Tales of Unrest by Joseph Conrad (1898)

17 September 2012

After his first two novels Conrad turned to shorter forms, to novellas and short stories. He followed 1897’s novella, The Nigger of the Narcissus, with five short stories collected in 1898’s Tales of Unrest, being:

The Idiots, his first short story, written March 1896

The Lagoon, what Conrad considered his first authentic short story, written July 1896. A white man stops at a gloomy lagoon where a solitary Malay has his hut along with his woman. The woman is dying of fever. Through the night the Malay tells the story of their doomed love, how they ran away from the king and queen who owned her as a servant girl, how they were pursued, how his brother gave his life to save them. At dawn she dies and the man is left utterly bereft. Quintessential Conrad – a tale of utter bleakness, told in lush, decadent, tropical prose.

An Outpost of Progress, published in two parts in Cosmopolis magazine in June and July 1897, Conrad considered this his best short story. It is set in the Congo, drawing on his experiences there 7 years earlier, and strongly linked with ‘Heart of Darkness’ ie pretty much the same plot. Two white men are left high up the river, deep in the dark continent to run a trading station. They fall to pieces physically and mentally and the end comes when a group of African slavers steal away their native staff, leaving ivory tusks in payment. Having lost their self-respect they go quickly downhill, bicker about nothing until, after a trivial argument, one shoots the other then hangs himself. Conrad all over. The African setting; the complete degradation of the protagonists; the vision of futility; the lush prose.

It is a bit mind-boggling that ‘An Outpost’ appeared just at the moment of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, June and July 1897. On 22 June there was a vast procession of colonial subject through London to an open air service outside St Paul’s cathedral. On 23 June the Queen met some young Indian princes. On 2 July the Queen surveyed her colonial troops at Windsor. Both June and July editions of Cosmopolis included length celebrations of the greatness and benefits of Empire (some quoted in this article). The Times published Kipling’s great poem, Recessional, on 17 July. You wonder how Conrad avoided being lynched!

The Return, completed early 1897. In his preface Conrad says he hated writing this story. Arrogant, successful middle-aged businessman Alvan Hervey returns on the Tube to his smart West London house to find a message from his wife saying she has left him for a magazine editor. He is devastated, his world collapses, everything he has valued is torn away from under him etc. He is just starting to feel like all Conrad heroes when his wife, embarrassingly, returns. She’s changed her mind! How does Conrad make such a slight incident (am comes home, reads note, wife joins him) last 60 pages? With great torrents of prose describing Hervey’s anguish, mental collapse, fury, despair. Despite its untypical setting (London) it is classic overripe, hysterical Conrad, redolent of Strindberg or of a strung-out existentialist play like ‘Huis Clos’.

Karain: A Memory, published in Blackwoods Magazine, November 1897. From the safety of Blighty the narrator remembers the days when he was a gun smuggler around the Malay archipelago. The striking figure of the native chief, Karain. Fine figure of a man. Everyone loved him. Yet he seemed somehow nervous. One stormy night (lol), he swims ashore the white trader’s schooner and tells them his story, viz: a Dutch trader steals away a woman from his tribe. He and his best friend vow to track them down and erase the shame. For years they are on the trail together, travelling all over the archipelago in pursuit. But slowly the beautiful girl’s voice and then figure come to him in dreams and visions, talking, defending herself. Finally the find the Dutchman and the girl and his friend gives Karain a rifle and tells him to shoot the white man while he slays the girl with his dagger. But as his dearest, oldest friend leaps from the bushes, Karain is overcome by the secret memory of the voice of the girl her secret presence. Before he knows what he has done he has shot his friend. He has spared the vile white man’s life. He gets away. But that night the girl’s voice doesn’t come to him. His friend’s voice and shape come to him. And from that night onwards he is pursued, followed, haunted…! Conrad excelsis: a frame narrative around a tale of betrayal, despair and haunting.

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