Youth by Joseph Conrad (1898)

17 September 2012

Youth, the shortish short story (30 pages) Conrad completed in June 1898, sees the debut of Charles Marlow, Conrad’s alter-ego, the fictional narrator of this and his two most famous stories, Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim. Marlow’s arrival marks a step change in the quality of Conrad’s work.

Marlow enforces discipline Because the story is narrated by a character, not by the omniscient narrator he’d used in all his previous works, Conrad has to make a big effort to rein in the stylistic excesses I have described in previous posts. For example, ‘The Return’ strikes me as being almost unbearable to read for its sustained note of manic hysteria. Conrad uses free indirect style to take us inside the mind of Alvan Hervey as his wife’s infidelity triggers what feels, trapped inside his head, like a nervous breakdown. In fact, this is just another outing for the hysterical, panic-stricken, horror-obsessed nihilism which characterises all of Conrad’s fiction up to this point.

It is with immense relief that one turns to ‘Youth’ because this hysteria is reined right in and Conrad’s stylistic excesses, though still noticeable at moments, are in general held in abeyance in order to foreground the practical, no-nonsense voice of Charles Marlow.

Plot The plot is simple. The 20 year-old Marlow is second mate on the Judea, contracted to take coal from Newcastle to Bankok. The boat encounters a number of problems which repeatedly delay its departure from England, hits storms off Africa, and then the coal beings to spontaneously burn as they enter the Indian Ocean. Eventually the crew are forced to abandon ship, and Marlow docks in the East having commanded a 14-foot ship’s boat and crew of two for the last week of the ill-fated journey.

Style Restrained. Both the character of Marlow and the nature of the ‘story’ ie a detailed account of the maritime problems encountered by the ship, dictate a much more factual style than anything Conrad had previously written.

We had been pulling this finishing spell for eleven hours. Two pulled, and he whose turn it was to rest sat at the tiller. We had made out the red light in that bay and steered for it, guessing it must mark some small coasting port. We passed two vessels, outlandish and high-sterned, sleeping at anchor, and, approaching the light, now very dim, ran the boat’s nose against the end of a jutting wharf.

Shorter sentences. Fewer subordinate clauses. Much more factual content. A lot less tautologia or redundancy. A blessed relief. The old Conrad is still there, straining at the leash:

O youth! The strength of it, the faith of it, the imagination of it! To me she was not an old rattle-trap carting about the world a lot of coal for a freight—to me she was the endeavour, the test, the trial of life. I think of her with pleasure, with affection, with regret.

There was not a light, not a stir, not a sound. The mysterious East faced me, perfumed like a flower, silent like death, dark like a grave.

This was the East of the ancient navigators, so old, so mysterious, resplendent and somber, living and unchanged, full of danger and promise.

But the familiar lyricism, the repetition and apposition, is justified by the fundamental idea, that this is the character Marlow’s paean to the vividness and optimism of youth. Well, just about justified.

Framing device Youth starts with the identical setting made famous by Heart of Darkness, ie after dinner in London five mature and successful men of the world who have all experienced the sea sit and smoke cigars, chatting. The anonymous narrator is one of them; he sets this scene, describes the audience a little, and then lets Marlow begin his tale. The frame device, the tale-within-a-tale, does several things:

  • It distances the tale. No matter what happens we know Marlow survived and is telling it to us now. Though we are caught up in the events he narrates, we are not actually lost in a moment-by-moment helter-skelter of hysteria with a totally unpredictable outcome as we are in the key scenes of Almayer or An Outpost
  • Marlow is telling his tale to a suave and knowing audience. This has an important effect in toning down the hysterical style of the earlier novels and stories. Although Marlow is still given lines of improbable lyricism, Conrad is conscious of them, limits them, and excuses them – Marlow himself justifies them – because this is a tale of high spirits and boyish optimism.
  • Marlow is English. British. Unlike the main characters in Almayer and Outcast and Outpost and Karain. It is as if hysteria is characteristic of the lesser Europeans, the Dutch and Belgians. Conrad emphasises Marlow’s Englishness by making him use the upper-class slang of the day – ‘Pon my soul, The deuce of a time. And the Britishness of narrator and audience guarantees a sang-froid, the famous stiff upper-lip which limits and disciplines Conrad. Enforces restraint. And his prose is all the more effective for it.

For those who like patterns, it is pretty that Conrad published Youth, Heart of Darkness and The End of The Tether in one volume in 1902 (Youth, A Narrative, and other tales) – one representing youth, one representing maturity, one representing old age.

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