, different bacteria keep arriving from all directions, eager to squat. One day I was checking in at the hospital for a routine clinic, and my temperature was deemed to be too high for me to go home. I spent ten days in the pulmonary ward, while the fever turned into pneumonia. A flood of intravenous antibiotics eventually got on top of it, but meanwhile the problem of boredom loomed. I staved it off by rereading Lord Jim, a copy of which, along with the usual epics about swords and dragons, was on the library cart which a very sweet and obviously fulfilled senior female volunteer was wheeling around the wards. More than half a century ago Lord Jim had been one of the set novels for my first-year English class at Sydney University, and I remembered it as a boring book. I suppose I had a plan to stave off one kind of boredom with another, as a kind of inoculation.

On the strength of this long-delayed second reading, the book struck me as no more exciting than it had once seemed, but a lot more interesting. I had long known Conrad to be a great writer: on the strength of Under Western Eyes alone, he would have to be ranked high among those English writers—well, Polish writers resident in England—who, dealing with eastern Europe, analyzed the struggle between the imbecility of autocracy and the imbecility of revolution. But on the strength of my earlier memories, I didn’t see Lord Jim as part of that international historical picture. Now, reading a few pages at a time as I lay fitfully on a sweat-soaked sheet while my fever refused to break, I could see that I had been laughably wrong about Conrad’s most famous book for the whole of my reading life. An international historical picture is exactly what it exemplifies.

But the picture, or viewpoint, is well guarded. In the first place, the story turns on a character study. Without Jim’s weakness, there would be no story at all. At the beginning of the narrative, in his role as an officer in the mercantile marine, he jumps off a sinking ship that turns out not to have been sinking. He never gets over this: which raises the question, as we read on, of whether we ourselves could go on functioning if we were unable to forget our ignoble moments. At the end of the narrative, in his role as the de facto monarch of the magic kingdom of Patusan, he ruins the lives of his consort and his people by failing to accept that the pack of renegades who have penetrated their little Paradise might have evil in mind. The book’s narrator, Marlow, puts Jim’s failings down to his romantic personality: his later life is “an expiation for his craving after more glamour than he could carry.” We, the enthralled readers, are at liberty to deduce that European politics have infected the whole world, even the parts of it that are not yet known: the renegades would not have come if Jim had not made Patusan just and prosperous.

Unfortunately, for us enthralled readers, the story is not quite enthralling enough. Marlow is telling it, and Marlow is a bore. He is Conrad’s sole tedious creation, because ordinarily Conrad can see the point of anything completely and at once, whereas Marlow feeds you information only a few drops at a time. Perhaps because I had an I.V. plugged into my arm, I couldn’t help thinking of the last chick in the clutch wasting away from getting not quite enough food. Marlow was a useful device if you thought the book’s revelations needed delaying, but his terrific ability for beating around the bush was bound to register as a tease play. I finished reading the book though, full of admiration for both Conrad and myself: him for his moral scope, me for my endurance. Perhaps to induce self-esteem in the reader had been one of the author’s aims. There are those who believe that Wagner made Siegfried so wearisome because he wanted the audience to admire themselves.

Anyway, when I got home I reached for my old copy of Nostromo. Long ago, just after I had read Lord Jim, I had read Nostromo too, and been deeply impressed. There was, after all, no Marlow in it: the narrator’s voice came through unfiltered by an intervening cloth of tedium. But now, reading again, I wondered how I had coped with an English novel’s plentiful supply of Spanish words. How could I have been impressed, instead of puzzled and put off? Eventually, after more than twenty years of not being able to read any Spanish at all, I acquired enough to assess what I had been missing. Now, finally, when Conrad referred to the capataz de cargadores, I could tell for sure that he meant Nostromo. Also, I had learned a great deal more about politics. Years of reading in modern history had equipped me to understand retroactively the lethality of the historic events that Conrad seemed to know about in advance, so sensitive was he to the political forces that were already reshaping the world during his own lifetime. In my own lifetime, most of the reshaping actually got done, with a death count of many millions. It’s clear now that Conrad had guessed what might happen. But when I first read Nostromo I was too young to have much of a clue even about what had already happened. So what had impressed me?

Undoubtedly it was the story, in the Hollywood sense, which means the scenario. The events are thrilling. Don Carlos Gould and his excellent wife build Sulaco into a kingdom with all the enchantment of Jim’s Patusan, but Sulaco, on the page, is more actual in its workings. You can hear the ring of picks and hammers as the silver is torn from the mine. It’s like Das Rheingold with the lights turned on. All the practical details of a foreign-owned capitalist enterprise are laid out, not just hinted at. Every supporting role is blazingly alive. They are all there: the corrupt dictator, the predecessor of so many Trujillos and Batistas; the local wiseacre who knows everything and understands nothing; and the beautiful girl with the book of poetry in her hand, all set, by her mere existence, to lead the previously feckless young intellectual editor fatally away from his usual protective cynicism. Idealism gets him killed. Above all, there is Nostromo (did I know, first time around, that his Italianized nickname meant “our man”?), who has built such a reputation for competence and integrity that the gringo ruling class revere him, not for a moment suspecting that the man they trusted never to steal an ounce of silver would eventually steal a ton of it. He didn’t suspect it either: but when the moment came, he overruled any loyalty except to himself.

And those themes are only the beginning of what is in Nostromo, which I can now see as one of the greatest books I have ever read. But I thought the same when I had read almost no serious books at all. Somewhere in that paradox lies the secret of a magic novel, and the secret of why the later novels of Henry James have never held me in a spell: in the opening chapters, their subtleties of style catch the attention of the experienced reader in me, but the inexperienced reader in me finds too little to draw him forward. If only Henry James had been to sea. But Edith Wharton’s account of how he rambled on incomprehensibly when he got out of the car to ask directions tells us that any order he delivered on the bridge would have been so elaborately expressed that the ship would have hit something on the first day of the voyage.