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The Nigger of the Narcissus, a Tale of the Forecastle Paperback – April 13, 2016
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About the Author
Joseph Conrad (1857 – 1924) was a Polish-British writer regarded as one of the greatest novelists to write in the English language. He was granted British nationality in 1886 but always considered himself a Pole. Though he did not speak English fluently until he was in his twenties (and always with a marked accent), he was a master prose stylist who brought a distinctly non-English sensibility into English literature. He wrote stories and novels, many with a nautical setting, which depict trials of the human spirit in the midst of an impassive, inscrutable universe.
Conrad’s narrative style and anti-heroic characters have influenced many authors, including D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, Graham Greene, William Golding, William S. Burroughs, Gabriel García Márquez, John le Carré. And many films have been adapted from, or inspired by, Conrad’s works.
Writing in the heyday of the British Empire, Conrad drew on his native Poland’s national experiences and on his personal experiences in the French and British merchant navies to create short stories and novels that reflect aspects of a European-dominated world, while profoundly exploring human psychology.
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But don't overlook that this Penguin edition also contains other texts: the equally brillant sea tales 'Youth' and 'The Secret Sharer', and then some more.
'The Lagoon' is possibly the weakest story here. A white man travels in Borneo, stays over night in the house of a Malay friend, on the title lagoon, and finds that the woman of the house is dying of fever. The husband tells his guest the story how he eloped with the woman with the help of his brother, who died in the escape, killed by the pursuers. The death of the woman is seen as heavenly retribution for the desertion of the brother, and now the man will go and take revenge. Not very impressive.
'An Outpost of Progress' is a sarcastic story on the pretensions of colonialism. Two Belgian imbeciles (minor Almayers, one could say) try to run a trading station in the Congo colony and fail in cluelessness.
'The Idiots' is set in the Bretagne, where Conrad picked up the story during his honeymoon. A wealthy and anticlerical farmer gets married, so as to have sons who can inherit. Tragically, the couple is hit with misfortune and the first 3 sons turn out to have some kind of unspecified mental handicap, hence the title. The man gets talked into going to church to confess and pray for healthy offspring, but, as the Doors told us: you can't petition the Lord with prayer. The next child is not only a girl, bad enough, but again not mentally right. The parents are devastated. The man holds it against the woman, he becomes violent and abusive, she kills him in defense, gets rejected by her mother, and commits suicide.
'The Informer'is a brillant prelude to the 'Secret Agent'. We have one of the anarchists, an aristocratic traitor of his class, tell the narrator, a collector of porcelain, the story how he rooted out a police informer in a London terrorist group by faking a police raid. This is by far the strongest among the 'not sea'-stories in this volume.
'Il Conde' is about an aging count living alone in the Naples area, who gets mugged by a young Camorra (ie local mafia) member. A lot of the tension in this story comes from the fact that Conrad steps very carefully around a central aspect: the count probably solicited sexual services from the mugger. We don't know that for sure from the text, though. Conrad picked up this story from a fellow Pole when vacationing in Capri.
'The Duel' is a lengthy semi-farce about two swashbuckling cavalry officers in Napoleon's grande armee. It makes great fun of military codes of honour. The story was filmed with Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine under the name 'The Duellists'. Amusing, but not much depth here. But you can learn some about the Napoleonic times. (The Poles loved him because he promised them statehood. He couldn't quite deliver on the promise due to the winter campaign disaster, but true love withstands reality.)
If you thought of Conrad only as a seaman, here you have him in a broader spectrum. Not all of it is brillant, but none of it is uninteresting.
As an added benefit, the storm scene about halfway through contains some of the most sublime prose ever to illustrate the majesty and horror of a ship caught in a typhoon. Conrad paints with words scenes JMW Turner only imagined...
"... the incarnation of barbarian wisdom, serene in the blasphemous turmoil of the world."
The impression that the author gives about the characters on the ship Narcissus, and therefore about the world in general, is that the people in charge of the ship know what they're doing and are hard working, and the common sailors are a motley crew with some good, a bad apple or two, and not too bright.
I agree that mankind isn't too bright. I think that is borne out by all our history books, newspapers, and tv news. But I disagree about the people in charge basically being superior, hard working people. The people in charge of this ship aren't anything to brag about.