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The Nigger of The "Narcissus": A Tale of the Forecastle Paperback – April 11, 2007
This month's Book With Buzz: "Stranger in the House" by Shari Lapena
In this neighborhood, danger lies close to home. A thriller packed full of secrets and a twisty story that never stops - from the bestselling author of "The Couple Next Door." See more
About the Author
Der Autor Joseph Conrad (eigentlich Josef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski) wurde am 3.12.1857 als Sohn polnischer Landedelleute in Berdiczew bei Kiew geboren. Er besuchte das Gymnasium in Krakau und ging mit siebzehn Jahren nach Marseille, um Seemann zu werden. Als britischer Kapitän befuhr er die Weltmeere und bereiste den Kongo und die Malaiischen Inseln, Schauplätze seiner späteren Romane. Schon als Seeoffizier begann er zu schreiben. Als ein tropisches Fieber ihn zwang, den Seemannsberuf aufzugeben, ließ er sich 1894 als freier Schriftsteller in England nieder. In den folgenden dreißig Jahren entstanden - oft unter großer materieller Not - die berühmten Romane und Geschichten dieses Autors, der, obwohl er die englische Sprache erst als Erwachsener erlernte, zu den großen Meistern der englischen Literatur zählt. Er starb am 3.8.1924 in seinem Landhaus in Bishopbourne/Kent. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top customer reviews
Like nearly all Conrad, the book works on two levels. The most obvious is a rollicking sea adventure. Those who love the picaresque voyages so common in nineteenth century literature will hardly find a better one; this has all the excitement, suspense, and drama one could want. The voyage has many trials: grueling challenges, hairs-breadth escapes, great tests of strength and stamina, and more. Nearly everything bad that could happen does, pushing weathered sailors to the max in a way that is both entertaining and a tribute to human will and endurance. Even many who find classic literature boring will be engrossed.
This aspect is also of great historical value as a fascinating peek into a bygone era. Life on a ship was practically its own world, often with little connection or similarity to life on land. Conrad vividly shows what a merchant ship voyage was like, painstakingly detailing every aspect from departure to arrival. We see ship life's ups and downs, its bright and dark sides, and also learn much about sailors; everything from daily routines to customs and speech are memorably and believably dramatized.
Here we come to the more important part - the book's dark symbolism. Oscar Wilde said that all art is at once surface and symbol and that those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril; this proves it. Few writers - nay, few people - have been as pessimistic as Conrad, and this lays bare much of his dark vision. While he clearly shows that people are capable of bravery, remarkable feats, and other conventional virtues, he also unflinchingly displays human nature's dark side. As he was always ready to reveal, this lurks always beneath even an ostensibly calm or formidable surface and can jump out without warning - often destructively. Moral ambiguity was his favorite subject, and this explores it profoundly. Specifically, it shows how a single dying black sailor unnerves a white crew - not because of the xenophobia one might expect but ironically because he elicits sympathy. This is in one sense moving, a tribute to human empathy that in many ways shows what is best in people - that, indeed, even the most outwardly selfish and shallow have latent humanity that can come out in extremity. However, the seemingly paradoxical fact that the same stimulus leads to arguments, fights, and near mutiny hints at the other pole of existence that Conrad never lets us forget. One of his great strengths is that, while he dramatizes a wealth of weighty issues, he never stoops to the heavy-handedness so common in writers handling such material and nearly always fatal. He raises the difficult question of empathy vs. unmoved strength and the consequent one of whether the former, however otherwise sublime, has any place in situations like ship life, where truly only the strong survive and even a tinge of weakness may prove disastrous.
This hints at some of the more notable ship life aspects that are still largely unknown - namely that, as in military life, a rare camaraderie is achieved among people who are often very different and would perhaps hardly get along otherwise or even have anything to do with each other. Also noteworthy is just how cosmopolitan ships were, making general concord all the more incredible. However primitive ship life was beside land life in many ways, it was certainly well ahead here.
Inevitably, this brings up the issue of the title, which seems not only politically incorrect but thoroughly perverse. Much has been written on Conrad's race views, and the issue is of great interest and relevance not merely to scholars but to anyone interested in his work. There are of course many who understandably will take the ostensible high road and refuse to read anything with such a title, and probably at least as many apologists are ready to defend Conrad against claims of racism or anything else. However, it is important to avoid knee-jerk reactions and recall a few essential facts. First, it is important to realize that the term as then used in England referred not to Africans or African Americans but West Indians; the character in question is from St. Kitts. Second, though it clearly had racist overtones, it was often used without conscious racism - perhaps even a majority of the time - as a way of designating race or nationality, much as one might say "Irishman" or "Yankee." That said, later sensitivity to the word and all it stands for is a positive development, and we must not excuse Conrad or the book as the product of an era, since there were after all even then some aware of the harm that could come from the word and its significations.
With this in mind, we can proceed to how things work in context. It is certainly true that James Wait, the titular personage, is presented in a way that is often clearly racist; such a characterization would now be near-unpublishable. However, there is far more going on than it first appears. Wait enters the story as an enigma, and the various whites view him with unsurprising distrust and suspicion. Yet it soon becomes clear that he is the subtlest character; though often described as variously primitive, he may well be the most intelligent and well-spoken and is certainly the most resourceful. This is reflected in how the narrator refers to him. The title slur is first used near-ubiquitously, and he is described in overtly racist ways. However, his real name or neutral references are used once his individuality becomes known; the pejorative and racist descriptions are almost gone by the middle of the book, never to return. This suggests that racism and xenophobia generally stem mainly from ignorance and gradually recede with familiarity, the outsiders in question becoming individuals rather than racial cutouts. Regardless of how far Conrad meant this to extend, Wait is anything but a Victorian stereotype and has many traditionally admirable qualities. Even so, like the other characters, we are never quite sure what to make of him. Is he sincere or a fraud? Loathsome and despicable or sympathetic and misunderstood? Conrad has no easy answers, but his nuanced portrait of a true Victorian outsider earns both our sympathy and our fascination and is remarkably subtle for its time despite the title.
Perhaps the foremost thing to remember is that the titular epithet refers specifically to Wait; the book makes no sweeping claims about race or anything else. Indeed, for what it is worth, many ethnic groups and nationalities are disparaged with pejoratives and other condemnations, all others being white. This may be a sign of Conrad's misanthropic streak but is above all simply realistic; he was devoted to realism however harsh the subject and would not have shrunken from showing how sailors really thought, acted, and spoke, however unwholesome to Mrs. Grundy. We can easily and legitimately debate his motives in using the title as well as insisting on it despite controversy. Perhaps he wanted attention or was being provocative, but it was again most likely a realist instinct. Even knowing all this, some may find it hard to buy or read a book with such a title, especially to keep it on their bookshelf - perhaps even only because of what the uninitiated may say. Those who like the book or want to read it but just cannot make the plunge can, if they choose, take the easy way out by getting one of many collections containing the work without including it in the title.
Wait is in any event not the only interesting character. This has one of Conrad's largest and most diverse casts, and all are drawn with memorable vigor. As anyone at all familiar with him would expect, he puts none on a pedestal. Most are indeed at least partly vile, again showing human nature's dark side, but there is something courageous or otherwise admirable - even noble - about most of them as well, giving further nuance. The penetrating psychological characterization of a single character so characteristic of Conrad is not here, but he distributes his artistry more evenly, which is about equally compelling.
Conrad certainly wrote many more seagoing tales, and themes dealt with for the rest of his career are largely anticipated here, but this also differs from other work in important ways. For instance, he is infamous for lacking humor, but this has many light-hearted elements, especially in regard to characters - some of whom are comical in a near-Dickensian manner - and their actions; Chapter One in particular is almost a burlesque. This gives some relief from the alternating high adventure and high seriousness that some miss in more representative work. Also, in great contrast to most later works, the narrative is straight-forward - linear and simply told without nested dialogue or other ambiguous subjectivity. The feeling of being lost and/or confused that makes Conrad hard going for so many is absent. This will be a great relief to some but also holds the book back. Those who value Conrad's ground-breaking and influential narrative techniques will be disappointed, but more importantly, the narrator himself is uncertainly drawn. He first seems to be a third-person omniscient narrator but eventually reveals himself as first-person. However, he never really seems to be present, often describing things he could not have seen without saying how he knows, and he is not addressed until the last few pages. Conrad at times even seems to forget that the narration is supposed to be first-person, seemingly slipping into third-person without warning only to return as quickly. This may have been deliberate, either to introduce ambiguity or perhaps even influenced by Moby-Dick, of which much the same can be said. In the end, though, it seems simply sloppy - an early instance of indecision in an area he later mastered.
One strength that was fully in place even at this early date is mesmerizing prose. Conrad is one of the great English stylists, which is almost incredible in that he was not a native speaker. His descriptions are lush and memorable, eminently quotable and often unforgettable, whether about the sea, the ship, or human thoughts and feelings. The prose is indeed so strong that one could read for it alone, though there is of course far more.
All told, this is essential for fans, while the combination of being representative and straight-forward makes it an ideal place for neophytes to start. It has been overshadowed by admittedly better later works but deserves more recognition. Do not be scared by the title or the difficulty of other Conrad works; this is excellent, enlightening, readable, moving, and thought-provoking - a true classic.
This is a very good short novel. It has strong characters, great navel insight and is a study of the character of men. It also has to do with the lives of men in general - the good, the bad, and the indifferent.
In an interesting way it weaves a tale of deceit that becomes a reality. James "Jimmy" Waits, a west Indian black sailor waits for illness and is waiting for death.
It explores not only the deceits of men, but how man deals with illness and death in confined space. It was an excellent read.
The "Narcissus" is as dense as poetry also, both allusive and elusive. You can read it as a grittily realistic adventure tale, or as a metaphysical poem of unfathomable depth. I chose to read it both ways. The adventure is a tale of misery and terror, while the little sailing vessel is half capsized in a sea of monstrous waves; like most adventures, it's something to laugh and brag about...after it's over. The metaphysical poem centers on the identity of James Wait, the man of color (if I typed the alternate word here, amazon would squeamishly suppress this review) who boards the ship at the last minute and who declares that he is ill unto death as soon as the ship leaves port. His presence, and that of the sour malcontent Donkin, nudge the crew toward mutiny as well as heroism. That crew is a colorful bunch, a diverse and well-individuated sampling of humanity; depth of character is Conrad's epic theme.
And now the delayed question: why is James Wait a black man? I'm not gonna answer, amigos, just tease you with speculations. Is his race just incidental, in that Conrad was drawing on personal or anecdotal experience in which the 'original' happened to be black? That wouldn't be a terribly satisfying answer, would it? So then, what might James's blackness have meant to Conrad?
He was certainly a 'man of his times' in believing in the superior destiny of the white race, or more specifically the Anglo-Saxon race. His hymn of ecstasy upon beholding the cliffs of England reveals much: "She towered up immense and strong, guarding priceless traditions and untold suffering, sheltering glorious memories and base forgetfulness, ignoble virtues and splendid transgressions. A great ship! ... A ship mother of fleets and nations! The great flagship of the race; stronger than the storms, and anchored in the open sea."
Or was Conrad merely using Wait's race casually, on the assumption that suspicions of sloth and deceit would be more believable attached to a black man? The racism of Conrad's era was erected on such assumptions of racial inferiority, such heedless stereotyping prejudice.
Or was blackness as much a poetic synecdoche for Conrad as whiteness was for Melville and his whale? And did they represent the same thing, the vast indifferent force of nature, of everything outside oneself waging constant warfare against one's survival?
The identity of the narrator is always a critical issue with Joseph Conrad. This tale churns along as a simple on-the-scene narrative; there is so little presence of an explicit "first-person" narrator that one tends to forget his anonymity. In fact, the point-of-view is more often "we" than "I". Yet at the end, the narrator reveals himself as a member of the crew, a curiously bland and inactive member. Was he there all along? Did he ever speak out? Take nothing for granted, friends. Conrad is a wily devil of a writer.