Saturday, 2 August 2008

The Arrow of Gold

Listening to:

Das Lied von der Erde, Mahler.

Just read:

Joseph Conrad, The Arrow of Gold.

According to Zdzisław Najder, a biographer, Arrow of Gold is “Conrad’s weakest novel”. It starts well enough, with exciting things happening to a young hero in Marseilles, and even seems to hold onto its nerve when a mysterious woman appears. There’s smuggling and intrigue and all looks well, even if it’s never entirely clear where Conrad wants our attention to lie.

At last came the day when everything slipped from my grasp. The little vessel, broken and gone like the only toy of a lonely child, the sea itself, which had swallowed it, throwing me on shore after a shipwreck that instead of a fair fight left in me the memory of a suicide. It took away all that was in me of independent life, but just failed to take me out of the world.... The lurid swiftness of it all was like a stunning thunderclap—and, one evening, I found myself weary, heartsore, my brain still dazed and with awe in my heart, entering Marseilles by way of the railway station, after many adventures, one more disagreeable than another, involving privations, great exertions, a lot of difficulties with all sorts of people who looked upon me evidently more as a discreditable vagabond deserving the attentions of gendarmes than a respectable (if crazy) young gentleman attended by a guardian angel of his own.

The title of the book refers to a piece of jewelry worn by the mysterious woman, so perhaps it is fair enough that the emphasis of the novel shifts to focus on the relationship between Doña Rita and the book’s cast of male characters. Certainly, she remains a mysterious object more than she is ever a human being. In some sense she is most like a MacGuffin that pushes the plot onwards, and quite unreal.

This seems to me to be consistent with the off-hand way in the novel concludes (in a strange final section called “Second Note”). Here the novel is perhaps revealed to be all about the hero’s development and coming of age, and not really the arrow of gold at all.