Investing in Conrad, Investing in the Orient: Margaret Drabble's the Gates of Ivory

Article excerpt

The days of heroic travel are gone; unless, of course, in the newspaper sense, in which heroism like everything else in the world becomes as common if not as nourishing as our daily bread.

Conrad, preface xviii

I began to feel I was surrounded by almost palpable spectres from Lord Jim, Victory, and "Falk" whenever I was in Singapore or Bangkok--1 would catch the flick of Marlow's nautical jacket or a whiff of his cheroot, or get a glimpse of Captain Whalley's bushy whiskers on Singapore's sunlit esplanade, and hear the rattle of the horse-tramway down Bangkok's New Road passing Schomberg's hotel.

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In The Gates of Ivory (1991), Margaret Drabble's enterprise, and that of her protagonists, is stamped by Joseph Conrad's legacy, one that remains problematic, contested, and controversial. [1] This dark excursion into Southeast Asia, the third volume of her trilogy that began with A Radiant Way (1987) and continued with A Natural Curiosity (1989), represents the culmination of Drabble's negotiation with global issues, of her journeys both outward to the perimeter and inward to "the heart of darkness." Though her characters may be sent briefly to Africa in The Needle's Eye (1972) and The Realms of Gold (1975), Drabble's earlier fictions largely depict the separate worlds of British northern provincial life and London's metropolitan culture, but the primary address is increasingly NW3 or NW5, the domain of middle-class professional folk, of journalists and television producers whose diaries record numerous lunch meetings at favored trattoria in Soho or Notting Hill Gate. Beginning with The Ice Age (1977), the i ndividual struggles of her female characters are overshadowed by a sense of "collective crisis" (Sutherland); the canvas is enlarged and Drabble establishes herself as the "chronicler of a contemporary Britain" (Stovel 186), monitoring social, economic, and political realities in the Age of Thatcher. Further, James Gindin asserts that Drabble "has always seen herself as part of an English literary tradition" (255), and depends on a consistent use of guides and models from that tradition: Bunyan, Austen, George Eliot, Thackery, Dickens, and Arnold Bennett.

As the trilogy sends her metropolitan characters in search of the outer limits of a known and knowable community, Drabble begins to diagnose a condition of the world rather than a condition of England, and neither Bunyan's allegorical geography nor the brimming social panoramas of the nineteenth-century and Edwardian realists seem able to cope with this growing complexity. The new guide was not English-born; he knew Poland, Russia, France, Africa, and the Eastern Archipelago before he counted England his home. It is to Joseph Conrad that Margaret Drabble turns to contemplate, if not to explain, the cruel and bewildering path of contemporary civilization, and to interrogate the shifting definitions of postmodernity. The relationship between novel and guide is therefore one key to Drabble's vision of her time; the frequent failure of her characters to "read" Conrad is as much a part of that key.

The issue of reading and interpretation is also signaled in the novel's title and epigraph, taken from The Odyssey, Book XIX, where Penelope warns the stranger to distinguish between the false dreams that come to us through the gates of ivory and those that appear through the gate of "polished horn" and speak truthfully of what will come to pass. The lure of dreams that ultimately deceive is a crucial source of action, particularly for Stephen Cox, the trilogy's most avid traveler and the only truly dedicated reader of Joseph Conrad.

At the end of the first novel in the series, we learn that he has "gone to Kampuchea" (Radiant Way 392), gone to research a play about Pol Pot. The absent Cox is not forgotten through the pages of A Natural Curiosity. Alix Bowen "wonders about Stephen Cox and Cambodia. In Cambodia, people disappeared. …