Friday, 19 September 2008

The Mirror of the Sea

Listening to:

Mozart, piano trio in E, K.452

Just read:

Joseph Conrad, The mirror of the sea.

The volume I read was a Folio Society combination of The Mirror of the Sea and another book called A Personal Record. The former is a mix of relatively matter-of-fact pieces about aspects of maritime life and some personal reminiscences. A Personal Record is more explicitly autobiographical. And of course, matter-of-fact for Conrad means prose like:

The cradle of overseas traffic and of the art of naval combats, the Mediterranean, apart from all the associations of adventure and glory, the common heritage of all mankind, makes a tender appeal to a seaman. It has sheltered the infancy of his craft. He looks upon it as a man may look at a vast nursery in an old, old mansion where innumerable generations of his own people have learned to walk. I say his own people because, in a sense, all sailors belong to one family: all are descended from that adventurous and shaggy ancestor who, bestriding a shapeless log and paddling with a crooked branch, accomplished the first coasting trip in a sheltered bay ringed with the admiring howls of his tribe. It is a matter of regret that all those brothers in craft and feeling, whose generations have learnt to walk a ship’s deck in that nursery, have been also more than once fiercely engaged in cutting each other’s throats there. But life, apparently, has such exigencies.

The second book covers more than just maritime matters, including material on Conrad’s childhood in Poland, and how he came to be a sailor at all: first out of Marseilles, and then as part of the British Merchant Marine. And why did he want to become British? According to his own account, it was because he met an exemplary Brit on top of an Alp while walking there. But then, all of Conrad’s autobiography needs to be read with a modicum of scepticism. He turned bits of his personal history into novels, and equally appears to have thought that there wasn’t anything wrong with fictionalising his personal history for others’ consumption.

Both volumes are more collections of little essays rather than components of some larger argument. This makes for easy reading, and some of the little vignettes are quite interesting.