Heart of Darkness (Modern Library #67)

(This is the thirty-fourth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Main Street.)

Hello, Darkness, my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you again. Except that I don’t particularly want to. It’s not you, Joe. It’s me.

Don’t worry. We’ll still text each other. I’ll still speak fondly of you. We can still meet for Sunday brunch sometimes. I’m just in a different place these days. Namely the 21st century.

It can’t be an accident that the wildly underrated Julian MacLaren-Ross skewered the idea of reading Conrad as an upwardly mobile class aspiration in Of Love and Hunger. In Frog, Stephen Dixon took the piss out of Conrad along these lines as well. Indeed, slagging off Conrad seems to be a common trait among many of my literary Bohemian heroes. And I do need to heed them. I feel and trust their instincts. It’s almost as if we’re told that we should simply accept that Conrad is a great writer who changed the course of literature (and he did) even as we pretend that he isn’t ancient and hoary and horribly regressive. When I confessed my reluctance to reread Heart of Darkness to a few friends, they told me, “Well, it’s only a hundred pages.” Which suggested very strongly that nobody really wants to read Conrad anymore. He doesn’t pop out at you like Joyce or Faulkner or Nabokov or even Lawrence. And, to tell you the truth, I would much rather reread Finnegans Wake than anything from Conrad.

Yet I don’t detest Conrad. Certainly not with the full-bore commitment in which I direct my fierce energies loathing Henry James — a man who is represented on the Modern Library canon with three hideous doorstoppers and who I have tried to learn how to enjoy (even enlisting the tremendously gracious Dinitia Smith for assistance), but whose “charms” I have proven totally impervious to. And since I’m getting ever closer to fifty and there hasn’t been a break in the Henry James ice floe, I suspect that I’m fated to go to my grave hating him, possibly living a few extra months not only to spite my enemies, but to deliver a few final rounds of vitriol towards one of the most overrated and egotistical writers in the English language. I truly dread the James slog that’s in store for me about forty titles from now. The horror! The horror! Perhaps I shall be driven mad like Kurtz.

But not so with Conrad! There is much about Conrad to like: his intensity, his often beautiful imagery, and his insights into human atavism. Eleven years ago, Lord Jim did hold my attention — but I had to give Conrad everything that I had. Decades before I read Lord Jim, I was dazzled by Heart of Darkness in high school. I reread it twice in the last few months and, while the allure that once hypnotized me seems to be gone, I can’t gainsay that this is a masterpiece.

First off, I think we can all agree that Marlow is one of the most long-winded bastards in all of literature. “Mansplaining” doesn’t even begin to describe the dude’s incessant need to talk. Compared to your FOX News-watching uncle going on and on about Marxist conspiracies at the Thanksgiving table, Charlie Marlow is an outright conversational tyrant. All these poor sailors want to do is play dominoes, but the unnamed passenger listening to Marlow’s tale notes that only “the bond of the sea” keeps the sailors from bitching about this incessant rambler “so often unaware of what [his] audience would best like to hear.” (Incidentally, this two-layer approach to narrative is a shrewd move by Conrad to insulate himself from any charges of planting autobiography into his fiction. Conrad and Marlow share many similarities. Not only did Conrad go to the Congo to fulfill a boyhood dream, but he also, like Marlow, endured the stench of a fresh corpse while commanding a steamer. Small wonder that the Polish-Ukranian bard decided to devote all of his time and energies to a full-time writing career not long after this hideous tour of duty.)

Graying technophobes — the kind of unadventurous dullards best epitomized in today’s literary world by the likes of Jonathan Franzen and Sven Birkerts — often complain about the Internet’s impact on attention spans. But consider the alternative. Do you honestly want to live in a pre-radio world in which men explain things with indefatigable logorrhea? In this case, we have Marlow counterbalancing the “savage” world with the “civilized.” There were points in which I felt great sorrow for the poor sailors and imagined sending smartphones back in time so that these poor men could wile away their hours with Candy Crush and cat videos instead of listening to a reactionary seaman splaying out his white supremacy.

And about that white supremacy. Chinua Achebe has been perhaps the most vocal literary figure who has denounced Heart of Darkness, calling Conrad “a thoroughgoing racist,” rightly impugning Conrad’s belittling and dehumanization of Africa, and pointing out how Conrad’s “generosity” in having Black people show up for token cameos is anything but. Achebe scolds Conrad for avoiding the word “brother” in lieu of “kinship” in relation to Black people. (Indeed, the ocean itself, described as “a positive pleasure, like the speech of a brother,” gets more dignity than the dark-skinned “natives” of this tale.) What draws Marlow to Africa on a map is “a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over.”

On the other hand, there is some modest pushback when the Company’s office is compared to a “whited sepulchre.” Smoke from gunpowder is described as “white,” thus suggesting some white complicity. Can we likewise interpret Marlow pointing to the Blacks being unable to distinguish between individual white men as “being so much alike at a distance” as an acknowledgment of Marlow’s tendency to do the same with Black people? And what are we to make of the white worsted tied around the neck of a dying Black man? Or the foreman whose beard is tied up in “a kind of white serviette he brought for the purpose”? Or a book “lovingly stitched afresh with white cotton thread”? Or the “cold and monumental whiteness” of a marble fireplace?

Humorless sods like Jonathan Jones have written masturbatory articles defending Conrad (and dissing Achebe) with all the clueless gusto of a Trump cultist declaring noted Hungarian tyrant Viktor Orban “a good guy.” But the truth of Conrad’s racism is somewhere in between. Conrad was racist. (The N-word appears ten times within Heart of Darkness‘s 38,000 pages. And the Black caricatures are frequently sickening.) Like all great writers, he executed his storytelling with instinctive ambiguity. And since many of the colonialists carry remnants of white, Conrad’s imagery — whether intentional or not — can also be read as condemnatory of imperialism and privilege.

And you cannot deny Conrad’s commitment to atmosphere! The old woman who greets Marlow with “flat cloth slippers…propped up on a foot warmer, and a cat reposed on a lap.” The Eldorado Exploring Expedition manager who resembles “a butcher in a poor neighbourhood.” The “torn curtain of red twill” hanging in the doorway of a hut that “flapped sadly in our faces.” A “long, decaying building on the summit…half buried in the high grass.” For all of Marlow’s garrulity, Conrad was a master of imagery, knowing the exact measure of words — never too many, never too few — to connote this tropical world.

Still, for all my complaints about Conrad’s racism, Kurtz is truly one of the all-time creepy fucks of literature. On one hand, we are told that “Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts” and that he is possibly mad. But his seemingly calm rationalization about how he has manipulated the world around him is deeply unsettling. And while Conrad suggests that Kurtz has become this way because of uncharted and unfamiliar terrain (“The long shadows of the forests had slipped downhill as we talked”), it is quite likely that Kurtz was always unhinged. And if this is indeed the case, then Conrad is saying something very vital about the tyranny of white privilege, even if it comes saddled with tacit endorsement.

Next Up: W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage!

Sarah Churchwell (The Bat Segundo Show #535)

Sarah Churchwell is most recently the author of Careless People.

Author: Sarah Churchwell

Subjects Discussed: Max Gerlach and the possible origins of “old sport,” the current conditions of Fitzgerald’s scrapbook, working in the Princeton Archives, sifting through digital facsimiles, tape marks and PDFs, Fitzgerald’s “self-Googling,” illusory objects balanced on the edges of noses, balancing Gatsby‘s surrealism against real-world parallels, Gatsby as a distorted mirror to the 1920s, present-day misconceptions about the 1920s, history and imagination, Fitzgerald scholars arguing over niceties, analytical types who suck the joy out of novels, the hunt for facts that surprise the scholar, developing rules for inclusion, playing the game of “Who knew?” with Gatsby, what swastikas meant in 1922, wrangling through the variegated meanings of the green light, the risk of divagating from novels, Childs Restaurants, the New York Public Library’s extraordinary online menu collection, the hostility to close reading, Mary McCarthy’s Pale Fire review, Edmund Wilson’s role in restoring Fitzgerald’s reputation and his relationship with Gatsby, the effect of John Keats’s life and work on Gatsby, the difficulty of determining Fitzgerald’s compositional approach during Gatsby, Fitzgerald and the Romantics, Fitzgerald’s terrible French, the benefits of not reading living writers while working on a masterpiece, Zelda and Scott trading off lines and witticisms, Zelda’s influence on Gatsby, Zelda’s critical mind, how to distinguish Scott and Zelda’s writing, the helpful scholarship of James L.W. West III, Fitzgerald’s fear of being compared with Robert W. Chambers’s romantic fiction, Burton Rascoe, why Fitzgerald was so concerned with his reception, how Churchwell tracked down an obscure Rascoe review, Fitzgerald’s touchiness and his need for reassurance, Gertrude Stein, Fitzgerald’s all-or-nothing grab for literary respectability (and failure to get it) with Gatsby and Tender is the Night, Fitzgerald’s decline, Fitzgerald’s terrible spelling and This Side of Paradise, the Fitzgeralds’s trip to Europe in 1924, the Fitzgeraldian notion of holding two simultaneous ideas (or emotions) in a first-rate mind, Gatsby as a hymn to ambivalence, Zelda’s affairs in response to boredom, Fitzgerald’s unkindness to women in his fiction, 1920s etymology, Fitzgerald as the first man to use “cocktail” as a verb, guarding against linguistic anachronism, the development of merchant banking language during the 1920s, the owl-eyed man in Gatsby’s library, Eckleberg, the numerous large eyes within Gatsby, blindness and vision, racism during the 1920s, Edith Wharton’s anti-Semitism, Meyer Wolfsheim a Jewish stereotype, Thomas Powers’s essay in the LRB, Arnold Rothstein, Monroe Stahr in The Last Tycoon, whether or not Fitzgerald can be called an anti-Semite, Tom Buchanan’s white supremacy, “The Crack-Up,” being judged by character vs. being judged by social conditions, Wendy Smith’s review in Newsday, specious connections between Gatsby and the Hall-Mills murder case, Nancy Mitford’s lie about “Zelda and her abortionist” picked up by five other biographers, mistaken identity as part of the 1922 discourse, Leopold and Loeb, Myrtle Wilson and Tom Buchanan, William Desmond Taylor’s murder, Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow, serving as Booker judge, contending with the Booker Prize’s inclusion of American titles and the concomitant complaints about preferring British or American titles over the other, the Folio Prize’s American titles, and the 2012 Pulitzer Prize’s “no winner” controversy.


Correspondent: I’m really jazzed up because only a few days ago, you forced me to reread The Great Gatsby. And it was still great after four times! Have you ever gotten sick of that book?

Churchwell: No, I really haven’t. That’s why I wrote a book that’s kind of a tribute to it. And I got to live with it for five years. I got to reread it over and over and over.

Correspondent: How many times have you read it?

Churchwell: I don’t know. Because I’ve read it sequentially at least half a dozen times. But also I was going in and out of it. And so, all told, probably hundreds of times.

Correspondent: Wow. That’s incredible. Well, let’s start with the marvelous year of 1922. The year in which the book is set, The Great Gatsby, and the year in which both The Waste Land and Ulysses were published. You point out that scholars have used the reference to “a waste land” during that one description of the ash heaps as the smoking gun that Fitzgerald intended Gatsby as a literary homage to that particular year. But Fitzgerald was also to note in his “Ten Best Books I Have Ever Read” that Ulysses is “the great novel of the future.” So what is the true source really of the 1922 setting? And to what degree is it a mistake to assign a kind of explicit literary interpretation or homage to either Eliot or Joyce?

Churchwell: I think there are a couple of other meanings to 1922, which of course is the year that Fitzgerald sets Gatsby. And, yes, I think he is tipping his hat to those great writers of 1922 and to those two great works in particular. It’s also the year that the first English translation of Swann’s Way came out. So Proust is also making his way into that year. But it’s also the year that Scott and Zelda move to Long Island and began the parties that would inspire the novel. It was in 1922 in the summer that Fitzgerald wrote to his editor Max Perkins announcing that he wanted to write the novel that would become Gatsby. So I think in his head, there were a lot of reasons why 1922 was the right year to set the novel.

Correspondent: Did he ever toy around with other years?

Churchwell: He did actually in draft. He wrote 1921. He wrote 1923. So he always knew that he wanted it to be a modern novel. He wrote it in 1924. So it was always going to be the recent past. And then he finally settles on 1922. And we can only speculate as to why that is. Maybe it was totally random. But it doesn’t seem like it was. And then he went back and he tried to adjust the math and to make sure that everything worked out for it to be set in 1922.

Correspondent: Yeah. He had this really terrible thing about double digits. $13.13 at the end. That’s sad.

Churchwell: Yeah. (laughs)

Correspondent: I was really bummed out at the end when Fitzgerald is on the decline. I’m like, “Oh, come on, Scott! You can do it!”

Churchwell: I know.

Correspondent: “Don’t let the world beat you down!”

Churchwell: It’s so sad, but the world did beat him down in exactly that way that you just said. I mean, his last royalty check was $13.13.

Correspondent: I know.

Churchwell: It is crazy. But his life was in this really uncanny way, it often tended to be symbolic in that way. Life just kind of showered him with symbolism all the time. Even the bad kind.

Correspondent: When you live a life where you’re surrounded by subconscious doubles, inevitably subconscious doubles will appear in your work.

Churchwell: Exactly.

Correspondent: You also point out — and it’s worth reminding — that Fitzgerald had this deep admiration for Joseph Conrad. You quote Conrad’s line, “Fiction is history, human history, or it is nothing.” And you point to the middle-man inscription he offered to Gene Buck. You also note that Ring Lardner and Fitzgerald, they performed this drunken dance outside the Doubleday Estate in May 1923, only to be unceremoniously ejected by the night watchmen. I’m wondering. How obsessive was Fitzgerald about Conrad? Were you able to find any direct Gatsby lineage from Conrad or anything?

Churchwell: Not quite. But he was very open about his admiration for Conrad. And Conrad was certainly an important writer for him. In fact, one of the novels that Fitzgerald said was the novel that he wished he had written more than any other novel was Conrad’s Nostromo.

Correspondent: Nostromo, yeah.

Churchwell: Which is a novel that a lot of people…

Correspondent: …don’t read anymore.

Churchwell: …don’t read anymore. It’s really Heart of Darkness that tends to be the one.

Correspondent: Or even Lord Jim.

Churchwell: Or even Lord Jim. He definitely loved Lord Jim. I’ve seen Lord Jim in various places in his work. I think that where Conrad really comes into Gatsby most obviously is in the use of Nick Carraway as both character and narrator the way that Conrad used Marlow in several of his novels, including Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim. And it was understanding the way that that technique could help him tell his story, I think, that is Conrad’s greatest influence on Gatsby.

Correspondent: Did he really see novels as that history that Conrad said that it was?

Churchwell: I think he did absolutely. I mean, his novels tended to be contemporary. They tended to be drawn very much from his own experiences and based on people that he knew or had met. Most of his best work is, in some sense, based on these composite characters. So the character of Dick Diver in Tender is the Night is partly Fitzgerald, it’s partly his friend Gerald Murphy, and he kind of morphs the two together.

Correspondent: As any writer does really.

Churchwell: Absolutely. I mean, it’s something he had a big argument with Hemingway about. Because Hemingway said of Tender is the Night that this was an illegitimate technique. He got kind of high-handed and announced that there were some ways that you were allowed to write fiction and some ways that you’re not allowed to write fiction. Which is a bit rich coming from Hemingway, given that The Sun Also Rises is very much a roman à clef. (laughs)

Correspondent: Exactly. And what’s also terrible about Hemingway is his treatment of Fitzgerald. I mean, Fitzgerald is really on the down and out and he’s still saying, “Yes, yes, Ernest is putting out all these great books,” and Hemingway is basically totally shit-talking him the entire time. Which is really sad!

Churchwell: It is sad. Hemingway was not adverse to kicking Fitzgerald when he was down. (laughs)

Correspondent: (laughs) No! He must have had some machismo thing.

Churchwell: (laughs) Ya think?

(Loops for this program provided by JamieVega, JoeFunktastic, 40a, seankh, and kristijann.)

The Bat Segundo Show #535: Sarah Churchwell (Download MP3)

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Lord Jim (Modern Library #85)

(This is the sixteenth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Ragtime)

Much like today’s tawdry Hollywood movies, Lord Jim was based on a true story — back in the days when it actually meant something. On August 7, 1880, a ship called the Jeddah, on its way from Singapore to Arabia and carrying 950 Muslim pilgrims, had an accident. The British officers abandoned the ship near Cape Gardafui. But the Jeddah did not sink. Captain Clark was on his way out of the British Consulate when another captain reported that the Jeddah had been salvaged and towed. Clark got off lightly. His certificate was stripped for three years. But the Jeddah‘s first mate, Augustine Podmore Williams, received a harsher sentence.

This tale of lost honor and irresponsible officials eluding their duties so captivated Conrad’s imagination that he began drafting a short story in a thick album bound in leather that had belonged to his grandmother. The Jeddah became the Patna. (And the Patna would show at the end of Alien 3, lest you thought that film franchise was solely Nostromo.) Zdzislaw Najder’s very large biography, Joseph Conrad: A Chronicle, informs us that Conrad kept tabs on his word count in the margins. Serializing the yarn in a magazine was the idea, and his labor on the Lord Jim prototype intersected with the completion of “Youth” — a story that also featured the well-known Charles Marlow. Yet at this stage in the Lord Jim writing, Marlow hadn’t yet found his loquacious entry point. What Conrad would not know is that Marlow would become as ubiquitous in his work as the creepy adjusters you see in today’s subdivisions who show up minutes after a fire to stake out a husked out building. While Marlow may not have been driven by the adjuster’s compulsion to itemize and sweep in, he did share the common trait of being a remarkably patient listener to a tragic tale.

After some early starts, there was a six month break. Around this time, Conrad was also at work on Heart of Darkness (yet another deck for Marlow to walk on), which appeared in three parts in Blackwood’s Magazine (and which will be discussed in a future Modern Library installment). Factor in an especially vituperative article from Eliza Orzeskowa (“The Emigration of Talent”) that accused Conrad of deserting the Polish homeland and diminishing his talents and one gets the sense that Conrad wasn’t exactly doing the happy dance around 1899.

Conrad had to go sailing on a boat (La Reine) he had purchased with his pal Stephen Crane to unlock Lord Jim‘s secret: namely, the shift from omniscient narration to Marlow, who is arguably one of the most formidable ramblers in all of literature. (Indeed, there is a strange pleasures reading Lord Jim in the 21st century and contemplating the type of audience who would sit through such a protracted tale without offering a question or an interruption. I’ve done the math here, and Marlow’s tale is probably a lot longer than Christian Marclay’s The Clock. When you factor in our short attention span age, the time investment and patience is tenfold more remarkable. Today, I have no doubt that people would be live-tweeting Marlow or checking their BlackBerries. And we haven’t even discussed bathroom breaks.) Conrad’s “long short story” of 20,000 words eventually expanded to six times the calculated length. This didn’t stop him from additional dips into continuous partial attention. He even collaborated with Ford Madox Ford on The Inheritors in early 1900.

In addition to bracing the pressure of Blackwood’s serializing Lord Jim, Conrad also faced the death of his BFF GFW Hope’s seventeen-year-old son on the high seas (with some evidence of a covered up sexual assault, thus accounting for the book’s dedication), and, like many writers then and since, tremendous financial uncertainty. The plan had been for “Tuan Jim: A Sketch” to be part of a collection, but this idea became spottier as the story mushroomed.

One can offer the theory (and biographer Jeffrey Meyers certainly has*) that Conrad needed to be oblivious to keep up with the time-consuming nature of novel writing, claiming to be just about finished when there was still a good deal of work that needed to be done. Yet Conrad plowed forward, fighting off bronchitis, malaria, and even gout. Indeed, if one isn’t humbled by the fact that Conrad wrote this sweeping masterpiece in his third learned language, there’s the impressive manner in which Conrad doggedly used a paperweight to keep down his sheets while working with an inflamed wrist.

Conrad’s grief over his good friend Crane’s untimely death on June 5, 1900 made its way into Lord Jim‘s last ten chapters. And given how these heavy feelings fueled such a heavy book, there is little doubt that Conrad had reached a point where he wanted to be done with Lord Jim, as he was to remark in a July 20, 1900 letter to John Galsworthy:

The end of L.J. has been pulled off with a steady drag of 21 hours. I sent wife and child out of the house (to London) and sat down at 9 am, with a desperate resolve to be done with it. Now and then I took a walk round the house out at one door in at the other. Ten-minute meals. A great hush. Cigarette ends growing into a mound similar to a cairn over a dead hero. Moon rose over the barn looked in at the window and climbed out of sight. Dawn broke, brightened. I put the lamp out and went on, with the morning breeze blowing the sheets of MS all over the room. Sun rose. I wrote the last word and went to the dining room. Six o’clock. I shared a piece of cold chicken with Escamillo [Conrad’s dog, named after Carmen] (who was very miserable and in want of sympathy having missed the child dreadfully all day). Felt very well only sleepy; had a bath at seven and at 8:30 was on my way to London.

The thing that gets me is how Conrad felt the need to punctuate the end of his industry with a cold piece of chicken. But Conrad would initially dismiss Lord Jim as “a lump of clay.” While Lord Jim was to be favorably received, it wasn’t exactly a blockbuster. The first batch of 2,100 copies sold out in two months. The next printing of 1,050 copies took four years. Some reviewers complained. Many raved. Henry James sent Conrad a letter of congratulations.

* * *

If I am to be truthful here, I must confess that I had to start Lord Jim a second time before I really got into Jim’s woeful adventures from Patna to Patusan. My first reading attempt pushed me to the 200 page mark, but I zoned out, Conrad’s paragraphs washing over my eyes like imposing ebbtides. At first I feared that Conrad, whose Heart of Darkness I had loved so much in high school, did for me what Thomas Pynchon does for other people when they resent not being able to finish Gravity’s Rainbow. But when I put aside some professional obligations and realized that Lord Jim required my total attentions, I found myself stirred and fascinated by Jim’s remarkable obstinacy, his failure to shake off the shame from the bulkhead accident and move on. Here’s a guy who skips town anytime some stranger brings up the Patna incident. You almost want him to go all Dustin Hoffman (as opposed to James Marsden) in Straw Dogs rather than sit there passively while others deface his honor. Jim would never be able to get away with these chicken sprints in the age of Google.

Other characters tolerate this curious strain of romantic heroism. Poor Marlow, who you figure should know better, gets Jim a gig in the most munificent manner possible, pointing out to the troubled young hipster (sorry, but I can’t help but think of emo layabouts when imagining Jim in my mind’s eye) just how much he’s put his ass on the line:

“Look at the letter I want you to take. I am writing to a man of whom I’ve never asked a favour, and I am writing about you in terms that one only ventures to use when speaking of an intimate friend. I make myself unreservedly responsible for you. That’s what I am doing. And really if you will only reflect a little what that means…”

Jim gets the gig, offering a jolly “Jove!” in response to this generosity. (It’s worth noting that Jim is very big on “Jove!” I’m guessing that “Jove!” was the “Fuck yeah!” of its day.** And, on second thought, I don’t blame Marlow too much. If I was in the company of an exuberant lad who liked to yell “Jove!” all the time, I’d probably buy him a few beers with the remaining shekels in my reticule.) But he blows the job (and costs the man his business) when the second engineer of the Patna shows up. “I couldn’t stand the familiarity of the little beast,” writes Jim back to Marlow.

But given how Conrad offers us so many eccentric characters of the sea, is Jim’s bitching really called for? Especially when Jim’s stolid near Bartleby-like temperament causes people he knows to die after Stein appoints Jim as manager of his trading post in Patusan. We see any number of idiosyncratic types throughout Lord Jim: the German skipper who demands liquor by the light of the Patna‘s binnacle, the captain who is part of the Patna investigation and suicidally throws himself overboard as though “he had suddenly perceived the gates of the other world flung open wide for his reception,” Marlow’s brief chief mate Selvin who, upon not receiving a letter from his wife, “would go quite distracted with rage and jealousy, lose all grip on the work, quarrel with all hands, and either weep in his cabin or develop such a ferocity of temper as all but drove the crew to the verge of mutiny,” the butterfly-collecting merchant Stein, and the monstrous buccaneer Gentleman Brown who forces Jim’s hand in Patusan. Given his close proximity to goofballs and mountebanks, one would think that Jim would have something bigger on his mind than his own fragile ego.

If Jim is considered “a solitary man confronted by his fate,” then it interesting how he attempts to reconcile his honor with Cornelius, the “unspeakable” man embezzling and appropriating from Stein whom Jim replaces in Patusan. Cornelius treats his station and his girl quite unwell. But can we commend Jim for trying to be civil with Cornelius when he asks if he is unwell? Perhaps. But doesn’t Cornelius, for all of his odious qualities, carry some slim honor? Sure, the man has bamboozled Stein. He’s clearly stealing more than a few office supplies. But there’s something equally absurd to Jim in the way Cornelius offers to smuggle Jim out through the river for a mere eighty dollars. Cornelius certainly has a point when he declares to Marlow, “What did Mr. Stein mean sending a boy like that to talk big to an old servant? I was ready to save him for eighty dollars. Only eighty dollars. Why didn’t the fool go? Was I to get stabbed myself for the sake of a stranger?”

In light of the “Look at that wretched cur” farcical business at the Patna inquiry, whereby Marlow remarks on a weaving yellow dog and the oversensitive Jim believes that Marlow is talking shit about him, what makes Cornelius’s griping about sacrifice any less ignoble than Jim’s? And in disseminating Jim’s tale of dishonor to unknown listeners in the shadows, isn’t Marlow also sullying Jim’s honor? Certainly not in our eyes, if we look upon the tale from the outside. But Jim would most certainly think so, if he knew the full extent of Marlow’s goodnatured gossiping. We also have no idea how reliable Marlow is — especially since we are getting boatloads of hearsay. In fact, only “one privileged man” gets to hear the final word of the story, which is mostly second-hand from a fairly unreliable source.

Perhaps as Marlow says, the problem resides in the externals:

The conquest of love, honour, men’s confidence — the pride of it, the power of it, are fit materials for a heroic tale; only our minds are struck by the externals of such a success, and to Jim’s success there were no externals.

* — You may have observed that I haven’t really probed into Joseph Conrad’s bad behavior in this Modern Library installment. Given that there are three more Conrad volumes on the list, I’m thinking I’ll probably be addressing Conrad’s boorishness at some future point. However, since we’re on the subject, I feel compelled to point out that, should you check out Jeffrey Meyers’s Joseph Conrad: A Biography from the Mid-Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library, you will find this amusing marginalia on Page 187 suitably illustrating the author vs. work predicament:

Annotator 1: Ingrate! mistreats his wife I am trying to find something beneficial
Annotator 2: His writing!

Annotator 1: Constantly borrowing money
Annotator 2: So what?

** — Aside from “Jove,” “tumult” is another word Conrad is quite fond of — for abundantly clear reasons. I am also highly inclined to devise some Brooklyn answer to “tiffin” that I can work into my life and vernacular.

Next Up: Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart!

The Bat Segundo Show: Cynthia Ozick

Cynthia Ozick appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #210. Ozick is most recently the author of Dictation.

Condition of the Show: Overtaken by a tyrannical dictator.

Author: Cynthia Ozick

Subjects Discussed: Balancing two authors, two secretaries and other stylistic repetitions that evoke typewriters in “Dictation,” purloining language from Henry James and Joseph Conrad’s letters, Henry James’s “forgotten umbrella,” “Literary Entrails,” parallels between the last two turns of the century, feeling like Queen Victoria, the language GNU within “What Happened to the Baby?” and open source GNU, crosswords in “Actors,” agonizing over every particular sentence, the slowness of sentences, auctorial fingerprints, John Updike, not wanting to be a writer of drafts, a lost manuscript by Lionel Trilling, whether postwar critics are being suitably remembered, those who mock Trilling for his moral seriousness, the origin of names, fiction as a pack of lies, being a stickler for the details vs. sustaining ambiguity, contradicting yourself in essays, when essays are unduly compared with fiction, John Barth’s “The Literature of Exhaustion,” the current literary critical environment, E.M. Forster, descriptive references to necks, on not leaving the house, not writing stories set in the present day, getting lost in one’s head, re-rereading Sense and Sensibility, how much Ozick has to think about a book before writing it, the reputation of America over the past fifty years, defining a “contemporary” novel, the dangers of writing in the present moment, clinging to brand names, books that rethink a particular epoch, religious identity in “At Fumicaro,” pretending about pretending, literary impersonation and multiple personalities, and anchoring fiction with reality.


Correspondent: I wanted to ask you about “Dictation,” the title story. This was very interesting to me for a number of reasons. Because here you have two writers, Henry James and Joseph Conrad, two secretaries of Henry James and Joseph Conrad, and then on top of that, you have a number of repetitions throughout the story, as if to echo or beckon the typewriter. Like in the very beginning, when you have Henry James describing Almayer’s Folly, you kept saying, “He saw. He saw.” And there’s a number of interesting things you are doing in the syntax of the story that almost echoes the typewriter. So I wanted to ask how this particular stylistic device came about. I know you spend a lot of time on your sentences. So you had to have been at least somewhat aware of this.

Ozick: Well not so much of the repetition in consonance with the typewriter, no. I wasn’t aware of that at all. And I’m rather taken aback by hearing you say, “Have you actually seen this or heard this?” I have not. (laughs) I have not. I’m sorry to disappoint. That is not what I had in mind. What I had in mind really was the joy of the mischief when it occurred to me. And the stylistic aspect had to do more not with the sounds — if that’s what you’re getting at — but with the tones and styles of speech of these people in that era. Particularly with the formality of the young ladies, who must call each other “Miss.” To venture into a first name is really quite forward and not to be countenanced by polite society at first. And also the great pleasure of, I suppose, my parodying of James and Conrad. Though, here’s a confession, and having very much to do with style. I purloined certain phrases directly from the letters of James and Conrad. So there are sentences buried in there which are absolutely authentic. Because they’re stolen directly. Not full sentences, but phrases here and there. So that gave me a lot of joy too. Because it was a kind of imitation, mimicry, reflection of what these two amanuenses were up to in their mischievous plan.