In chapter five of Lord Jim, the chief of Jim’s ship, the Patna, is found near death from alcohol poisoning and is working through his DT’s in a hospital bed, where he screams nonstop about “millions of pink toads.”
“You look lost,” I want to say in my best teacher-on-the-first-day-of-school voice. “Are you sure you don’t belong in Light in August?
Overall, I am finding the experience of reading Lord Jim (for real this time) eighteen years after AP English officially ended to be very similar to the experience of reading Light in August. Both books are intense, overwhelming, and exhausting. Both books are light on dialogue and heavy on long, dense paragraphs that pulsate with imagery and energy. Both are narrated in ways (Faulkner’s omniscience and Conrad’s use of Marlow as a subjective first-person narrator) that call our assumptions about knowledge into question. Both books are simultaneously about their characters and about every character – fictional or real – that has ever existed. Both books require serious work on my part. Both books are awesome. They are changing who I am as a reader, long past the time when I thought I could be changed by books in significant ways.
If possible, I think I may actually be reading Lord Jim MORE slowly this time than I did as a high school senior. I’ve been working at it for about ten days now and haven’t even covered a hundred pages. Of course, back in AP English after ten days we would have been well along to the next book; the chance to move through a book like this at a leisurely pace (with frequent Pat Conroy breaks) is a luxury usually afforded more often to adult bookbloggers than to high school students.
On an intellectual level, I am enjoying this book very much. I feel as if I am reading a textbook on Modernism (layers of subjective narration – check; nihilism – yep, there it is; a naïve young narrator deluded by the fairy tales of his youth being torn apart by the realities of the world – oh yeah) while also taking a basic course in the devices of classical rhetoric. Conrad knows his tricolon and his anaphora, his asyndeton and his chiasmus. As far as I can see, the Patna is a symbol of imperialism in general and of the British empire specifically. Jim and a few other Europeans are taking their “cargo” of eight hundred Muslims on a pilgrimage from the South Pacific to Mecca. Along the way, the ship hits something in the sea and sustains some damage. Jim – who fashions himself a hero even though he really has never had his capacity for heroism tested in an emergency – believes he sees a bulging bulkhead and things that the hull of the ship is about to be breached, and instead of acting quickly he is somewhat paralyzed by the situation. Long story short – and there are still details of the incident that have not yet been revealed through the novel’s rather maddening digressive narration – Jim, the captain, and a few other officers survive the incident, but the eight hundred Muslim pilgrims are killed. If the honorable thing for a naval officer to do is to go down with his ship, Jim and the others do the opposite of what is honorable.
I see Conrad doing a lot of talking back and forth to other texts in this novel. There is something very Hawthornian about the focus on outward appearance versus inward guilt; if The Scarlet Letter were narrated by Chillingworth in a first person extended flashback, the result would be an awful lot like Lord Jim. Jim himself reminds me of a Don Quixote figure, trapped in his fantasies of heroic adventure (the term Fr. Murphy always used was “diseased romanticism” – I remembered it about five minutes after I started reading the book – and it’s deadly accurate) and therefore completely cut off from any possibility of functioning effectively in the real world. And while this obviously isn’t an allusion that Conrad is making, Jim also strikes me as a sort of British Forrest Gump. He is not “stupid” like Forrest Gump (whose stupidity seems to me to be a distinctly American metaphor) but instead is foolish in the grandiosity of his self-conception (an appropriate metaphor for the Britain of the late nineteenth century). Marlow is almost an “ancient mariner” figure, accepting the fact that he is doomed to tell and retell the story of Jim, and he also makes a statement about the fact that miserable people seem to be constantly seeking him out to tell him their secrets – a statement that, 26 years later, F. Scott Fitzgerald will make in almost identical terms using Nick Carraway as a mouthpiece. And maybe it’s just me, but I’m even hearing echoes of James Barrie’s novel Peter Pan – specifically, from the brilliant chapter that characterizes Captain Hook and his bastardized sense of prototypically British honor: “Most disquieting reflection of all: was it not bad form to think about good form?” (Barrie 118).
In addition, of course, since Marlow is also the narrator of Conrad’s more famous and widely read Heart of Darkness, he himself is a piece of the puzzle of this novel’s intertextuality. Marlow is everything a modernist narrator is expected to be: dark, moody, subjective, self-critical, digressive, cranky, and generally pissed off that he is expected to serve as the novel’s narrator. So far he is by far my favorite element of the novel (except for one other thing; see below).
So I’ve explained why I find this novel’s parable-like quality to be intellectually very interesting and engaging. However, for me as a reader intellectual engagement really isn’t enough to make me love a book. I am a visceral reader, and the books that I love ultimately have to reach me in relatively equal portions in the intellect, the emotions, and the gut. And so far, this novel is operating way too much in the intellectual realm for me. I do enjoy it, but there is nothing in Jim’s humanity that appeals to me emotionally or viscerally (although I do think that there is a chance that Marlow will appeal to me in this way – we’ll see). Most troubling, though, is that I have only read 86 pages of this novel, and I can’t even begin to fathom what Conrad will do with the remaining 236 pages.
I don’t know. Maybe something will actually have to – I don’t know – happen.
But now I want to tell you about my favorite footnote ever. At the moment I am reading the Barnes and Noble classics edition of this novel. I usually like the Barnes and Noble classics series for books whose original language is English – the editions are cheap and well-constructed and contain helpful introductions. I have noticed in the past that the footnotes in these editions can be a little – well – condescending, but I can usually manage to ignore them without getting too annoyed. But then I discovered this:
On page 48 of the novel, Conrad writes of the Patna’s chief engineer (the same one who was yelling about pink toads at the beginning of this review), “he had every facility given to him to remain under lock and key, with a chair, a table, a mattress in a corner, and a litter of fallen plaster on the floor, in an irrational state of funk, and keeping up his pecker with such tonics as Mariani dispensed” (48). Mariani is a bartender and innkeeper, by the way. So I was reading this sentence and imagining what kinds of “tonics” Mariani might dispense to keep the chief engineer’s pecker up when I noticed that the editor had provided a footnote on this sentence. The footnote reads, “i.e. sustaining his courage (a pecker is a nose).”
And then I laughed. And laughed some more. Partly at the schoolmarmish way that the editors managed without saying anything outright to remonstrate the reader for whatever R-rated thoughts she might have been having, but mostly at the image of a bunch of editors at the Barnes and Noble classics office, sitting around a conference table and trying to decide how to handle this anatomical nomenclature dilemma in Lord Jim.
Be warned: I think I am going to start using the word “pecker” quite regularly – if only for the pleasure of adding a footnote that reads “A pecker is a nose. What did YOU think it was?”