Those who read me, know my conviction that the world ... rests on a few very simple ideas ... It rests, notably ... on the idea of Fidelity." So wrote Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), the Polish-born writer whose novels in the English language have come to be regarded as some of the greatest in English literature. Born in what is now the Ukraine, Conrad grew up with the name Konrad Korzeniowski, only changing it to be easier for English tongues to pronounce. At the age of seventeen he went away to sea, and for the next twenty years the naval life with all its hardships was to be his world. It also became the background for most of his novels, in which the perennial problems and tragedies of life are played out against a setting tropical sun. Lord Jim (1900), now considered one of his finest books, has all of these elements. It is pessimistic, tragic, exotic, noble, and despite the difficulties of the prose, ultimately impressive.
In Lord Jim the experienced sea captain Marlow relates the story of a young man named Jim who, on one of his first voyages, loses his nerve in a crisis; believing that his ship is about to sink, he jumps overboard, abandoning his passengers to their fate. He is not the only one to do so, but he alone feels the knife of conscience in his heart, and spends the rest of his life trying to regain the trust of his fellow men. Wandering from place to place, he is at last given the opportunity of a responsible position, though it is in an isolated and dangerous jungle region of Malaya. There, he is so valued by the tribesmen for his bravery and honour that he is given the name 'Lord Jim' . In the end, he has achieved what he had formerly lost - the trust of others - but he values fidelity so highly that he becomes too trusting, is betrayed, and his world falls apart.
In this novel, Conrad' s deep pessi.mism shows itself. As in a Greek tragedy, the mistakes of the past follow men like a shadow, and can never be fully repaired. In one of the book' s most dramatic moments, Jim' s Malay woman demands from Marlow to know what is in Jim' s past - he has never told her, but she can feel it:
What is it? What is it? ... He says he has been afraid. How can I believe this? Am I a mad woman to believe this? You all remember something! You all go back to it. What is it? You tell me! What is this thing? Is it alive - is it dead?
With this kind of writing the book comes fully alive, and continues in this way until its wonderful climax. However, the first half of the novel is hard to get through - long-winded and, which is a pity to say about such an obviously gifted writer - sometimes boring. Looking back, there seem to be two reasons for this: first, that for a long time in the book Marlow' s voice is heard too much - Jim is far in the background, with little voice of his own. Secondly, Conrad often seems to be too much in love with words - he uses three adjectives where one would be enough - and this becomes a forest that the reader must make his way through with difficulty. Probably this comes from Conrad' s having learnt English and then proceeded to write in it. Which in itself is surely a unique phenomenon. Still, at its best, Lord Jim contains passages which are unforgettable. When Marlow parts from Jim for the last time, his boat pulls away from the shore to leave Jim alone on the sand, with the night coming:
The twilight was ebbing fast from the sky above his head ... he himself appeared no bigger than a child - then only a speck, a tiny white speck, that seemed to catch all the light left in a darkened world.
Conrad seems to be saying - the world is dark, and full of corruption, but if one person can try, and try hard, to live his life in the light, then there is still some hope for mankind. Difficult, mature, profoundly serious, Conrad is not an easy writer to appreciate. But the lasting value of his work is that he shows us that, after all, there are a few simple ideas to cling to.