29 March 2008

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

This is a librivox recording. All librivox recordings are in the public domain. This reading by Stewart Wills. Lord Jim, by Joseph Conrad. Chapters 34 and 35.

The envelope text for each mp3 file, chapter by chapter, all 45 of them, all 14 and a half hours of them. The entire thing is read by Wills, who, over the course of those 14 hours, becomes a meta-Marlow, narrating the internally narrated tale for you (or me, in this case), seemingly in the middle of my head as I, appropriately, row down the imaginary river.

Wills' reading was amazing. I will report on other readers and whether they are as good/professional/engaging, but having just finished Persuasion read by a professional actress, this was equally good. He didn't try too much for accents, but instead provided a change in the quality of his voice for certain characters, with a bit of accent thrown in--the key was that he was consistent: you knew you were hearing the German captain of the Patna, the Australian ne'er-do-well, the Malay deck hand. The book relates the story of Jim through the voice of Marlow, so we have multiple narrators: Conrad, describing Marlow's narration, Marlow, narrating the story of Jim to various audiences, and Jim, usually in conversation with Marlow. Wills changed his tone for each narrator such that the transition was seamless. He became the meta-Marlow.

Book-wise, I can recommend Lord Jim: it's a fascinating insight into the small world that was seafaring around the Indian Ocean in the late 19th century. It's got a heart-of-darkness theme (remember how we all only really have one idea and we repeat it--that's definitely true here, although it's repeated in an entertaining and fascinating way). It also talks about people falling into the 'one of us' category: Marlow helps Jim throughout the novel, but feels torn about it. He falls back on the 'he's (obviously) one of us' framework to justify it, which calls into question those who are not of 'us' and why they are not. It's about class primarily, but it's also about the fact that no matter how much Jim separates himself from his own past (class, family, actions), for Marlow he is always 'one of us' and will never shake that.

The novel does suffer occasionally from a feeling that Conrad was getting paid by the word and, well, needed to stretch things out a bit. But those passages also feel like short stories along the way in a larger narrative about the Indian Ocean, and so it maintains its entertaining edge even when the larger story isn't carried forward for a few chapters. The book also, like much Conrad, provides a counter-narrative to the imperialist understanding of colonialism: here we are on the ground with the unworthy and disorganised coloniser, seeing the scrabbling for just a bit more money, a bit more adventure, a bit more profit. And the successful ones (like Marlow) are those who are, frankly, a bit bored by it all, who remain aloof, not reaching for adventure but treating the world like the world. Of course, the world is one in which Europeans who are of the 'us' enjoy privilege of connection and birth. But Conrad lets you see that about Marlow too, and thereby provides a critical edge to his narrative about the seas. Recommended for rowers, those intrigued by port culture, colonialism, heroism, honesty, and butterflies.

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