An Outcast of the islands, by Joseph Conrad

Even as I struggle to read most other novels, Conrad and Faulkner manage to entertain me, though I find I’m content enough not to look too deeply into why – perhaps it’s just the simple mix of plot and human understanding.

An Outcast of the Islands is impressive as only Conrad’s second novel; I read his first, Almayer’s Folly, years ago and can’t remember the least thing about it. Outcast has a lot of similarities with Lord Jim: it’s about a man who commits a transgression and who, in need of being removed beyond the bounds of civil (i.e. western) society, ends up in a distant part of the Malayan jungle where he becomes embroiled in local politics. Where it differs from Lord Jim, is in his redemption; – for in this he doesn’t redeem himself at all: given the opportunity to act reasonably, he commits a further transgression against the one man who’s tried to help him. Perhaps this incorrigibility on the part of the main character is why it’s not as well-known as Lord Jim; people in general are no doubt less content with a man who merely fails and fails again, even if it is largely through no will of his own; but I on the whole preferred it to the other book. Both the outcast, who has no intention of acting badly but does nonetheless, and the man who helps him constantly through his life and is only rewarded with betrayal, are fascinating portraits of humanity. Much like Faulkner, nothing is clean or clear-cut in this world.

I notice a similarity too with the last Conrad I read, The Arrow of Gold, in that it is the love of a woman that drives our anti-hero to act as he does, at least on the second occasion; and to act essentially against what is good for him. I’ve a vague recollection this idea persists elsewhere in Conrad too, but I imagine it is nothing more than romanticism; the notion that people should in the end by overtaken by their passions, even if it is to their detriment.

Conrad’s attitude towards colonialism I find in this very similar to Kipling, and his ironic use of traditional imperial attitudes in order to debunk them. Here again it is the characters who are interested in this other world who are approved; and yet it is, on the other hand, never quite as clear-cut in Conrad; for none of his characters are wholly applaudable; they are all out for their own interests; and this includes the Malays. Indeed, quite a significant amount of the novel is taken up from the point of view of the Malays, their own interal politics, and the impact of the white man (or at least, the foreigner) upon them. For while the outsiders fight to control the trade with the Malays; so the Malays fight to control the trade with the outsiders – each succeeding only in swapping one trading partner for another.

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The Arrow of Gold, by Joseph Conrad

There’s those Conrad works which people read and write about and study at school and copies of which you can easily come across in nice Penguin Modern Classics editions in any bookshop you walk into (Heart of Darkness, Nostromo, The Secret Agent, Victory, Under Western Eyes etc.), and then there’s those works by Conrad which nobody ever talks about and copies of which you’ll never come across unless you look quite hard, usually in secondhand shops, and will only be in editions from the 70s or earlier (The Inheritors, Romance, The Nature of a Crime, Suspense, and The Arrow of Gold).

This is actually my second attempt to read The Arrow of Gold – or, as I’m inclined to see it, my third, since there was such a large gap even in this attempt, slightly under halfway through, at which point I’d put the book down and was uninclined to pick it up again. Let’s just say, there are problems in the first half of this novel, some of which are retained right through to the end. For a start, it’s got a first person narrator; and Conrad at times finds himself ill-at-ease, it seems to me, with the concept of manhandling him into scenes in which he does not belong. But the main issue was I just didn’t know what Conrad was going on about half the time; and this led to the suspicion that Conrad had no idea what he was going on about either: that in some way he hadn’t really thought it through. Critics at the time seem to have been of a similar belief, since Conrad mentions some of this in his introductory Author’s Note, “Suspicion of facts concealed, of explanations held back, of inadequate motives. But what is lacking in the facts is simply what I did not know, and what is not explained is what I did not understand myself, and what seems inadequate is the fault of my imperfect insight”. The whole thing seems very confused. There are long conversations, I seem to recall, in which I really had very little idea what anybody was talking about.

But in the second half the story becomes much clearer and easier going. Basically it’s about this young man (the narrator) who becomes infatuated with a woman, whose nature is to infatuate men and who is a strong supporter of the Carlist cause – this, all the while, taking place in France, so that we are in that familiar story-ground of the Spanish (and supporters from other nationalities) in exile in France which forms the backdrop to many a later Spanish Civil War story. The young man thus starts running guns on behalf of the Carlist cause, but really just because he is in love and without the least political conviction, all the while staying as a guest in a house run by the woman’s sister, who is her diametric opposite, a religious fanatic who sees her sister as the devil. It is the portrait of these two sisters that is in truth the best of the novel.

Anyway, the story rumbles on amiably enough, before coming to a reasonably unsatisfactory conclusion. The arrow of gold of the title is a hair-piece worn by the woman, which has some obvious symbolic meaning but in keeping with the novel I couldn’t really decide what the meaning was. I know if I had York Notes to explain it to me, I’d be in a moment aghast at my own lack of comprehension.

Anyway, an interesting mess. I might read Romance next.

The Rescue, by Joseph Conrad

Conrad must have taken Chinua Achebe’s criticisms to heart when he came to write The Rescue, for he seems to have curbed the “xenophobia” and “thorough-going racism” which first endeared us to Heart of Darkness. – Well some of his characters have, at least; others, curiously have not, presumably because Conrad was, by this point in his life, mad or confused (like Dennis Hopper in Paris Trout, or the dog in White Dog).

The hero of The Rescue is a man called Lingard, who has turned his back on his own people and become embroiled in the affairs of the local Malays, their internecine conflicts and their continued fight for independence against the colonial power. These Malays are represented by two characters, Hassim and Immada, who possess every virtue; while it is the white man, the representative of the colonial European – an Englishman, no less – Mr Travers, who shows all the vices. Mr Travers is, in fact, the architypal member of the colonial ruling class as we’re accustomed to seeing painted by Kipling: he blunders into things, not knowing what he is doing, is contemptuous of and has no interest in other cultures, and fundamentally believes he is superior to everyone around him.

Lingard has, in the end, to make a choice between the two: between returning to his own kind, or continuing to deny his roots. (OK, it’s a bit more complex than that: there’s a question of love involved too, and some people are going to die on one side or another dependent on his decision).

In Heart of Darkness, as Achebe points out, the Africans just babble incomprehensibly, because Conrad – being a racist – denies them language. In The Rescue, on the other hand, careful to avoid offence, Conrad has the Malays conversing perfectly normally and sensibly with Lingard (he’s apparently been living there a long time and has “learnt their language”), whereas to the other Europeans (who’ve only just arrived and haven’t yet learnt – or don’t seem bothered to learn – their language) what they say appears to be merely a babble. Conrad is clearly here struggling to reject his own racist past, constantly switching back, when he can’t help himself, to his instinctive view.

Now, I shall make a hypothesis on how an aspect of Conrad’s life influenced his work: Conrad himself, having had his mother and father murdered by a colonial power they were fighting against, lived as an exile within a land of otherness (England) with whose people he sympathised and whom he tried to help by his works.

[Hmm, this wasn’t entirely the review I was going to write before reading that Achebe essay. Of course, Achebe might maintain it was only Africans towards which Conrad was racist (sc. saw as primitive), whereas Malays he didn’t. (He does seem to be saying this). Perhaps. After all, Conrad was a much-travelled man and had seen many civilisations. Perhaps, if he’d gone to Papua New Guinea or taken a trip down the Amazon, he might have felt the same about the people there. Or perhaps, like Kipling, the views expressed are merely the “accepted” views, the views of a character (Achebe mentions this, and dismisses it – claiming there’s nothing in the text which denotes they are not Conrad’s views as well) – I don’t know, I’ve not read the book in fifteen years. Or perhaps the Africans are indeed, like the Jew in The Merchant of Venice, merely expressions of “otherness”, useful for his artistic purpose.]