A Short History of English Literature

By Harry Blamires | Go to book overview

22

The twentieth-century novel

Of the writers who launched themselves about the turn of the century none is more remarkable than Joseph Conrad (1857-1924). A Polish orphan, he conceived a passion for the sea, was twenty years a seafarer, and became a British subject and a master-mariner. He settled down on land in 1894 and his first two novels, Almayer’s Folly (1895) and An Outcast of the Islands (1896), have a common Malayan background. But it is in The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ (1897) and more especially in Lord Jim (1900) that Conrad’s quality first shows up. He is now master of his adopted language and is able to add to his control of atmosphere and his rather melancholy concern with broken men (such is Almayer) a new depth of psychological insight. ‘Lord’ Jim instinctively leaps to join other officers who take to a boat when their ship, laden with pilgrims, appears to be sinking. In fact it is saved and towed to harbour. Jim is a romantic and an idealist: the jump is his ‘fall’; and his incapacity at the crisis is one version of that impulsive departure from habitual standards which fascinates Conrad. The burden of the almost involuntary cowardice stays with Lord Jim until his life ends in a final expiatory act of redemption.

Though Conrad’s experience as a seaman provides the stuff of his novels, and the sea itself—its changefulness, enmity in storm and reposefulness in calm—had moulded his spirit, his overriding interest is in human beings, and sea life provides a background and a symbolism for exploring their behaviour and their worth. The ‘worth’ is tested in situations of stress such as life at sea or on the edge of the jungle or among violent men readily provokes. Faithfulness, whether in sudden peril or before an exacting demand or under the corrosive strain of long isolation in remote parts of the world, is what proves men. So Captain Mac Whirr (in Typhoon, 1903) rides the storm in the

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