« Rainy day in Pittsburgh | Main | Algren Eats »

"...surveying the silent company of the dead..."

Now I remember why I abandoned Lord Jim so many times - all of Conrad's digressions, asides and tangents really bog down the narrative flow, making for very slow reading. Just one such example involves Jones, the first mate to Captain Brierly, one of the prosecutors in the criminal case against Jim and the absent crew of the doomed steamer. Discussing Brierly makes sense, especially given the rash act to which the trial drives the Captain, but Conrad goes on to tell Jones' woeful tale of getting passed over for promotion to captain for the umpteenth time in his sailing career. Jones' laments are touching, but really have nothing to do with the main narrative. It makes me wonder whether Conrad wrote this passage to honor, through the proxy of Jones, some unfortunate sailor that the author knew during his own sailing career.

But I'm still fighting my way through all the digressions - now when I see one approaching, I go into skim mode until I see the point where the main narrative resumes, and then go back to close reading again. This has helped me pick up the pace considerably - in fact, I'm proud to say that I polished off 25 pages on the train this morning. And those are 25 narrow-margined, very fine print pages which might be more like 40 under normal typesetting. Using this process already has its own rewards - not only has my reading pace picked up, but it also prevented me from abandoning the book once again, which would have caused me to miss yet another magnificent passage like the one below.

To preface, Jim is telling Marlow the story of his discovery of the breach to the steamer's hull, and his dreadful conviction that the bulkhead was about to collapse and sink the ship, and even more horribly that the ship had lifeboats to save no more than one-third of its 800 passengers. Marlow speaks, imagining young Jim and his terror aboard the doomed ship.

"I can easily picture him to myself in the peopled gloom of the cavernous place, with the light of the globe-lamp falling on a small portion of the bulkhead that had the weight of the ocean on the other side, and the breathing of unconscious sleepers in his ears. I can see him glaring at the iron, startled by the falling rust, overburdened by the knowledge of an imminent death. This, I gathered, was the second time he had been sent forward by that skipper of his, who, I rather think, wanted to keep him away from the bridge. He told me that his first impulse was to shout and straightway make all those people leap out of sleep into terror; but such an overwhelming sense of his helplessness came over him that he was not able to produce a sound. This is, I suppose, what people mean by the tongue cleaving to the roof of the mouth. "Too dry," was the concise expression he used in reference to this state. Without a sound, then, he scrambled out on deck through the number one hatch. A windsail rigged down there swung against him accidentally, and he remembered that the light touch of the canvas on his face nearly knocked him off the hatchway ladder.

"He confessed that his knees wobbled a good deal as he stood on the foredeck looking at another sleeping crowd. The engines having been stopped by that time, the steam was blowing off. Its deep rumble made the whole night vibrate like a bass string. The ship trembled to it.

"He saw here and there a head lifted off a mat, a vague form uprise in sitting posture, listen sleepily for a moment, sink down again into the billowy confusion of boxes, steam-winches, ventilators. He was aware all these people did not know enough to take intelligent notice of that strange noise. The ship of iron, the men with white faces, all the sights, all the sounds, everything on board to that ignorant and pious multitude was strange alike, and as trustworthy as it would for ever remain incomprehensible. It occurred to him that the fact was fortunate. The idea of it was simply terrible.

"You must remember he believed, as any other man would have done in his place, that the ship would go down at any moment; the bulging, rust-eaten plates that kept back the ocean, fatally must give way, all at once like an undermined dam, and let in a sudden and overwhelming flood. He stood still looking at these recumbent bodies, a doomed man aware of his fate, surveying the silent company of the dead..."

At this point the passengers are still alive, though Jim soberly recognizes their fate. Reading Conrad isn't easy work, but it definitely has its rewards, and a great passage like that is one of them.

July 15, 2008 in Books | Permalink