Tuesday, 9 April 2002

Chance

Listening to:

Shostakovich, Seven Romances on Verses by Alexander Blok for Soprano and Piano Trio, Op. 127.

Above me the sky lowers
A dark dream weighs down on my breast.
My fated end is near
And war and fire are at hand

Cheerful stuff.

Just read:

Joseph Conrad, Chance.

This novel has a postively happy ending by Conrad’s standards, and the whole is pretty engaging too. It’s no wonder that this was his first commercial success. My edition came with an Author's Note in which Conrad sounds almost pathetically grateful for the popularity. All he had to do was write a novel about a mysterious young woman, who is much put upon and maligned but who eventually finds happiness. Surely this, rather than novels about foreigners coming to bad ends (Nostromo, The secret agent, and Under Western eyes), is the route to popular success.

That’s the basic gist of the story, but you get it in typically oblique fashion. Most of the story is told by the character Marlow, who has filled this role in a number of Conrad’s other stories (e.g., Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim). He’s a bit of an opinionated git, particularly on the subject of women. It's just as well that the “top-level I” of the novel (who is quite anonymous) occasionally interjects with comments along the lines of You don’t expect me to believe that, do you? These reassure the reader that Marlow isn’t necessarily the privileged voice of the author.

The narration moves around in time quite a bit, and also features various levels of “nested narrators” within the account of events. For example, the first chapter is actually told by a character Powell “at the top level” (not within Marlow’s story). Powell later appears, continuing the narration of his story, but inside Marlow’s own telling of the later parts of the story. Conrad seems to have been quite careful to set things up so that the various narrators only tell us about things they could reasonably know themselves, and it all hangs together quite well.

It'd be fair to say that there's a lot more talk than action in the novel, but it’s still quite compelling. The various characters are all well described, the initial set-up of the story is clever and interesting, and the final chapters at sea are tense and exciting. I liked it, and wore a satisfied smile when it ended. (A bit less Marlow and I’d really rate it.)

To read next:

Terry Pratchett, Carpe Jugulum.

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