Academic journal article Conradiana

The Dramatized and Embodied Artist in the Nigger of the "Narcissus"

Academic journal article Conradiana

The Dramatized and Embodied Artist in the Nigger of the "Narcissus"

Article excerpt

I

In "To My Readers in America," his note to a 1914 American edition of The Nigger of the "Narcissus," Joseph Conrad makes the rather startling claim that "It is the book by which, not as a novelist perhaps, but as an artist striving for the utmost sincerity of expression, I am willing to stand or fall" (9). (1) Of course, this could be mere puffery to boost sales, a suspicion given credence by the very similar remark he made in a 1912 letter to collector John Quinn: "we found the complete MS of the Nigger--the story by which, as creative artist, I stand or fall, and which, at any rate, no one else could have written. A landmark in literature, I can safely say, for nothing like it has been ever done before. I want 80 [pounds sterling] for this MS ..." (CL 5:145). (2) But the author who, between the 1897 completion of The Nigger of the Narcissus " and that 1914 note, had produced among other works Lord Jim, The Secret Agent, and Nostromo, is apparently quite genuine in this claim. It was an appreciation of long standing: In a letter written perhaps ten days after finishing the book, he said, "Candidly, I think it has certain qualities of art that make it a thing apart" (CL 1:334); a few months later he confessed himself "conceited" about it (CL 1:355); he repeated that remark in an August letter, adding that he was "very much in love with" the book (CL 1:372); and in 1917 he could use it as his benchmark of quality when saying that when he was finished with his current project--"the thinnest possible squeaky bubble" [The Arrow of Gold)--he would be able to "go out and sell it in a market place for 20 times the money I had for the Nigger ..." (CL 6:164).

So the 1914 statement genuinely reflects his valuation of the book, a valuation that might strike many as eccentric, perverse, or even dead wrong, at least insofar as the novel's handling of narrative point-of-view is concerned. This aspect of the novel has garnered a lot of attention, much of it negative. (3) William Deresiewicz, for example, says that the inconsistent handling of point-of-view demonstrates "that Conrad was unable to maintain control of his material" (214) and creates a narrative structure that is "not an aesthetically viable one" (219); indeed, he calls it "narrative schizophrenia" (212). So why did Conrad set the Nigger of the "Narcissus" as the touchstone for his claim to be a literary artist? And what distinction does he make between an "artist" and a "novelist"?

The answer to that second question leads into the answer for the first, and into the thesis for this essay: Having already written two novels (Almayers Folly and An Outcast of the Islands), he was unsatisfied with both his artistic and commercial achievement and so set himself the task of remedying at least the first of these problems, doing so in a manner that would prove to himself and demonstrate to others that he understood his craft, that he knew how to consciously achieve his purposes, and that he was not a dilettante, a sailor who scribbled when off-watch or on the beach, but a conscious and committed artist in prose. What he produces in The Nigger of the "Narcissus" is a bildungsroman, or more exactly a kuntslerroman: The story told is a portrait of the artist as a young sailor; the structure of the narrative, specifically the handling of point-of-view by a fictional memoirist, is a portrait of the story-telling artist that young sailor has become.

II

So what distinction did Conrad make in 1914 between an "artist" and a "novelist"? The short form might be to say that a novelist has commercial success, whereas an artist might never find popular acceptance (i.e. high sales); certainly, given that he had scored his first real commercial success with Chance in 1912, a book he called "stupid," that could be what he means. This is given reinforcement by his disdain for the mass market readership:

I don't know what the respectable (hats off) part of the population will think of [The Nigger of the "Narcissus"]. …

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