But his intentions became more intelligible in light of newer words and later work.
The treatment of knowledge as contingent and provisional commands a range of comparisons, from “Rashomon” to Richard Rorty; reference points for Conrad’s fragmentary method include Picasso and T. Eliot—who took the epigraph of “The Hollow Men” from “Heart of Darkness.” (That book would have played the same role in “The Waste Land” if Ezra Pound hadn’t objected.) Even Henry James’s late period, that other harbinger of the modernist novel, had not yet begun when Conrad invented Marlow, and James’s earlier experiments in perspective (“The Spoils of Poynton,” “What Maisie Knew”) don’t go nearly as far as “Lord Jim.”Looking back at the “new form” he had created, Conrad said that he “kept it up” only because “it was essentially mine.” That could suggest complacency, but during the spectacular decade and a half that followed “Lord Jim” his storytelling underwent a series of revisions.
On receiving word from Galsworthy, he sent Conrad an effusive letter along with an aging, error-strewn ten-page typescript entitled “Joseph Conrad,” which he had found somewhere and was gutting for information.
Conrad read the typescript carefully, and made numerous amendments and additions.
By early 1897, Galsworthy had assembled a book of short stories, and his Polish friend, who had engineered a midlife career change of his own from British seaman to English novelist, under the name Joseph Conrad, was writing to Edward Garnett, who worked as a publisher’s reader—a sort of grand scout—asking him to look out for a manuscript by “my literary!
friend.”Mostly, though, the favors travelled in the other direction.It had taken him a little while to find his favored route to abstraction.In his great novella, “The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ ” (1897), about a sailor who refuses to accept that he is dying, the material world—the sailors’ “forecastle,” the London streets—is solidly present and correct. Simmons explains in his new scholarly edition, part of Cambridge’s complete printing of Conrad’s works, the novelist distinguished between writers who treat the sea as simply “a stage” and writers in whose work the sea represents “a factor in the problem of existence.” “The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ ” straddles the border. a whispering ‘daemon,’ ” Marlow is more specifically a vehicle for exploring the perspectival nature of human affairs—the idea that, for example, the Indian Ocean has no stable essence or identity beyond the excitement it inspires in one excitable twenty-year-old sailor.For the next couple of decades, Galsworthy served as Conrad’s consigliere—lobbying the Royal Literary Fund (“No living writer of English, to my mind, better deserves support”), fielding Conrad’s queries about his son’s education (“I am sending you the prospectus to look at”), playing “ ‘in between’ man” during a dispute with the agent J. Pinker (“Conrad asks me to ask you to write to him”).One of Galsworthy’s greatest acts of service came in 1913, after the publisher Frank Nelson Doubleday invited Conrad to lunch, in London, and proposed purchasing his existing American copyrights and reprinting his books.Everything he says comes pinched between inverted commas.The uncertainties are multiplied in “Lord Jim” (1900), Conrad’s first full-length novel using this method.As he put it not long before his death, in 1924, and exaggerating only a little, “In the body of my work barely one tenth is what may be called sea stuff.” Things get a little shakier when you reach the bit about “the tropics.” With few exceptions, most notably his novel about anarchists in late-Victorian London, “The Secret Agent” (1907), his stories unfold in Asia, Africa, and South America.But then Conrad was really talking aesthetics, not arithmetic—and making, or not quite making, an argument about how he treated his settings.The ship is a setting as well as a symbol, a microclimate as well as a microcosm. Recalling the Judea, the bark on which he served as second mate, Marlow says that, to him, it was not “an old rattle-trap” but “the endeavour, the test, the trial of life.” Youth is what Marlow saw with and what he saw.But it’s possible to see Conrad chafing at the constraints of realist storytelling in his use of philosophical digression—and hinting at future priorities in the book’s final paragraphs, which shift from a collective viewpoint with moments of omniscience, a “we” that behaves like a “he,” to an unabashed first person: “I never saw one of them again.”Next came the breakthrough—a startlingly original narrative voice that not only severed Conrad’s fiction from realism but questioned the idea of a consensual “reality.” In January, 1898, the month after “The Nigger” was published, Conrad wrote the story “Youth,” introducing the forty-two-year-old merchant seaman Charles Marlow, who recalls his maiden voyage to Eastern seas. Places tell us about the people who visit and inhabit them.