Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Heading Up River with Joseph Conrad

Before becoming the target of lies, smears and general hate in the campaign for Mayor, I would say the worst thing about living in Cooperstown was the lack of reading time. Don't get me wrong - I do not miss the commute back and forth from Lincolnshire to Chicago for a fun-filled day of options trading. But having at least one hour per day to read, Monday through Friday on the train to the Loop, was a treat. I could could knock off a normal-sized tome, say 250-300 pages, in 7-10 days. I covered a lot of literary ground over 20 years.

Now it takes forever to get through the average book. I just finished Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim after 4 months. It's only 300 pages! I did read The Bronx is Burning, which I didn't like, during the same period, but that was the upstairs book, number two on my priority list.

Have you ever read Conrad? Jim was my third. Like many, I was introduced to Conrad via Apocalypse Now, based on Heart of Darkness. I've read Heart twice and like it, though it is slow and creepy. There's an aura to Conrad's prose. If you've seen the movie, and can remember the foggy scenes as the crew makes their way to Kurtz, that feeling of haunting claustrophobia, of something disturbing lurking just out of view, that's how Conrad makes you feel. The book has one of my favorite descriptions, of "the harlequin dressed in motley." That character is, in Coppola's movie, Dennis Hopper. I can never think of one without the other.
The Secret Agent is the most enjoyable read of the trio. Taut, oozing suspense, with a depth of character that puts it apart from the average anarchist drama. It's a story that Hitchcock would find appealing, and did. Sabotage, filmed in 1936, is one of Hitch's early best, the bomb in the film can sequence enough to still drive an audience up the wall with anxiety. The Secret Agent will blow you apart. It's that explosive.

So, back to Lord Jim. It took a long while to get into, even though it has one of my favorite devices, the unreliable narrator. Zeno's Conscience, by Svevo, and Ford's The Good Soldier rank high on my list of novels told by lead characters not quite grounded in reality. Jim is a difficult guy to get close to as a reader, and I couldn't understand Marlow's affection and attraction. Not my problem, I'm just the reader.

I pressed forward, ever so slowly, and last week decided I had to get this done. Once I hit the 100-page-left-to-go mark, it's full speed ahead. At this point, Jim has regained a stature of pride and dignity he professed to have had all along, though there was nothing on the page to back that up. Interesting enough, but with the end in sight, I was chomping at the bit to wrap it up.

Then, with one page to go, Conrad punches you in stomach with a sudden and emotional wallop that leaves you staggering. Then it ends. Boom, just like that. A steep cliff of a denouement, I must say. I had to read that last page or two over and over to make sure, and each time I was blown away. The description of Jim's last scene is so visual, I can see now why Conrad, though a very intellectual writer, lends himself to film so well.

As to Jim's story of redemption, I know of few of those types, some even named Jim, who might benefit from reading Conrad. There's still hope for you!


Anonymous said...


ashmitasaha said...

to me Jim is simply an incurable romantic who gave up his life for an ideal. He could not forgive himself for his momentary lapse when he jumped from the Patna and he spent the rest of his life atoning for it- in his own way...have written more about it here