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Everything he says comes pinched between inverted commas.The uncertainties are multiplied in “Lord Jim” (1900), Conrad’s first full-length novel using this method.But, where Flaubert adopted an air of superhuman detachment, Conrad insures that Marlow’s position is itself relativized.
Conrad welcomed the idea, but, fearing it wouldn’t come off, asked Galsworthy if he could write to his friend Alfred A.
Knopf, the Doubleday, Page employee who, in Conrad’s words, had formulated “this plan of ‘taking me up.’ ”Knopf was twenty years old and brimming with ideas for remedying the outrage that “a great writer” could fail to command “a large audience.” Among his promotional schemes was an illustrated pamphlet, a press release parading as an essay.
For the next couple of decades, Galsworthy served as Conrad’s consigliere—lobbying the Royal Literary Fund (“No living writer of English, to my mind, better deserves support”), fielding Conrad’s queries about his son’s education (“I am sending you the prospectus to look at”), playing “ ‘in between’ man” during a dispute with the agent J. Pinker (“Conrad asks me to ask you to write to him”).
One of Galsworthy’s greatest acts of service came in 1913, after the publisher Frank Nelson Doubleday invited Conrad to lunch, in London, and proposed purchasing his existing American copyrights and reprinting his books.
As he put it not long before his death, in 1924, and exaggerating only a little, “In the body of my work barely one tenth is what may be called sea stuff.” Things get a little shakier when you reach the bit about “the tropics.” With few exceptions, most notably his novel about anarchists in late-Victorian London, “The Secret Agent” (1907), his stories unfold in Asia, Africa, and South America.
But then Conrad was really talking aesthetics, not arithmetic—and making, or not quite making, an argument about how he treated his settings.Coming upon a group of natives labelled “enemies,” he identifies men who were “nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom.” But bafflement is futile.The world has been rewritten in accordance with the white man’s vocabulary. Conrad’s theme is familiar from countless earlier writers, notably Flaubert, who in “Madame Bovary” and “Sentimental Education” measured the gulf between fact and fantasy.The ship is a setting as well as a symbol, a microclimate as well as a microcosm. Recalling the Judea, the bark on which he served as second mate, Marlow says that, to him, it was not “an old rattle-trap” but “the endeavour, the test, the trial of life.” Youth is what Marlow saw with and what he saw.But it’s possible to see Conrad chafing at the constraints of realist storytelling in his use of philosophical digression—and hinting at future priorities in the book’s final paragraphs, which shift from a collective viewpoint with moments of omniscience, a “we” that behaves like a “he,” to an unabashed first person: “I never saw one of them again.”Next came the breakthrough—a startlingly original narrative voice that not only severed Conrad’s fiction from realism but questioned the idea of a consensual “reality.” In January, 1898, the month after “The Nigger” was published, Conrad wrote the story “Youth,” introducing the forty-two-year-old merchant seaman Charles Marlow, who recalls his maiden voyage to Eastern seas. Places tell us about the people who visit and inhabit them.Marlow doesn’t celebrate the role played by passion or prejudice in our descriptions of the world; it’s just something he acknowledges.In Conrad’s next Marlow story, “Heart of Darkness” (1899), set in an unnamed colony whose rulers talk exclusively in propagandist falsehoods, Marlow is the one person willing to call a rattletrap a rattletrap.A synopsis of Conrad’s life at sea that begins “He had been to the corners of the earth” culminates in “He had read widely in English and French.” Conrad objected to being defined as “the greatest sea-writer,” and Knopf instead celebrated a man who “has attained a distinction as a master of the art of fiction as great as that of any living writer.”Thanks to Galsworthy’s intervention, Conrad became a best-selling Doubleday author, but Knopf quit the company soon afterward, leaving Conrad’s work with those who hadn’t been so closely coached.In 1916, Conrad received the galleys for a uniform edition of his work.Its name was “The Otago,” the emblem a sailing ship.Returning the pages to Doubleday, he explained that he wanted “to avoid all reference to the sea,” and added, “I am something else, and perhaps something more, than a writer of the sea—or even of the tropics.”In a limited sense, Conrad was simply stating what he considered to be a fact.