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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.The Torrens, he wrote, had been a sort of “swan-song.”But Knopf wasn’t just asking for help with facts.
A synopsis of Conrad’s life at sea that begins “He had been to the corners of the earth” culminates in “He had read widely in English and French.” Conrad objected to being defined as “the greatest sea-writer,” and Knopf instead celebrated a man who “has attained a distinction as a master of the art of fiction as great as that of any living writer.”Thanks to Galsworthy’s intervention, Conrad became a best-selling Doubleday author, but Knopf quit the company soon afterward, leaving Conrad’s work with those who hadn’t been so closely coached.
In 1916, Conrad received the galleys for a uniform edition of his work.
On receiving word from Galsworthy, he sent Conrad an effusive letter along with an aging, error-strewn ten-page typescript entitled “Joseph Conrad,” which he had found somewhere and was gutting for information.
Conrad read the typescript carefully, and made numerous amendments and additions.
In March, 1893, John Galsworthy—a product of Harrow and Oxford who had recently passed the English bar exam—was boarding the passenger ship Torrens, in Port Adelaide, when he noticed a small man with black hair boisterously loading cargo.
In a letter home, a month into the voyage, he described “a capital chap,” Polish, somewhat odd-looking, with “a fund of yarns on which I draw freely.” Galsworthy’s sister credited this encounter with turning him away from the law.Conrad welcomed the idea, but, fearing it wouldn’t come off, asked Galsworthy if he could write to his friend Alfred A.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 his intentions became more intelligible in light of newer words and later work.The treatment of knowledge as contingent and provisional commands a range of comparisons, from “Rashomon” to Richard Rorty; reference points for Conrad’s fragmentary method include Picasso and T. Eliot—who took the epigraph of “The Hollow Men” from “Heart of Darkness.” (That book would have played the same role in “The Waste Land” if Ezra Pound hadn’t objected.) Even Henry James’s late period, that other harbinger of the modernist novel, had not yet begun when Conrad invented Marlow, and James’s earlier experiments in perspective (“The Spoils of Poynton,” “What Maisie Knew”) don’t go nearly as far as “Lord Jim.”Looking back at the “new form” he had created, Conrad said that he “kept it up” only because “it was essentially mine.” That could suggest complacency, but during the spectacular decade and a half that followed “Lord Jim” his storytelling underwent a series of revisions.In the finished pamphlet, which closely follows Conrad’s responses and his memoir, “A Personal Record” (Conrad sent Knopf a copy), his sea career is presented as virtually a hiatus between an eighteen-sixties childhood spent in prodigious feats of reading and the moment when he started writing “Almayer’s Folly” (1895).Even Conrad’s taste for the sea is pegged partly to a literary source—his father’s translation of Hugo’s “Toilers of the Sea,” which he read aloud, from beginning to end.Its name was “The Otago,” the emblem a sailing ship.Returning the pages to Doubleday, he explained that he wanted “to avoid all reference to the sea,” and added, “I am something else, and perhaps something more, than a writer of the sea—or even of the tropics.”In a limited sense, Conrad was simply stating what he considered to be a fact.Marlow doesn’t celebrate the role played by passion or prejudice in our descriptions of the world; it’s just something he acknowledges.In Conrad’s next Marlow story, “Heart of Darkness” (1899), set in an unnamed colony whose rulers talk exclusively in propagandist falsehoods, Marlow is the one person willing to call a rattletrap a rattletrap.