06 July 2011

85. Joseph Conrad, LORD JIM


I started this book on Dailylit way back in, oh good grief, July. Along the way somewhere I got behind and the emails piled up -- it was even one of my reading regrets of last year -- but I was too stubborn to delete them, so in a fit of inbox-clearing I finished the last 40 or so installments last week. Might I have just lost momentum unable to regained in the time between when I started and when I finished? Might I believe that because someone whose tastes I respect gave this book 5/5 stars on Goodreads? Yes, and yes. I might. But I still maintain that the essential content of this book could be contained in a short story... wait no... how about a limerick? (Spoilers.)

Jim did a bad thing when he fled,
"So unfit for duty," they said,
Then to Patusan folks
He was happily yoked, 
But sadly now Lord Jim is dead. 
(Brushes shoulders off.) 

In slightly nicer prose: Jim was a lively up-and-coming sailor when he and his crew decided to abandon ship and all their passengers in an accident, rationalizing that the passengers would probably die anyway. Unfortunately, they didn't, and Jim's career is ruined, so he takes a series of jobs in outer Indonesia (...I think?) where people don't know what he did and thus still respect him.

The trouble is (and I suppose, the fascination for people who like this book) that the book is largely narrated by Marlow, that's HEART OF DARKNESS Marlow, whose obsession with Jim seems to stem from the fact that he doesn't understand him. Why is Jim constantly striving to prove himself to other people as a result of this long-ago mistake, in which he was not alone? Marlow doesn't know, thus we don't know, and his usefulness as a tragic figure waxes and wanes (mostly wanes!) in the degree to which we care about these answers.

Maybe my moral compass is a-spin but perhaps Jim's "unknowability" as displayed in this book is due to the fact that everyone around him is super racist, and doesn't care about all those passengers he abandoned because they weren't white. Just a thought! So the burden of his guilty conscience drives him to earn the respect of others who the people around him think, "Well, they're not so important, who cares about them?" (Marlow's emphasis on Jim's likely non-white common-law wife supports this theory. There's a discussion we could have along the lines of fidelity vs. racism and the white man's sexual burden of non-monogamy toward any non-societally-blessed pairing, if I were willing to go back and dig up the relevant passages, which I'm not, but you can.)

Or maybe Jim just liked living in Patusan where people looked up to him, rather than being forced to reintegrate into civilian life. Maybe that was his best prospect after all. By the end of LORD JIM I didn't really care how Jim had gotten there, had drawn my own conclusions long before Marlow was finished a-tellin'.

Conrad is probably spinning in his grave right now due to his limericization, but he will have his revenge as I still have one more of his books to get to on this list. But that's not going to be next, because I just can't face the guy.

Ellen VS. ML: 54 read, 46 unread

Next up: After getting into another rantfest about V.S. Naipaul at book club last week, I'm thinking it's time to crack my copy of #83 A BEND IN THE RIVER. Let's see who writes like a lady now!



Anonymous said...

I can't wait for you to read Sophie's Choice! I love that book. ~Jen

Ellen said...

I don't know if you should get your hopes up given the shellacking I just gave to this book. What if I hate SOPHIE'S CHOICE? Pistols at dawn!

Anonymous said...