It has taken me a long time to come round to Conrad. And if I begin with an account of his difficulty, it is because I have to be true to my experience of him. I would find it hard to be detached about Conrad. He was, I suppose, the first modern writer I was introduced to. It was through my father. My father was a self-taught man, picking his way through a cultural confusion of which he was perhaps hardly aware and which I have only recently begun to understand; and he wished himself to be a writer. He read less for pleasure than for clues, hints, and encouragement; and he introduced me to those writers he had come upon in his own search. Conrad was one of the earliest of these: Conrad the stylist, but more than that, Conrad the late starter, holding out hope to those who didn’t seem to be starting at all.
I believe I was ten when Conrad was first read to me. It sounds alarming; but the story was “The Lagoon”; and the reading was a success. “The Lagoon” is perhaps the only story of Conrad’s that can be read to a child. It is very short, about fifteen pages. A forest-lined tropical river at dusk. The white man in the boat says, “We’ll spend the night in Arsat’s clearing.” The boat swings into a creek; the creek opens out into a lagoon. A lonely house on the shore; inside, a woman is dying. And during the night Arsat, the young man who is her lover, will tell how they both came there. It is a story of illicit love in another place, an abduction, a chase, the death of a brother, abandoned to the pursuers. What Arsat has to say should take no more than fifteen minutes; but romance is romance, and when Arsat’s story ends the dawn comes up; the early morning breeze blows away the mist; the woman is dead. Arsat’s happiness, if it existed, has been flawed and brief; and now he will leave the lagoon and go back to his own place, to meet his fate. The white man too has to go. And the last picture is of Arsat, alone in his lagoon, looking “beyond the great light of a cloudless day into the darkness of a world of illusions.”
In time the story of “The Lagoon” became blurred. But the sense of night and solitude and doom stayed with me, grafted, in my fantasy, to the South Sea or tropical island setting of the Sabu and Jon Hall films. I have, unwillingly, looked at “The Lagoon” again. There is a lot of Conrad in it—passion and the abyss, solitude and futility and the world of illusions—and I am not sure now that it isn’t the purest piece of fiction Conrad wrote. The brisk narrative, the precise pictorial writing, the setting of river and hidden lagoon, the nameless white visitor, the story during the night of love and loss, the death at daybreak: everything comes beautifully together. And if I say it is a pure piece of fiction, it is because the story speaks for itself; the writer does not come between his story and the reader.
“The Lagoon” was parodied by Max Beerbohm in A Christmas Garland. Writers’ myths can depend on accidents like that. “The Lagoon,” as it happens, was the first short story Conrad wrote; and though later, when I read the parody, I was able to feel that I was in the know about Conrad, from my own point of view “The Lagoon” had been a cheat. Because I was never to find anything so strong and direct in Conrad again.
There is a story, “Karain,” written not long after “The Lagoon.” It has the same Malayan setting and, as Conrad acknowledged, a similar motif. Karain, inspired by sudden sexual jealousy, kills the friend whose love-quest he had promised to serve; and there-after Karain is haunted by the ghost of the man he has killed. One day he meets a wise old man, to whom he confesses. The old man exorcises the ghost; and Karain, with the old man as his counselor, becomes a warrior and a conqueror, a ruler. The old man dies; the ghost of the murdered friend returns to haunt Karain. He is immediately lost; his power and splendor are nothing; he swims out to the white men’s ship and asks them, unbelievers from another world, for help. They give him a charm: a Jubilee sixpence. The charm works; Karain becomes a man again.
The story is, on the surface, a yarn about native superstition. But to Conrad it is much more; it is profounder, and more wonderful, than “The Lagoon”; and he is determined that its whole meaning should be grasped. All the suggestions that were implicit in “The Lagoon” are now spelled out. The white men have names; they talk, and act as a kind of chorus. So we are asked to contemplate the juxtaposition of two cultures, one open and without belief, one closed and ruled by old magic; one, “on the edge of outer darkness,” exploring the world, one imprisoned in a small part of it. But illusions are illusions, mirage is mirage. Isn’t London itself, the life of its streets, a mirage? “I see it. It is there; it pants, it runs, it rolls; it is strong and alive; it would smash you if you didn’t look out; but I’ll be hanged if it is yet as real to me as the other thing.” So, romantically and somewhat puzzlingly, the story ends.
The simple yarn is made to carry a lot. It requires a more complex response than the plainer fiction of “The Lagoon.” Sensations—night and solitude and doom—are not enough; the writer wishes to involve us in more than his fantasy; we are required—the chorus or commentary requires us—to stand outside the facts of the story and contemplate the matter. The story has become a kind of parable. Nothing has been rigged, though, because nothing is being proved; only wonder is being awakened.
In a preface to a later collection of stories Conrad wrote: “The romantic feeling of reality was in me an inborn faculty.” He hadn’t deliberately sought out romantic subjects; they had offered themselves to him.
I have a natural right to [my subjects] because my past is very much my own. If their course lie out of the beaten path of organized social life, it is, perhaps, because I myself did in a sort break away from it early in obedience to an impulse which must have been very genuine since it has sustained me through all the dangers of disillusion. But that origin of my literary work was very far from giving a larger scope to my imagination. On the contrary, the mere fact of dealing with matters outside the general run of everyday experience laid me under the obligation of a more scrupulous fidelity to the truth of my own sensations. The problem was to make unfamiliar things credible. To do that I had to create for them, to reproduce for them, to envelop them in their proper atmosphere of actuality. This was the hardest task of all and the most important, in view of that conscientious rendering of truth in thought and fact which has been always my aim.
But the truths of that story, “Karain,” are difficult ones. The world of illusions, men as prisoners of their cultures, belief and unbelief: these are truths one has to be ready for, and perhaps half possess already, because the story does not carry them convincingly within itself. The suggestion that the life of London is as much a mirage as the timeless life of the Malayan archipelago is puzzling, because the two-page description of the London streets with which the story ends is too literal: blank faces, hansom cabs, omnibuses, girls “talking vivaciously,” “dirty men…discussing filthily,” a policeman. There isn’t anything in that catalogue that can persuade us that the life described is a mirage. Reality hasn’t fused with the writer’s fantasy. The concept of the mirage has to be applied: it is a matter of words, a disturbing caption to a fairly straight picture.
I have considered this simple story at some length because it illustrates, in little, the difficulties I was to have with the major works. I felt with Conrad I wasn’t getting the point. Stories, simple in themselves, always seemed at some stage to elude me. And there were the words, the words that issued out of the writer’s need to be faithful to the truth of his own sensations. The words got in the way; they obscured. The Nigger of the Narcissus and Typhoon, famous books, were impenetrable.
In 1896 the young H. G. Wells, in an otherwise kind review of An Outcast of the Islands, the book before The Nigger, wrote: “Mr. Conrad is wordy; his story is not so much told as seen intermittently through a haze of sentences. He has still to learn the great half of his art, the art of leaving things unwritten.” Conrad wrote a friendly letter to Wells; but on the same day—the story is in Jocelyn Baines’s biography—he wrote to Edward Garnett: “Something brings the impression off—makes its effect. What? It can be nothing but the expression—the arrangement of words, the style.” It is, for a novelist, an astonishing definition of style. Because style in the novel, and perhaps in all prose, is more than an “arrangement of words”: it is an arrangement, even an orchestration, of perceptions; it is a matter of knowing where to put what. But Conrad aimed at fidelity. Fidelity required him to be explicit.
It is this explicitness, this unwillingness to let the story speak for itself, this anxiety to draw all the mystery out of a straightforward situation, that leads to the mystification of Lord Jim. It isn’t always easy to know what is being explained. The story is usually held to be about honor. I feel myself that it is about the theme—much more delicate in 1900 than today—of the racial straggler. And, such is Conrad’s explicitness, both points of view can be supported by quotation. Lord Jim, however, is an imperialist book, and it may be that the two points of view are really one.
Whatever the mystery of Lord Jim, it wasn’t of the sort that could hold me. Fantasy, imagination, story if you like, had been refined away by explicitness. There was something unbalanced, even unfinished, about Conrad. He didn’t seem able to go beyond his first simple conception of a story; his invention seemed to fail so quickly. And even in his variety there was something tentative and uncertain.
There was The Secret Agent, a police thriller that seemed to end almost as soon as it began, with a touch of Arnold Bennett and Riceyman Steps in that Soho interior, and a Wellsian jokeyness about London street names and cabbies and broken-down horses—as though, when dealing with the known, the written-about, the gift of wonder left the writer and he had to depend on other writers’ visions. There was Under Western Eyes, which, with its cast of Russian revolutionaries and its theme of betrayal, promised to be Dostoevskyan but then dissolved away into analysis. There was the too set-up fiction of Victory: the pure, aloof man rescues a girl from a musical company touring the East and takes her to a remote island, where disaster, in the form of gangsters, will come to them. And there was Nostromo, about South America, a confusion of characters and themes, which I couldn’t get through at all.