The Tale, a collection of four short stories by Joseph Conrad published by Hesperus Press, includes “The Warrior’s Soul,” “Prince Roman,” “The Tale,” and “The Black Mate,” published originally in several magazines between 1908 and 1917. In his foreword to this volume, Philip Hensher writes on how “[m]ost authors have a fictional length which somehow suits them,” an idea I tend to agree with, and claims that “Conrad’s most perfect and inspired productions are somewhere between the long short story, such as ‘The Secret Sharer’ and the short novel, such as The Secret Agent.” Examples of this perfect length include, natch, Heart of Darkness. Whereas “the short stories proper have a peculiar, problematic magic which has eluded many of his most fervent admirers.”
I have not, yet, read enough Conrad to argue with this more broadly. In fact I am perfectly willing to believe that he is at his best with what we might call the novella; Heart of Darkness is wonderful, and while Freya of the Seven Isles is hardly as grand a work, it does seem perfect in its size. But I don’t think there is much “problematic” about the short stories, at least not these ones. It could be the short story lover in me talking, but Conrad seems to have plenty of room in these four tales to do what he does. Indeed, Hensher goes right on to note that “‘The Tale’ is one of his most horrible inventions,” “a terrible distillation.”
And it is. It opens on a middle-aged couple engaged in some sort of illicit affair; not that much in the way of explanation is given. The woman asks the man to tell her a tale, and he does: a distillation of horror. It’s a tale of the sea, of ship captains, of war, and of trust. Really good Conrad stuff here. It is the best story in the book and I can’t see much wrong with it at all, and there’s certainly no problem with Conrad needing more room to tell us what he wants to tell us.
I have a very soft spot as well for “The Black Mate,” which seems to be nearly as bleak and creepy but turns out to have a much lighter end. Where “The Tale” confirms the reader’s worst suspicions, “The Black Mate” totally reverses them and releases almost all the story’s tension. And again, a story of the sea, of a ship’s captain and his mate, and of trust.
The first two stories in the collection are a bit different in that they don’t quite seem as much “Conrad stuff.” “The Warrior’s Soul” is a chilling story about Napoleon’s Grand Army being fought off by the Russians, and “Prince Roman” is about another land war, one of Poland’s attempts at independence. These Eastern European settings give my Conrad reading a new dimension; I’m not sure if any of his longer works take place there but it made a change for me.
But, no problematic magic. No, the stories aren’t as “full,” or something, as the longer works; they don’t delve as deeply or reach the same levels of complexity. But they remain effective, evocative, and induce great absorption and emotion. I remain thrilled with Conrad in all his forms, thus far.
And thus begins the long-awaited Hesperus Week!