Joseph Conrad (Photo: George Charles Beresford)
As much as an experiment as to test the narrow limits of my cultural and literary grasp, I have decided to read, at a stretch, a collection of complete short stories by Joesph Conrad (1857-1924). Until recently, I had read only ‘Heart of Darkness.’ I am now reading his stories together but in no particular order. As apprehended, I have run into difficulty immediately. I don’t get the point of his stories.
Let me stop right here and say a couple of things about my not getting the point of Conrad’s stories. It is something I have said for a long time. My dear friend and fellow reader Ashok Easwaran may bear me out on that point. Purely on a whim, while reading the collection, I decided to search on the net what V S Naipaul has said about Conrad, whom many regard as a sort of literary and meditative forbear of the former. I came upon an outstanding piece that Naipaul wrote in the New York Review of Books (NYRB) in 1974 headlined “Conrad’s Darkness.” In that piece, Naipaul says many astute things about Conrad the way only Naipaul can. I burst out laughing when I came upon this line: “I felt with Conrad I wasn’t getting the point. Stories, simple in themselves, always seemed at some stage to elude me.”
It can be fairly said that by pointing out the convergence of a single point of view between a truly great writer and a truly inconsequential non-writer, I may be looking to illuminate my own obscurity with the passing light of vindication. This is precisely the kind of sentence that Naipaul might dismiss as “ too purple”. There I go again, unnecessarily bringing Naipaul into what is nothing more a pretentious conversation with self.
Unlike Naipaul’s difficulty with Conrad, which is genuinely scholarly, mine is trivial. It stems from a restricted understanding anything and everything. I understand the words and sentences and descriptions of whatever he is writing about. It is just that I don’t get the emotional content of it. It is a world far removed from my comprehension. It is like when you are really thirsty and only water would quench it. No amount of expensive wine of any vintage would help. That is how I feel. (This, from a lifelong teetotaler.)
I had just begun reading ‘The Lagoon’ when I ran into my familiar difficulty of not being able to emotionally connect or even empathize with the material. It was at that point that I searched for ‘Naipaul on Conrad’ and found the NYRB piece. My emotional distance is almost entirely a result of the fact that I feel that way about almost any human experience. A vast majority of times I have to feign or manufacture what resembles an intelligible human response to things. It is absolutely my failure and not the failure of the writer, any writer.
As I read Naipaul’s piece I came upon a telling phrase. First Naipaul quotes Conrad as saying this to the writer and critic Edward Garnett, “Other writers have some starting point. Something to catch hold of…. They lean on dialect—or on tradition—or on history—or on the prejudice or fad of the hour; they trade upon some tie or conviction of their time—or upon the absence of these things—which they can abuse or praise. But at any rate they know something to begin with—while I don’t. I have had some impressions, some sensations—in my time…. And it’s all faded.”
To which Naipaul responds saying, “It is the complaint of a writer who is missing a society, and is beginning to understand that fantasy or imagination can move more freely within a closed and ordered world. Conrad’s experience was too scattered; he knew many societies by their externals, but he knew none in depth.”
A writer missing a society is a powerful way to put it. In my case, it is the complaint of a non-writer who is missing emotions. I feel the same way about many writers. Naipaul is most certainly not one of them. I instantly connect with his spare and unsparing prose in all its judgmental and disdainful rejection of entire human societies. I may not agree with him but I certainly get his ambition. As for his prose, it is delectably austere and precise. If Naipaul’s literature was a building, it would be Zen minimalist like traditional Japanese homes. My liking Naipaul’s writings has more to do with the fact that they are like a reportage, something I understand very well. Even his novels read like he is reporting from an unfamiliar world, albeit fictional.
Conrad’s skill to quickly and evocatively capture descriptions of the landscape he is writing about is extraordinary. Take for instance, this bit from ‘The Lagoon’: “The Malay only grunted, and went on looking fixedly at the river. The white man rested his chin on his crossed arms and gazed at the wake of the boat. At the end of the straight avenue of forests cut by the intense glitter of the river , the sun appeared unclouded and dazzling, poised low over the water that shone smoothly like a band of metal.The forests, somber and dull, stood motionless and silent on each side of the broad stream.”
Or take this for instance: “In the dim light of the dwelling he made out on a couch of bamboos a woman stretched on her back under a broad sheet of red cotton cloth. She lay still, as if dead; but her big eyes, wide open, glittered in the gloom, staring upwards at the slender rafters, motionless and unseeing. She was in a high fever, and evidently unconscious. Her cheeks were sunk slightly, her lips were partly open, and on the young face there was the ominous and fixed expression—the absorbed, contemplating expression of the unconscious who are going to die. The two men stood looking down at her in silence.”
This is brilliant stuff. In barely eight lines, Conrad paints a vivid picture. It feels like a scene from a Satyajit Ray movie. It is so cinematic.
When I go through passages like these I do get transported to the world Conrad is describing. However, taken together as a story it is hard for me to sustain my interest. That probably explains why I have read many books spread over years. That is why I call reading Conrad in one go an experiment which is going to expose to me the narrowness and shallowness of my own comprehension. The funny thing is I already know I am a creature of shallow waters.
Since Conrad’s writings are a meditation on various global themes, their point comes into focus at its own deliberate speed. More often than not, it is not even a point the way one understands it. A literary meditation is not about a specific point or a theme. That much I get.