Joseph Conrad: Old man of the sea

When Joseph Conrad began The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ in 1896 he had two novels to his name, and had recently concluded a twenty-year career as a British merchant seaman. His two earlier books, Almayer’s Folly (1895) and An Outcast of the Islands (1896), were both set in the Malay archipelago; The Nigger was the story in which he turned directly to his experience as a mariner for inspiration. It is the tale of James Wait, a black sailor from St Kitts who is dying of tuberculosis on board the merchant ship Narcissus as it sails from Bombay to London. Wait’s illness elicits wildly different reactions from his fellow crew members: pity, suspicion, frustration, indifference; and the values they assign to his eventual death – coming just after the ship itself nearly sinks – are an index not just of their varying casts of mind but of their humanity. The racial slur in the title of the British edition (the book appeared in America as The Children of the Sea) is a crude reflection of the crew’s initial perceptions of Wait’s otherness, accruing layers of irony as boundaries come down: by the end of the narrative he has become “Jimmy”.

For Conrad, completing the novella was a valedictory moment. He announced in the preface that after finishing it, “I understood that I had done with the sea, and that henceforth I had to be a writer”. But of course Conrad wasn’t done with the sea; or rather, the sea wasn’t done with him. The monumental new Cambridge edition of The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ meticulously traces his emendations to the text in its progress from manuscript to magazine and volume publication and is packed with contextual information – not least, a detailed exploration of its reception. As the editor Allan H. Simmons points out, far from being the farewell to things nautical that Conrad intended, the book marked his arrival as the definitive voice in maritime storytelling. In fact, it “made such an impact on his contemporaries that Conrad would never quite free himself from the ‘sea writer’ tag that its critical success encouraged”.

But what did seafaring mean for Conrad? And what, if anything, after the demise of the British maritime empire which he served, does his fiction have to tell us about life in an interconnected and self-conscious modern world? In The Dawn Watch, her lively and accessible study of Conrad’s life and milieu, Maya Jasanoff offers the important observation that for Conrad, one of the last of the generation to go to sea before the advent of steam, sailing a ship was first and foremost a “craft”. It’s no coincidence, as Jasanoff says, that this “sailor turned writer” conceived of sailing “as a form of art” – and writing, one might add, as a form of sailing. Here’s a test: which of the two pursuits is Conrad describing when he says that it has “the quality of a single-handed struggle with something much greater than yourself . . . the laborious, absorbing practice of an art whose ultimate result remains on the knees of the gods”? The answer is sailing, but you could be forgiven for thinking that he’s talking about his own novelistic labours. It’s also no coincidence that the closest thing to a literary manifesto that Conrad ever penned can be found in the preface to The Nigger, the only book he ever wrote about ordinary sailors. “Art itself”, he announces there, “may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect”, concluding that his task is “by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, before all, to make you see!” And then, the resounding declaration: “If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm – all you demand; and perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask”.

The irony is that Conrad always fiercely resisted the title of genre writer, and hated being referred to as an author of “sea stories”. The interest of his books, he insisted, “was not exclusively maritime but largely human”. His objection to the label points to the instability of the very distinction between realism and romance. Like his fellow expatriate Rudyard Kipling, who invented India for English fiction, Conrad saw at first hand what would have seemed exotic in a London drawing room. Whereas naturalistic writers such as Émile Zola eschewed the lush and strange, Conrad and Kipling deliberately had recourse to these qualities, but they did so as eyewitnesses. Jasanoff gets right to the heart of the matter: “Stories set at sea were, for [Conrad], stories about life”. When Conrad wrote about the sea it was with the authority of a hard-won knowledge that few, if any, of his contemporaries could equal. Henry James marvelled at Conrad’s peculiar gift of persuasion, enthusing that “No-one has known – for intellectual use – the things you know, and you have, as the artist of the whole matter, an authority that no-one has approached”; a sentiment echoed by the journalist E. V. Lucas when he remarked of The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ that it “should kill off the pasteboard ocean forever”. By restoring Conrad’s own textual preferences, the Cambridge edition reveals how painstakingly he achieved his particular form of literary impressionism through onomatopoeia (in, for example, documenting the sounds of the sea and shipboard life), by accurately reproducing the vernacular of ordinary British sailors, and by manipulating rhythm and sound patterns through a nuanced use of punctuation.

Yet Conrad, even at his most naturalistic, is clearly a very different sort of writer from the hyper-realistic Kipling (or from Robert Louis Stevenson, that other chronicler of life at the edges of empire). His fiction – linguistically complex, philosophically dense and often predicated on multiple, conflicting narrative perspectives – defies a straightforward reading. T. E. Lawrence, one of Conrad’s most perceptive literary friends, saw early on that his writing was “not built in the rhythm of ordinary prose, but on something existing only in his head, and as he can never say what he wants to say, all his things end in a kind of hunger”, adding astutely, “He’s as much a giant of the subjective as Kipling is of the objective”. An anguished apprehension of the unreliability of all narratives suffuses Conrad’s work: by that insistence on “truth” in the preface to The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ he meant that he didn’t simply want to achieve a vivid surface verisimilitude, but to offer an insight into the radical instability of appear­ances themselves. Wilfred Chesson, the pubisher’s reader at Unwin who first recommended Conrad for publication, came closest to articulating the ontological insecurity underlying his writing when he observed that “‘The Nigger’ is not an episode of the sea; it is a final expression of the pathology of Fear”.

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