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.