Lord Jim

by Joseph Conrad

"Keep a dictionary on hand & don't give up!" is my advice to all would-be readers of Lord Jim. The former instruction is given because of Joseph Conrad's prodigious English vocabulary (even more inspiring when you consider that English was not his native tongue but his third language, and that some have remarked on the irony that he never knew how to pronounce many of the words he used in his works). The latter caveat comes in response to the disjointed structure of the narrative of this novel as a whole. Don't get me wrong: this is not disappointing in the least. In fact, the disregard of traditional chronology in the telling of this tale rather works! But absolutely do not give up if you get lost—it's only temporary.

Joseph Conrad in this book, written over a century ago, offers us an intimate, varied, & at times inscrutable portrait of Jim, a young white seafaring man in Asia whose fragile self-knowledge & understanding of his own character suffer when he is involved in a nautical scandal. The scandal at sea is narrowly (but is not) a disaster in & of itself, which leaves one to muse as to if Jim wouldn't have been better off, paradoxically, if A)There actually had been a disaster or B)He had perished. Without being any more obtuse about this part of the plot—what really kicks things off in this book, as it were—I shall reveal here what it is, specifically, that I am talking about. Lord Jim opens with the disjointed telling of a chapter in Jim's life in which he semi-reluctantly abandons a ship which he believes with all his heart to be sinking, only to have it not sink and have all passengers abandoned aboard to survive & know (along with the world at large & a court of justice) what he has done. This event, how he reacts to it, & how it alters his notion of self sets in motion his fate & the telling of the tale of the rest of his life.

The nontraditional narrative structure, we should point out here, has been much imitated by later authors, but Conrad was one of the first & certainly most skilled at it. The reason why I like the broken-and-taken-back-up narrative style, where normally it would annoy a reader like Classic Bitch, is that the main recounter of Jim's story—who is not the narrator of the book as a whole—reveals his tale much like you or I might. He holds court amongst a private audience of alternately interested & disinterested listeners, gets sidetracked in the telling, starts again, willingly follows tangents, introduces ancillary characters to tell their version of the story through him, returns to where he was before he got sidetracked, starts over only to jump around again, etc. It is faulty, it is halting, it is human. And the human quality lent to this narrator underscores Jim's own humanness.

Here we venture into the mind of the author himself who is revealed to have said, in a quote reprinted in my edition's introduction, "This is the difference between H.G. Wells and me. Wells does not love humanity but thinks he can improve it; I love humanity but I know it is unimprovable." And here is a quote from Jim: "Men act badly sometimes without being much worse than others." And here are three quotes from the book, by Marlow, the teller of Jim's story:
• "To bury him would have been such an easy kindness! It would have been so much in accordance with the wisdom of life, which consists in putting out of sight all the reminders of our folly, of our weakness, of our mortality; all that makes against our efficiency—the memory of our failures, the hints of our undying fears, the bodies of our dead friends."
• "To fling away your daily bread so as to get your hands free for a grapple with a ghost may be an act of prosaic heroism."
• "These are the girls we love, the men we look up to, the tenderness, the friendships, the opportunities, the pleasures! But the fact remains you must touch your reward with clean hands, lest it turn to dead leaves, to thorns, in your grasp. I think it is the lonely, without a fireside or an affection they may call their own, those who return not to a dwelling but to the land itself, to meet its disembodied, eternal, and unchangeable spirit—it is those who understand best its severity, its saving power, the grace of its secular right to our fidelity, to our obedience. Yes! few of us understand, but we all feel it though, and I say all without exception, because those who do not feel do not count."

Not easy going here, but a powerful story & message (a tale of both fallibility and honor), perhaps one that everyone should read.