Sunday, November 13, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

Nothing like a good book to absent myself from the real world for a while. I decided to go with a back-to-the-classics challenge book because I wanted to immerse myself in some intense reading. I chose Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad which is my "adventure" pick.

The plot is fairly straightforward. A young man named Jim has romantic visions of going to sea. In the dramas he envisions, he plays an adventuresome and always heroic role. Jim is a fine sailor, good at his craft. He is hired aboard the Patna, a passenger ship chockful of pilgrims, and his mettle is tested. The rusty old boat strikes something and starts taking on water. It’s the dead of night and the pilgrims are sleeping. The seamen in charge of the boat decide to run for their lives. Knowing there are not enough lifeboats for everyone, they try to quietly release one for themselves.

While Jim does not actively participate in preparations for escape, he does, in the end, take advantage of the safety boat. The men are picked up by a passing ship and returned to port, where their crime of deserting ship is discovered. The others take flight again, and Jim is left to bear the full weight of the official inquest.

The punishment meted out by the officials is nothing compared to how Jim is prepared to punish himself. He had been given an opportunity to live out his dreams of heroism and nobility, and he failed. After a nomadic second act, where he tries to outrun his reputation, he is given a true second chance. He’s sent to be an agent at a trading post beyond the end of civilization in a place called Patusan. He can reinvent himself. He can be what he always believed himself capable of being. Until a final reckoning comes.

The plot is straightforward but the psychological drama of Jim’s life is not, and the real story being told is that of Jim’s inner life–something that is not knowable. The narration is an attempt to get at that unknowable story.

What makes this such a remarkable novel is the way in which the story is told. Jim’s adventures are related by a narrator named Marlow, an older, more distinguished sea captain, who is caught up by the notoriousness of the Patna and finds himself captivated by Jim at the trial. Jim tells a pared down truth during the inquest, but confides all to Marlow one evening over supper. On the strength of this slight acquaintance, Marlow takes it upon himself to aid Jim. It gives him a stake in what Jim makes of his life.

Marlow tells the story in a round-about way, interjecting background of peripheral characters and telling some other marginally related stories along the way. Events are not presented chronologically because Marlow moves around and tells the story in bits and pieces to whatever audience is present at the time. Occasionally he comes across characters with something to add to the story, so that is thrown into the mix as well. Jim tells us bits in his own words, but even these words are filtered through Marlow’s narration. As Marlow is constantly taking a step back, and confessing he can’t really understand Jim, he reminds the reader that we can’t entirely understand Jim either, even when we think we do.

Conrad’s prose is impressively overwhelming. Some of the passages I pored over, enjoying every word, particularly some of his character descriptions. At other times, I had to let my eyes skim for a while because it grew exhausting–but I didn’t want to put the book down.

Hurray for the back-to-the-classics challenge! Our copy of Lord Jim has been on our bookshelf for years, but I never would have read it if not for the challenge.