Sunday, February 28, 2010

Depths of conscience - Lord Jim

Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim is such an icon of classical English literature that it makes no sense for reviewer to relate to the book's plot - almost all of us know it well.

I first read it, when I was in school, at the age of 15... I must admit - I'm sure I did not understand it by then....

What I wanted to stress now, is the book's expression of unexpressible power of human conscience. To me, the entire plot of Lord Jim is the description of doomed struggle to forget about the cardinal sin of the hero life. The sin that is almost illusive, almost pardoned by circumstances - yet persistent...

Conrad teaches us, that very often, when we make horrible things, unpardonable acts, unforgivable steps - things, that resist any simple classification of evil deeds, we are not punished in a literal sense of the word. But that's only the surface.

Under scrutiny, it was revealed that Lord Jim did not make any obvious crime or offence, when, together with the crew, he abandoned the ship (Patna) being sure it is sinking. But it did not sink, and Jim's life, to its very end, became marked with the guilt of negligence and abandonment...

What Conrad says is the simple truth: sometimes one may do something bad, yet still internally and socially tolerable, but the thing one will always regret, and - this way or another, will always pay for the sin of doing it - in all moments of his life. Even if the only punishment is the fiery fire of our own conscience ....

And sometimes, only at the moment of death after so much pain and struggle, it seems, our sins are forgiven ...:

"And that's the end. He passes away under a cloud, inscrutable at heart, forgotten, unforgiven, and excessively romantic. Not in the wildest days of his boyish visions could he have seen the alluring shape of such an extraordinary success! For it may very well be that in the short moment of his last proud and unflinching glance, he had beheld the face of that opportunity which, like an Eastern bride, had come veiled to his side."

When it comes to the book's narration - I must say I'm deeply by the incredible method Conrad applies. He treats the plot of the book as almost already known to the readers or as real as the facts of life, and slowly, in a kind of nonchalant narration, he uncovers its details and flow of events. This is also what makes the reading of Conrad difficult and deeply engaging.

And, last but not least, the language itself. See this:

The line dividing his meditation from a surreptitious doze on his feet was thinner than a thread in a spider's web.

Honestly - I can not comprehend, how, knowing English as his third language (after Polish - his mother tongue and French - lingua Franca of his times), he could get to such mastery of the expression, expression where the language and its poetry plays irremovable role:

"Such were the days, still, hot, heavy, disappearing one by one into the past, as if falling into an abyss for ever open in the wake of the ship; and the ship, lonely under a wisp of smoke, held on her steadfast way black and smouldering in a luminous immensity, as if scorched by a flame flicked at her from a heaven without pity.
The nights descended on her like a benediction."

Or this:

"A brooding gloom lay over this vast and monotonous landscape; the light fell on it as if into an abyss. The land devoured the sunshine; only far off, along the coast, the empty ocean, smooth and polished within the faint haze, seemed to rise up to the sky in a wall of steel."


The last note. It is almost inexplicable to me, how would it happen that I found the same person, Christopher Marlowe in two books in row I read. The first was Christoper the real - Shakespeare largest competitor to literary greatness - in Bill Bryson book. The second, Captain Marlow, the mythical narrator of so many of Conrad's books...

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