Joseph Conrad Essay

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Knopf, the Doubleday, Page employee who, in Conrad’s words, had formulated “this plan of ‘taking me up.’ ”Knopf was twenty years old and brimming with ideas for remedying the outrage that “a great writer” could fail to command “a large audience.” Among his promotional schemes was an illustrated pamphlet, a press release parading as an essay.

But, where Flaubert adopted an air of superhuman detachment, Conrad insures that Marlow’s position is itself relativized.

Though clearly Conrad’s alter ego and even mouthpiece, Marlow is not the narrator of “Youth” and “Heart of Darkness” but a yarn-spinner described by a member of his audience.

It concerns the spiritual odyssey of a young “water clerk,” drawn to the sea by “light holiday literature,” who abandons a sinking passenger ship called the Patna.

The story, mostly delivered as a dinner-table anecdote, has been cobbled together from Marlow’s own “impression” of Jim—at the Patna inquiry and during the warm friendship that followed—and from the reminiscences of various bit players, including the dying mercenary “Gentleman Brown” and “an elderly French lieutenant whom I came across one afternoon in Sydney, by the merest chance, in a sort of cafe.” But the witnesses, far from helping him to “get at the truth of anything,” only reinforce Marlow’s sense that “there are as many ship-wrecks as there are men”—logic that holds not just for “belief” and “thought” and “conviction” but also for “the visual aspect of material things.” Although “Lord Jim” departs from the previous Marlow tales in its use of an authorial narrator, the novel opens with this putative God’s-eye view unable to determine whether Jim is one or two inches “under six feet.” (In “The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus,’ ” we are left in no doubt that James Wait is six-three.),” he declared, in 1902.


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