Conrad’s Darkness

Joseph Conrad
Joseph Conrad; drawing by David Levine

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…

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