Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

"Fine-Weather Books": Representations of Readers and Reading in Chance

Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

"Fine-Weather Books": Representations of Readers and Reading in Chance

Article excerpt

CRITICAL INTEREST in Chance has been mainly directed to its textual variants, serialization and marketing, the complexities of its narrative structure, gender issues, its numerous literary allusions, and its representation of advertising. This essay takes yet another approach, one from the perspective of the history of reading, to demonstrate how Chance is one of the most textually charged of all Conrad's novels with depictions of readers and reflections on actual, not merely metaphorical, acts of reading.

This discussion will mostly, although not entirely, circumvent Amar Acheraïou's typology of Conrad's fictional readers, whom he divides, on the one hand, into those "nominal" readers ("myopic and incompetent") and, on the other, into "metaphorical" readers who are "active observers and interpreters of allegorical scripts such as other characters' faces, their body language, and their geographical, social and cultural contexts" (2009: 94-95). Instead, the focus will be on the "actual" fictional readers in Chance and on their reading practices. It is important at this point, however, to note the warning sounded by Kate Flint who, writing about the representation of reading in Thackeray's 1Vanity Fair; states that:

Only a naive reader would believe that the representation of reading in fiction offers straightforward, empirical evidence of contemporary reading practices. Fictional depictions of what and how women and men read involve the novel's consumer in complex acts of interpretation. When such depictions are insistent and teasing ... they directly confront the reader with the need to consider his or her own interpretative strategies while in the very act of employing them.

(1996: 246)

This comment is also relevant to examining the representation of reading in Chance. Through the complex narrative structure, Conrad engages us, the readers, in a relentless ironic dialogue about, among other subjects, reading, including the relationship between the acts of reading in the novel and the ways in which the novel itself might have been read. This dialogue is mediated through Marlow, who, in addressing the unnamed narrator, is thereby addressing one group of Conrad's own implied conservative readers. At the same time, Conrad writes to his new market, the weekend edition of the mass circulation New York Herald, a broad readership whose profile can be deduced from examining the news, feature articles, advertising material, and other paratextual elements in any randomly chosen issue.

An example of how, early in the novel, Conrad depicts an act of reading offers a beginning. Marlow, alone in his summer cottage and enjoying the fine sunny weather, muses before being abruptly interrupted by Fyne:

I love such days. They are perfection for remaining indoors. And I enjoyed it temperamentally in a chair, my feet up on the sill of the open window, a book in my hands and the murmured harmonies of wind and sun in my heart making an accompaniment to the rhythms of my author. (64)

In a passage included in the serial and the first book editions (1914) but deleted from the 1923 and subsequent Dent editions, Marlow indicates that these fine days:

are the best for stopping at home, to read; to think, to muse - even to dream; in fact to live fully, intensely and quietly, in the brightness of comprehension, in that receptive glow of the mind, the gift of the clear, luminous and serene weather. That day I had intended to live intensely and quietly, basking in the weather which would have lent enchantment to even the most unpromising of intellectual prospects. For a companion I had found a book, not bemused with the cleverness of the day - a fine-weather book, simple and sincere like the talk of an unselfish friend.

(New York Herald, 18 February 1912)

We are not told which "fine-weather book" Marlow might have been enjoying, but he sees it as his preferred and silent companion of the moment. In its serial version, Chance was itself competing with other "fine weather" leisure reading, essentially for weekends and/or holidays, in other newspapers and maga2ines. …

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