Seeing a few reviews of Joseph Conrad books on other blogs recently reminded me that I’d had a copy of one of his novels, Lord Jim, unread on my shelf for a long time, so a few weeks ago I decided to read it. My previous experience with Conrad amounted to a failed attempt to read Heart of Darkness, so I wasn’t really expecting to love this book – and I didn’t, but at least I managed to finish this one!
Published in 1900, Lord Jim is the story of a young seaman – Jim – who, at the beginning of the novel is serving as first mate on the Patna, a ship packed with hundreds of Muslim pilgrims on their way to Mecca. During the voyage, the ship hits an object submerged in the sea and begins to take on water. Believing that the Patna is sinking, Jim and the rest of the crew jump into lifeboats and abandon the ship, leaving the pilgrims to their fate. Although the other crew members manage to avoid taking responsibility for what they have done, Jim will be haunted by this moment of cowardice for the rest of his life.
Our narrator, Marlow, is a sea captain who is intrigued by Jim and decides to help him rebuild his life following an official inquiry into his actions on the Patna, during which he loses his seaman’s certificate and is told he can no longer serve as an officer. Jim takes up several new positions arranged for him by Marlow, but wherever he goes his past seems to follow him until eventually he ends up at a remote trading post in Patusan, a fictional land somewhere in Asia.
I won’t say any more about what happens to Jim after he arrives in Patusan, but I will mention the structure, which I thought was both one of the most effective things about the book and the most confusing. Because the novel is narrated by Marlow, in the form of an account told to a group of friends one evening, we never actually see things from Jim’s own point of view – and within Marlow’s narration, other characters also take their turn to narrate. This leads to lots of quotation marks nested within each other as one character tells a story that had been told to them by another character and so on, until it becomes very difficult to remember who each narrator is. To make things even more challenging, events are not always related in chronological order either and often the plot will go off on a tangent, jumping forward in time for a while and telling us about something that will happen later. All of this meant that I found myself really struggling to follow the story and stay engaged with it.
The way the book is written, showing us Jim only through the eyes of others, gives more complexity and ambiguity to his character than there would probably have been if he’d had the chance to tell his story himself, but it also makes it hard to connect with Jim and to try to understand what is going on inside his head. There’s always a distance between Jim and the reader, but of course that’s surely the whole point because Jim, after the Patna tragedy, has tried to distance himself from the people who knew him before and to avoid his past catching up with him again. As a psychological study, Lord Jim is a fascinating book and I found the writing beautiful and poetic; as an adventure novel I thought it was less successful – the Patusan sections raise some interesting issues about colonialism, empire and race, but the muddled structure disrupted the flow of the story for me and I have to admit that I was glad to reach the end of the book.
I think I’ve probably tried enough Joseph Conrad now, but maybe I’ll give him another chance at some point in the future.
Coincidentally, just after finishing this book I came across the 1965 film starring Peter O’Toole on Sony Movies last week and although it diverges from the novel quite a lot in the second half, I did find it helpful to see some of the scenes and characters brought to life!