Joseph Conrad’s novella The Duel represents a certain class of work that “I know when I see it,” but have a hard time describing very well. Let’s call it, as they say, “the work of a master at the height of his powers.” But a caveat is necessary—it’s not a masterpiece, or a master work, or anything that suggests being the most important thing a writer wrote, or the greatest thing. There are a few much more magnificent books vying for that title among Conrad’s oevre, and The Duel is simply not long or substantial enough to rise to such a level. But that too is an important characteristic of the class of books I’m trying to describe: they should be small and fine and, probably, finer than they could be if they were bigger. These are the Bartlebys, not the Moby-Dicks. I could call these things, after Bolaño, “the perfect exercises of the great masters.” Some might find that “exercises” deprecating—Bolaño himself may have meant it that way—but I don’t consider it so, and it seems apt.
Of course, for all the world I wouldn’t give up those “great, imperfect, torrential works,” but an afternoon spent in rapt appreciation of these cleaner, more wrought things can feel like a gift. The masters are greatest when they give us both.
Part of the problem with such works, though, is that even now I’ve tried to narrow down what I mean by this category, I can’t imagine rightfully explaining why The Duel belongs in it. If you’ve read Conrad, and you read this, you’ll know. I’ll give you instead the almost priceless second paragraph. The first describes how Napoleon doesn’t approve of duels between his army officers, even though his “career had the quality of a duel against the whole of Europe.”
Nevertheless, a story of duelling, which became a legend in the army, runs through the epic of imperial wars. To the surprise and admiration of their fellows, two officers, like insane artists trying to gild refined gold or paint the lily, pursued a private contest through the years of universal carnage. They were officers of cavalry, and their connection with the high-spirited but fanciful animal which carries men into battle seems parrticularly appropriate. It would be difficult to imagine for heroes of this legend two officers of infantry of the line, for example, whose fantasy is tamed by much walking exercise, and whose valour necessarily must be of a more plodding kind. As to gunners or engineers, whose heads are kept cool on a diet of mathematics, it is simply unthinkable.
Artists of the duel. The perfect cavalry officers. The wreckage and bombast of the Napoleonic wars. It is a wonderful and beautiful legend, and Conrad has written into it one of his lovely introspective, serious heroes, even if he is romantic enough to be duelling madly across Europe. Because he is in fact not duelling madly; he is duelling doggedly and with a cold hard logic.
I hope to report back soon on whether Flaubert’s A Simple Heart is, as 2666 claims, another such perfect exercise.
Just one of the wonderful things about the Art of the Novella challenge is that I had been loving, buying, and reading these babies (yes, in that order) long before Frances threw down her gauntlet, and with the addition of titles I read in other editions (oh, Friday humor), I have plenty of material to keep up my revisiting Fridays for the month (and help me reach at least “unstoppable” level). This week, I chose two that would go well with each other as well as with my opening salvo on The Man Who Would Be King.
I first read Joseph Conrad’s Freya of the Seven Isles just over a year ago, and my strongest vision of it is still this wonderful woman banging away at a piano on a lush lonely island in the South Seas. Freya’s strength runs through the whole novella, along with the serenity and wisdom that come from it. While her beloved, Jasper, “soar[s]” on the “white pinions” that are the sails of his brig, “Freya, being a woman, kept a better hold of the mundane connections of this affair.” Far be this from any kind of put-down—it’s just that Freya is the perfect manager of her own life:
I can’t say I felt sorry for Freya. She was not the sort of girl to take anything tragically. One could feel for her and sympathize with her difficulty, but she seemed equal to any situation. It was rather admiration she extorted by her competent serenity. It was only when Jasper and Heemskirk [the two men competing for her affection] were together at the bungalow, as it happened now and then, that she felt the strain, and even then it was not for everybody to see. My eyes alone could detect a faint shadow on the radiance of her personality.
She’s also smart enough not to be totally sure of Jasper, in spite of her love. “It is very fine and romantic to possess for your very own a finely tempered and trusty sword-blade,” the narrator notes, “but whether it is the best weapon to counter with the common cudgel-play of Fate—that’s another question.” Oh, Freya, I feel sorry for you.
On a different island, somewhere further east, is Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Beach of Falesá, which I read around the same time as Freya. I noted at the time that the setting was “paradise-on-the-surface-only,” a fact that comes out right in the opening paragraph of the novella:
I saw that island first when it was neither night nor morning. The moon was to the west, setting, but still broad and bright. To the east, and right amidships of the dawn, which was all pink, the daystar sparkled like a diamond. The land breeze blew in our faces, and smelt strong of wild lime and vanilla: other things besides, but these were the most plain; and the chill of it set me sneezing.
The story is not all vanilla and lime—almost not at all vanilla and lime—and much of it worse than a sneeze. But it’s wonderful, and the thing that set me loving Stevenson. Note to Melville House: Put out The Ebb-Tide as an Art of the Novella, pretty please. It would look lovely next to this.
Inspired by The Reading Ape‘s close-reading posts on Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, I’ve decided to do one on Lord Jim. I’ve chosen, rather than the first line of the novel, the first line of Marlow’s story. Chapter five begins Marlow’s narrative thus:
‘Oh yes. I attended the inquiry,’ he would say, ‘and to this day I haven’t left off wondering why I went.’
What can we say from this?
- he would say. The verb form here tells us that, as I discussed yesterday, the story Marlow is just beginning is one he told not once, but regularly. From this we can say a few things with good probability. If Marlow tells the story frequently, he is practiced at it, and knows how he wants to tell it. He’s spent some time thinking about it, and the story will probably have taken on some structure this way. It’s also likely that the story has some interest for many people, if it’s had many listeners—or at least, Marlow assumes it does.
- the inquiry. We know from earlier chapters that something happened one night on a steamer, and that Jim had to answer “pointed questions” about it “[a] month or so afterwards” at an “official Inquiry.” He seems to have had to admit that “[y]es, [he] did”—do something. Here, “inquiry” indicates that while Something must have Happened, it must be something that rises to the level of “inquiry” but not of “trial.” A public inquiry, still, since Marlow was apparently able to go without having a reason to, but it can’t have been a murder or rape or assault trial, or something of that kind. It could be that there was a crime sufficiently covered up so as not to go to trial, or something untoward but not criminal. It leaves us wondering what the consequences of such an inquiry could be, though we can assume it likely wouldn’t include prison time.
- wondering why I went. This indicates first that Marlow wasn’t obligated to go to the inquiry, but also that he probably wasn’t directly connected with the affair being inquired into, as then he would probably have some idea why he went. Instead he is an unaffected party, attending a public inquiry apparently out of curiosity, or maybe simply out of boredom. We can expect him to relate the story of the inquiry as a disinterested observer with respect to the affair itself—he may have his personal biases, but he’s not an aggrieved party or anything like that.
- haven’t left off wondering. Here, the verb form tells us that this is something Marlow has been thinking about for some time, and frequently. He indicates that he continually thinks of the inquiry in some capacity, and specifically that he continually questions why he got involved in whatever is he got involved in. This could mean that the affair haunts him, or has caused trouble for him that lasts to this day, or perplexes him, or disturbs him, etc. Whatever the inquiry was about, Marlow has been thinking and talking about it ever since.
- The sentence as a whole tells us some things about Marlow as well. He is the kind of person who would go to an inquiry for no reason, and the kind of person who would think and talk about it for a long time, not just go and then put it out of his mind. He can be affected by things in this way. He’s reflective.
So, what else?
Lord Jim has a sort of interesting frame. Jim’s story is not something told only once. Rather, “many times, in distance parts of the world, Marlow showed himself willing to remember Jim, to remember him at length, in detail and audibly.” The actual version of the story we hear is something of a hypothetical version, “[p]erhaps” it was told like this once somewhere, “after dinner, on a verandah draped in motionless foliage and crowned with flowers,” this is what Marlow “would say.” We get most of the story this way, until our omniscient third-person narrator takes back over again, to transition us to a letter Marlow has written to one particular gentleman who showed a particular interest in Jim’s story.
It’s clear from the tale we do have that when Marlow relates this story to people, he’s seeking if not to solicit an opinion about Jim, at least to try very hard to give his listeners a strong impression of what Jim was like, to see if they could understand him. This happens within the story as well; Marlow describes discussions he has about Jim with third parties, and how they have helped his understanding to grow. And in turn, what each party thinks about Jim says something to Marlow, and us, about what kind of person he must be.
Probably one of the two most important of these other parties is the French lieutenant, “whom I came across one afternoon in Sydney, by the merest chance, in a sort of café, and who remembered the affair perfectly.” The lieutenant and Marlow end up talking about the affair of the Patna, Jim’s steamer. It’s a frequent topic of conversation, according to Marlow, who has “had the questionable pleasure of meeting it often, years afterwards, thousands of miles away, emerging from the remotest possible talk, coming to the surface of the most distant allusions.” But this French lieutenant was actually there, part of the crew that saved the Patna after Jim and his captain and other officers had run away. He is able to give Marlow new information about the story, though not new information about events involving Jim directly, and Marlow tells him the rest in turn. The conversation between the two of them also gives Marlow a chance to give us impressions of him as well, as he investigates further impressions of Jim:
he was a quiet, massive chap in a creased uniform sitting drowsily over a tumbler half full of some dark liquid. His shoulder-straps were a bit tarnished, his clean-sahaved cheeks were large and sallow; he looked like a man who would be given to taking snuff—don’t you know? I won’t say he did; but the habit would have fitted that kind of man.
During the story,
‘He listened to me, looking more priestlike than ever, and with what—probably on account of his downcast eyes—had the appearance of devout concentration. Once or twice he elevated his eyebrows (but without raising his eyelids), as one would say “The devil!” Once he calmly exclaimed, “Ah, bah!” under his breath, and when I had finished he pursed his lips in a deliberate way and emitted a sort of sorrowful whistle.
‘In any one else it might have been an evidence of boredom, a sign of indifference; but he, in his occult way, managed to make his immobility appear profoundly responsive, and as full of valuable thoughts as an egg is of meat. When he said at least was nothing more than a “very interesting,” pronounced politely, and not much above a whisper. Before I got over my disappointment he added, but as if speaking to himself, “That’s it. That is it.” …”And so that poor young man ran away along with the others,” he said, with grave tranquillity.
‘I don’t know what made me smile: it is the only genuine smile of mine I can remember in connection with Jim’s affair. But somehow this simple statement of the matter sounded funny in French….”S’est enfui avec les autres,” had said the lieutenant. And suddenly I began to admire the discrimination of the man. He had made out the point at once: he did get hold of the only thing I cared about.
Here Marlow has a very sympathetic listener, and he begins to get excited. This man understands things, and if he has insights about the affair Marlow knows he will benefit from hearing them. The lieutenant soon remarks, “Man is born a coward (L’homme est né poltron). It is a difficulty—parbleu! It would be too easy otherwise. But habit—habit—necessity—do you see?—the eye of others—voilà.” Marlow tells him he is “glad to see you taking a lenient view,” but this gives the Frenchman pause.
‘”Allow me…I contended that one may get on knowing very well that one’s courage does not come of itself (ne vient pas tout seul). There’s nothing much in that to get upset about. One truth the more ought not to make life impossible….But the honour—the honour, monsieur!…The honour…that is real—that is! And what life may be worth when”…he got on his feet with a ponderous impetuosity, as a startled ox might scramble up from the grass…”when the honour is gone—ah ça! par exemple—I can offer no opinion. I can offer no opinion—because—monsieur—I know nothing of it.”
‘I had risen, too , and, trying to throw infinite politeness into our attitudes, we faced each other mutely, like two china dogs on a mantelpiece. Hang the fellow! he had pricked the bubble. … “Very well,” I said, with a disconcerted smile, “but couldn’t it reduce itself to not being found out?” He made as if to retort readily, but when he spoke he had changed his mind. “This, monsieur, is too fine for me—much above me—I don’t think about it.”‘
Marlow has reached the limit of what this lieutenant can offer him. The affair will give him plenty more opportunity to contemplate these finer points.
The whole café scene is brilliant. The French lieutenant himself, the way Marlow reacts to him, the way Marlow insists on translating the conversation but including choice phrases from the original French to be as accurate as possible in the impressions he gives. The rapprochement and disappointment. Conrad even manages to include in it some very good lines about what makes for the greatest art. And that line about the china dogs on the mantelpiece is so good too!
The crew of the “Narcissus” are prevented by hard work from overexamining their souls, but the central figure of Lord Jim is not so lucky. In Conrad’s fourth novel (if you count Heart of Darkness, published previous to this, as a novella), Jim is a young sailor who has done a very shameful thing: thinking a steamer full of passengers was about to sink, he jumped off and into an escaping lifeboat.
Oh, but if Conrad had told it like that! You might not have any idea how shameful that is. Or could be, for someone like Jim. What the circumstances were, how it happened, how understandable it was for Jim to make such a mistake, and yet how much he could regret it.* At this point Conrad is a master of building this kind of tension, planting the knowledge in the reader that something awful is lurking just below the surface, the narrative digging deeper and deeper until it finally reaches the horror of whatever-it-is-this-time. And this time it’s Jim, mad and mistaken, jumping (a major motif in the novel) from the steamer into the black stormy night.
Horrified to find out the ship hasn’t sunk at all, Jim knows he has no defense, and stays in the port to face justice. Disgraced, he loses his officer’s certificate. But he meets Marlow, who is fascinated by Jim and feels compelled to understand him. He has the whole story from Jim’s own mouth; they talk and talk into the night. Years later, telling Jim’s story to some friends, Marlow is still trying to figure him out.
‘I don’t pretend I understood him. The views he let me have of himself were like those glimpses through the shifting rents in a thick fog—bits of vivid and vanishing detail, giving no connected idea of the general aspect of a country. They fed one’s curiosity without satisfying it; they were no good for purposes of orientation. Upon the whole he was misleading. That’s how I summed him up to myself after he left me late in the evening.’
Shifting views through fog is how Marlow always sees Jim, unless he’s seeing him through a veil, or a mist. Marlow can never quite make him out, although after many years he does certainly know him very well, as well as most people ever know each other. It’s just that, as another character will say, there is “no more reading of hearts than touching the sky with the hand.” Even if we accept that fully, there’s so much space in which to contemplate the mystery of other people’s statements and actions.
This is much of what Marlow does, rehashing the story of Jim’s rise, fall, and subsequent travels around Southeast Asia. Marlow gets him a job at a ship chandler’s, but Jim must keep moving to get away from his past. He’s never interested in denying what he’s done, but he can’t stand to live among people who know what he was capable of. Marlow’s analysis:
The truth seems to be that it is impossible to lay the ghost of a fact. You can face it or shirk it—and I have come across a man or two who could wink at their familiar shades. Obviously Jim was not of the winking sort; but what I could never make up my mind about was whether his line of conduct amounted to shirking his ghost or to facing him out.
This is, without question, the best Conrad I have read so far. It completely blew me away. To be blown away but someone you already know is excellent, that is strong stuff. Writing about it several weeks later, I still feel like I have the wind knocked out of me.
I wrote yesterday that the idea of work was important to sea narratives. I discussed this back when I was doing the maritime literature unit. I’m a little bit sad that I didn’t read, or even think to read, “Narcissus” back then, because it would have been perfect. The ultimate sea voyage narrative in so many ways.
Conrad develops a morality of work here. The men of the crew take an immediate dislike to Donkin, because they can tell he shirks his duty and does not work hard. James Wait, on the other hand, is seen as highly desirable when he first appears on deck; the first and second mate both want him in their watch because they can see how strong he is and what a good worker he seems. Of course, it doesn’t work out that way, and his shirking of duty will have a profound effect on the whole psychology of the crew.
The rightness of work is made clear as soon as the ship gets away from land, which is a generally unhealthy and negative place, with all its opportunities not to work. On the Narcissus, just after the mate puts everyone’s nose to the grindstone:
The men working about the deck were healthy and contented—as most seamen are, when once well out to sea. The true peace of God begins at any spot a thousand miles from the nearest land; and when He sends there the messengers of His might it is not in terrible wrath against crime, presumption, and folly, but paternally, to chasten simple hearts—ignorant hearts that know nothing of life, and beat undisturbed by envy or greed.
The simple hearts of the sailors stay that way, it seems, because they don’t have much chance to become anything else. Patterns of work and idleness actually affect the way they deal with James Wait, and how much sway over the crew he and his condition hold. Those instances are, if not subtle, at least not explicitly pointed out by Conrad. He does call direct attention to the issue in places, however, most notably just after the storm has cleared.
The storm is almost unbelievably intense, described as a once-in-a-lifetime event for many sailors. The ship ends up on its side, for at least 18 hours or so. During this whole time the men must hold on for dear life. Somehow, the cook manages to brew hot coffee in his cabin. The men, half-frozen, realize that James Wait is still holed up in his cabin, a makeshift sick bay on deck. Several risk their lives to save his—not that he’s terribly grateful for their trouble, mind. And still, they all cling to the ship, lashing themselves to the deck for hours in freezing temperatures while the storm still rages around them. Finally, the ship rights itself. The sails are set. Singleton, the oldest crew member, steers “with care.” But the men do not have time to reflect on the life-threatening experience they have just been through:
On men reprieved by its disdainful mercy, the immortal sea confers in its justice the full privilege of desired unrest. Through the perfect wisdom of its grace they are not permitted to meditate at ease upon the complicated and acrid savour of existence. They must without pause justify their life to the eternal pity that commands toil to be hard and unceasing, from sunrise to sunset, from sunset to sunrise; till the weary succession of nights and days tainted by the obstinate clamour of sages, demanding bliss and an empty heaven, is redeemed at last by the vast silence of pain and labour, by the dumb fear and the dumb courage of men obscure, forgetful, and enduring.
For Conrad, though it’s not necessarily expressed in this novel, men face a problem in self-examination. The tendency toward it can be overwhelming, but the soul does not hold up well under scrutiny; the self does not bear examining. How to avoid it? Hard and unceasing toil, here at least.
Both Almayer’s Folly and An Outcast of the Islands had third-person narrators, quite a departure from my old friend Marlow. I wasn’t exactly surprised by this; I expected Conrad to evolve in exactly this respect. The Nigger of the “Narcissus” appears to work the same way, with the first chapter told by an omniscient third person. But then, in chapter two, a first person appears: the first mate “grunted in a manner bloodthirsty and innocuous; and kept all our noses to the grindstone.”
So the narrator is one of the crew, but who? We only ever hear “we,” “us,” “our,” until nearly the end of the novel. The narrator relays conversations he could not possibly have heard if he’s a single man, as well as the inner thoughts of characters who are themselves referred to in the third person and thus are not themselves the narrator. And then, suddenly, almost shockingly, on the last page but one “we” turns to “I,” just as the crew breaks up on shore:
They crossed the road, clinging to one another. Only Charley and Belfast wandered off alone. As I came up I saw a red-faced, blowsy woman, in a grey shawl, and with dusty, fluffy hair, fall on Charley’s neck. It was his mother.
After this it’s I, me, mine, in quick succession, impossible to miss, to the end, when the narrator declares that “[a] gone shipmate, like any other man, is gone for ever; and I never met one of them again.”
According to Albert Guerard’s chapter on The Nigger of the “Narcissus” in his book, Conrad the Novelist (reproduced in my Norton Critical Edition), the “waverings of point of view…have disturbed logicians.” I can hardly imagine why. Of course, I laid out some of the logical problems above. But who cares? And not because nothing “is more deadly than the ratiocinations of a narrator trying to explain his ‘authority,'” which Guerard disparages, but because Conrad would seem simply to be using this shift as just another tool in the story of the ship’s company and its solidarity. As the crew is forming and getting to know each other, the narrator isn’t yet known to us. With the advent of the group dynamic, truly begun once the men have started being ordered around and working (so, so key to a story of a ship’s crew), the “we” is born. And at the end of the voyage, as the crew is quite literally breaking apart from a unit into the individuals that make it up, “I” takes over. I certainly have no complaints. A little gimmicky? Maybe, maybe. Conrad will knock it out of the park in his next major work, Heart of Darkness, but, yes, he is still working up to his full potential here.
Guerard does note what he considers a problem larger than the logic issue, namely, the very existence of interior monologues on the part of Jimmy Wait. Coming up on his death, Wait “must remain shadowy, vast, provocative of large speculation; in a word, symbolic.” Listening in on “the banalities of everyday interior monologue” is “shocking” for such a symbol. I won’t disagree here. Not yet, at least. Those monologues did strike me while reading. And I’m not yet sure what to make of James Wait.
The Nigger of the “Narcissus” is Conrad’s third novel, and as John G. Peters wrote about this “unfortunately titled” book, “it undoubtedly would be read more often than it is currently” if it were called something else. No joke. Conrad’s symbolic use of the black West Indian James Wait is “problematic” enough (to say the least); the title does not make this a pleasant book to read (or tell someone you’re reading, or talk about, or write about…).
The first American edition was called instead The Children of the Sea (not, I’ve read, because the original title was offensive, but because a novel that appeared to be about a black man wouldn’t have sold). My first thought, as I made my way through the novel, was that Children of the Sea was an infinitely more apt title to begin with. But it turns out it’s more apt as the title of one of the two books contained in Nigger of the “Narcissus”, which packs a lot of psychology into a short novel.
The novel open with the “Narcissus” in Bombay Harbor, just finished taking on its crew for the homeward voyage. As the mate finishes the roll call, the last sailor on the list shows up, James Wait. He is “calm, cool, towering, superb,” and the sole black crew member, and as he heads to the forecastle, he coughs ominously, insisting that he simply has a cold.
Not long after, Wait is laid up, unable to work for the rest of the voyage and eager to remind his fellow crew that he is “a dying man,” in need of peace, quiet, and delicate foods. This weighs on the crew, having the specter of their mortality hanging over the ship like this, but the same time they develop the tenderest of feelings for Wait.
The scene thus set, the “Narcissus” begins to round the Cape of Good Hope. The captain is pushing her too hard. A spectacular storm, spectacularly described by Conrad, turns the ship on her side. The extreme trauma of the storm brings the crew to new levels of solidarity.
After the storm scene, which occupies a few days and a fair amount of the novel, the James Wait storyline picks back up. Wait is a burden on the ship. He causes discord, and through occult reasons best understood by superstitious sailors, the ship cannot get home while he still lives.
What I mean by “the James Wait storyline” should be clear enough, I think. So what’s the second book in this book? It’s the pilgrimage, the journey made by the crew, a microcosm of humanity, on the ship, a microcosm of the earth. Conrad is explicit about this. The narrator often explains, in a way that could be fairly called Victorian, the meaning of what he is describing.
The narrator is a fascinating topic all his own, by the way.
But this pilgrimage story, it’s brilliant. One of the best sea stories I’ve read, no question, and I’ve read a lot. This “children of the sea” novella on its own would have been a first-rate book well worth reading. The formation of the crew as a crew, from a group of individuals, the way its solidarity develops, and then the way it disintegrates again when the ship reaches London, are all superb.
The other story is harder. It’s darker and more difficult and much less pleasant. It mustn’t do much for Conrad’s reputation with Chinua Achebe, either—Conrad wrote in a preface to a later American edition, which carried the original title, that Wait “is nothing; he is merely the centre of the ship’s collective psychology and the pivot point of the action.” This is his status “in the book,” though Conrad also describes him as “very precious to me.” This won’t satisfy any number of critics, and there is a huge mass of color symbolism in the novel that I have only just begun to wade through. I probably won’t be talking much about those issues this week, but they are certainly there and deserve to be explored more fully than I will this time around.
I called Almayer stubbornly blind the other day, and I don’t know what I can call Willems now except more stubbornly more blind. Worse, Willems’s greatest (only?) blindness is to his own faults. He is a much cannier schemer than Almayer could ever be, but totally incapable of sincere self-reflection. Almayer may mistake all his relationships because of how badly he mistakes others, but Willems doesn’t even understand himself.
You can see it right from the beginning. The very first sentence, quoted yesterday: “When he stepped off the straight and narrow path of his peculiar honesty, it was with an inward assertion of unflinching resolve to fall back again into the monotonous but safe stride of virtue as soon as his little excursion to the wayside quagmires had produced the desired effect.” From Willems’s perspective, whatever immoral thing he is about to do couldn’t possibly “interfere with the very nature of things,” because it wouldn’t be real. It wouldn’t be a sin, but a “little excursion,” “a sentence in brackets,” “to be quickly forgotten.”
Perspective, though, is a bitch. An unimportant episode to Willems turns out to be a major problem for his employer, who doesn’t like to have his firm’s money “borrowed” and promptly sacks our outcast. Arriving home to his wife, again perspectives collide. Willems believes that he has “made her happiness in the full satisfaction of all material wants,” and so assumes that she will “keep him company on no matter how hard and stony a road.” But Joanna hasn’t been made happy at all by his contempt and abuse, and, like her father before her, chucks her out. Her brother likewise reviles him. Now two immoral actions Willems considered totally inconsequential to his happiness in the world have proved otherwise.
For his most climactic immoral act, Willems refuses to take any responsibility at all. The great betrayal of Almayer, Lingard, and white men in general is done, he claims, under the influence of Aissa. Completely besotted with her from the moment they meet by the brook in the forest, he is manipulated by her, by Babalatchi, by Lakamba, by Abdullah, and especially by Babalatchi by way of Aissa. But it’s his complete lack of moral fiber that’s the problem; Aissa has him so wrapped around her sultry little finger that he practically goes mad when she spends three days on the other side of the river, in a compound he’s free to visit. Of course, he hasn’t told her he is married. Aissa’s motivations are somewhat blurred for much of the real action of the novel, so it’s hard to comment on how active a role she really played in Willems’s manipulation. But it’s certain by the end of the novel that she loves him. And it’s also certain that she hasn’t actually bewitched him, with magic, into doing her bidding, as he likes to tell himself.
He looked upon himself with dismay and pity. She had him. He had heard of such things. He had heard of women who…He would never believe such stories….Yet they were true. But his own captivity seemed more complete, terrible, and final—without the hope of any redemption.
The relationship between Willems and Aissa is really something, by the way. She gives me chills—in a good way. I’m not sure she’d pass the Bechdel Test but she is one hell of a woman.
When Captain Lingard returns to Sambir and finds the place dramatically altered, he gets the tale mostly from Almayer. His feelings toward Willems are complex, but one of the main ones is sheer disgust. He took Willems in as a boy, took him in again as a man, and was in the very act of helping him when Willems betrayed this forgiving father figure. And Lingard can’t forgive this, though Almayer suspects he’s almost soft enough to do it. Lingard sentences Willems to a fate worse than death: to spend the rest of his natural life in Sambir. With this, Lingard puts the lie to yet another tale Willems has been telling himself, since the days back in Macassar when he would show off to the younger men at the pub:
He disapproved of the elementary dishonesty that dips the hand in the cash-box, but one could evade the laws and push the principles of trade to their furthest consequences. Some call that cheating. Those are the fools, the weak, the contemptible. The wise, the strong, the respected, have no scruples. Where there are scruples there can be no power.
Of course, Willems had been dipping his hand into the cash-box anyway. He didn’t manage to evade the law (of men if not of nations) then, and he doesn’t manage it when he’s simply “cheating” in trade either. Willems just keeps telling himself that he’s honorable even under the white man’s code, but he’s constantly compromising, bending rules he doesn’t think are important, a slave not to Aissa but to his lusts.
I’m not going to spend any more time with Conrad’s first two novels, but I certainly could. Some blog posts I won’t be writing:
- How do Nina and Aissa, both half-caste young women whose affairs are central to these novels, compare?
- In turn, how do the misunderstandings in the relationships between Nina and Almayer on the one hand and Aissa and Willems on the other compare?
- It is said of Willems, “It was not death that frightened him: it was the horror of bewildered life where he could understand nothing and nobody round him; where he could guide, control, comprehend nothing and no one—not even himself.” Does this make him both more and less self-aware than Almayer?
- Why is it that we (or at least I) sympathize with Almayer, but not with Willems? Is Willems really that much worse a person?
- The perceptual shifts here seem to come faster and with greater suspense than those in Almayer’s Folly. You could probably do a whole week tracing slowly through them to see what’s uncovered as you go. One of the great things about Conrad: much of it is unresolved. Tensions I thought would be relieved were never brought into the light to dissolve. What went on between Aissa and Willems during the revolution? Actually, it does seem like black magic.
So next week, it’s on to Conrad’s third novel. If you go look up the title of his third novel, you may figure out why I’m not completely looking forward to it.
An Outcast of the Islands is in at least one way a very strange bird. According to Conrad’s own preface to his second novel, he began writing it after his literary friend Edward Garnett asked him “why not write another?” Another after Almayer’s Folly, that is. An Outcast of the Islands ended up also being another book about Almayer and his follies, another book about Sambir, another book about Captain Lingard and the rest of the cast we met the last time around.
There are a few additions, as well. In contemporary parlance you could call An Outcast of the Islands a “prequel,” I think, although parts of Almayer’s Folly take place before it, or at least before most of it. But the real “now” of Almayer’s Folly is the time of Almayer’s middle age, when he has lost the Sambir trade and his mentor Captain Lingard. Outcast tells the story of how much of that situation came to be: how Willems, the eponymous outcast, brought the Arabs to Sambir.
Willems is another Dutchman picked up by Lingard. This one came from Rotterdam, and Lingard deposits him at the Macassar firm where he will later pick up Almayer. Willems distinguishes himself here in business; he is very clever. Which means, of course, that he is too clever altogether, and gets himself into a mess of trouble. The novel’s first paragraph is a perfect picture of his hubris:
When he stepped off the straight and narrow path of his peculiar honesty, it was with an inward assertion of unflinching resolve to fall back again into the monotonous but safe stride of virtue as soon as his little excursion into the wayside quagmires had produced the desired effect. It was going to be a short episode—a sentence in brackets, so to speak—in the flowing tale of his life: a thing of no moment, to be done unwillingly, yet neatly, and to be quickly forgotten. He imagined that he could go on aftewards looking at the sunshine, enjoying the shade, breathing in the perfume of flowers in the small garden before his house. He fancied that nothing would be changed, that he would be able as heretofore to tyrannize good-humouredly over his half-caste wife, to notice with tender contempt his pale yellow child, to patronize loftily his dark-skinned brother-in-law, who loved pink neckties and wore patent-leather boots on his little feet, and was so humble before the white husband of the lucky sister. Those were the delights of his life, and he was unable to conceive that the moral significance of any act of his could interfere with the very nature of things, could dim the light of the sun, could destroy the perfume of the flowers, the submission of his wife, the smile of his child, the awe-struck respect of Leonard da Souza and of all the Da Souza family. That family’s admiration was the great luxury of his life. It rounded and completed his existence in a perpetual assurance of unquestionable superiority.
What a despicable man Willems is already, and he will only grow more so. Perhaps it will please you, schadenfreudishly, to know that Willems is so blind and conceited he does not even realize his half-caste wife is the daughter of his boss, and that he will soon be rather well repaid for how he has treated her and her family. But no more about Willems yet; I want to save him for tomorrow.
After inciting the wrath of his employer, Willems is rescued once again by Lingard, who deposits him, for safekeeping as it were, in Sambir. Willems is only supposed to wait things out there for a few months while Lingard finds him a new job where people don’t know him for what he is. But ever unable to leave well enough alone, Willems goes ahead and betrays his benefactor by revealing the secret of the Pantai. The events leading up to and following this betrayal bring an intimate picture of Sambir politicking, with all the figures who are prominent in Almayer’s Folly rising to their importance here.
This is what makes the novel a bit strange, as I said. An episode that, while clearly having a major effect on Almayer’s fortunes in the earlier novel, is treated as little more than a footnote, rises here to the status of major local event with serious political implications. We have numerous new perceptual lenses through which to view all the original characters, especially Almayer, and it can be disorienting. How was I supposed to write about Almayer’s Folly the past two days, knowing so much more about Almayer than I could know from that novel? It doesn’t seem right. It shouldn’t seem quite so weird, since the prequel/sequel concept is hardly new. But the combination of the timing of the two stories with Conrad’s whole emphasis on perception heightened the closeness of the relation between the two novels.
I should also say, again, that I think Conrad is already an excellent writer and especially stylist by this point. In his preface he talks about how, on account of not caring so much about the story, he ended up focusing a lot on the setting in An Outcast of the Islands, resulting in his being described as an “exotic” novelist. Sambir is unquestionably exotic, and Conrad’s descriptions of it here are lush and evocative.
Who was she? Where did she come from? Wonderingly he took his eyes off her face to look round at the serried trees of the forest that stood big and still and straight, as if watching him and her breathlessly. He had been baffled, repelled, almost frightened by the intensity of that tropical life which wants the sunshine but works in gloom; which seems to be all grace of colour and form, all brilliance, all smiles, but is only the blossoming of the dead; whose mystery holds the promise of joy and beauty, yet contains nothing but poison and decay. He had been frightened by the vague perception of danger before, but now, as he looked at that life again, his eyes seemed able to pierce the fantastic veil of creepers and leaves, to look past the solid trunks, to see through the forbidding gloom—and the mystery was disclosed—enchanting, subduing, beautiful. He looked at the woman. Through the checkered light between them she appeared to him with the impalpable distinctness of a dream. The very spirit of that land of mysterious forests, standing before him like an apparition behind a transparent veil—a veil woven of sunbeams and shadows.
How very enchanting Aissa is, isn’t she? Willems is done for.