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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

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Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

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Monday, September 24, 2007

On Lord Jim

Posted by Adam Roberts on 09/24/07 at 03:24 AM

Like many of his novels, Lord Jim is mostly narrated by Conrad’s eloquent ventriloquist-doll, Marlowe, in a continuous piece of notionally oral storytelling.  Contemporaries sniffed at the implausibility of this, and in his ‘Author’s Note’ Conrad addresses the question:

Some reviewers … pointed out the limitations of the narrative form. They argued that no man could have been expected to talk all that time, and other men to listen so long. It was not, they said, very credible.

After thinking it over for something like sixteen years, I am not so sure about that. Men have been known, both in the tropics and in the temperate zone, to sit up half the night ‘swapping yarns’. … As to the mere physical possibility we all know that some speeches in Parliament have taken nearer six than three hours in delivery; whereas all that part of the book which is Marlow’s narrative can be read through aloud, I should say, in less than three hours. Besides—though I have kept strictly all such insignificant details out of the tale—we may presume that there must have been refreshments on that night, a glass of mineral water of some sort to help the narrator on.

In his own defence, then, Conrad suggests that Marlowe’s narrative (which is, give or take some brief moments, everything in the book from chapter 5 onwards) is only three hours worth of jaw-jaw.  That doesn’t sound so bad.

As it happens I’ve been listening to a nicely done talking-book version of the novel, released under a Creative Commons licence on the excellent LibriVox website.  Indeed, LibriVox have a splendid range of titles available for free download and I urge and exhort you to check them out.  Lord Jim is read in an agreeable Florida American accent by a gentleman called Stewart Wills, and a thoroughly good job he does of it, injecting suitable feeling and expressiveness into the role, and managing to navigate the complex (and satisfying) rhythms of Conrad’s almost-but-not-quite-English prose without tripping up.  Two gripes, only: one, he pronounces ‘quay’ as ‘kway’ rather than ‘key’ throughout, and, two, with a couple of Conrad’s minor seaman characters he lapses into bizarre mockney vocal distortions, like Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins (‘Meeioawns uh peenk toe-uhds! … the sheep was fooll of em!’ and so on).  But that’s not much, and certainly doesn’t impair the very great pleasure of listening to the whole novel, unabridged.

Another bonus of this reading is that it gives us an objective assessment of just how long Marlowe’s narrative does take to deliver aloud.  Wills doesn’t rush his reading, but neither does he dawdle; and below the fold I reveal the result of my calculations re: adding up all the individual chapter file lengths, to see whether Conrad is right with his three hours, or whether six isn’t nearer the mark.

Of course Lord Jim can’t be narrated in three hours.  The telling takes thirteen hours, twenty minutes and 54 seconds (and that’s just Marlowe’s bit).

Conrad knows this; he is indulging himself in a joke at his reviewers’, and our, expense.  We ought to pick up the irony, since he follows this by making unmistakable allusion to the copious consumption of alcohol by teller and audience with a reference to ‘a glass of mineral water of some sort to help the narrator on’.  The whole of the author’s note, actually, is a droll exercise in snook cocking.  Do we really imagine that Conrad has been fretting over these reviewers’ comments for nearly two decades? (‘…after thinking it over for something like sixteen years…’).  And when he says that ‘men have been known, both in the tropics and in the temperate zone, to sit up half the night “swapping yarns”’, I think it’s fair enough to understand that Conrad does not regard Lord Jim as a yarn; that it is not being swapped with us (what story might we tell Conrad in return? What sort of reciprocating story does the novel invite?).  And sitting up half the night—say, from midnight to three in the morning—is barely going to scratch the surface of the lengthy complexities of this particular masterpiece.  If we were dealing with a less eloquent writer, or (more to the point) with a writer less bone-saturated in irony, we could sum up the whole author’s note as: ‘some reviewers have criticised my novel; to them I say, sod off.’ Instead Conrad instead takes the criticisms at face value, and then, straight-facedly, defends himself on his critics’ own terms.  It’s nicely done.


In any line of work with a lot of down time and no TV, storytellers are highly appreciated, and Westerners in the colonies had lots of down time. One thirteen-hour sitting seems a bit much, but three four-hour sessions wouldn’t.

Splicing in “Good night, and perhaps I will be able finish the story tomorrow” a couple times would solve the plausibility problem, but why bother?

By John Emerson on 09/24/07 at 07:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Fair enough, John, though that’s not quite my point.

I suppose I’m saying that nobody could seriously confuse Marlowe’s narrative and an actual transcript of oral storytelling.  Lord Jim is a densely rendered novelistic piece of Modernist prose.  Those moments where Conrad gestures at his notional framing device are jolting, and rather distracting, as if he flat doesn’t trust us, his readers, simply to accept Marlowe as a literary device, although of course we’re perfectly happy so to do.

For instance, in ch. 9 Marlowe says: ‘he related facts which I have not forgotten, but at this distance of time I couldn’t recall his very words: I only remember that he managed wonderfully to convey the brooding rancour of his mind into the bare recital of events. ‘ Yet the bulk of Marlowe’s narrative is fantastically detailed, down to remembering and passing on to us the precise expressions, in French, a French lieutenant used, and every inflection of Jim’s own turn of phrase.  My argument is that Conrad actually knows what he’s doing; that, in fact, these motions in the direction of a non-existent oral provenance (as if to say ‘storytellers in the East actually tell aloud stories from memories that are just like this novel!’ ... but clearly they don’t, not a novel as complex, as narratively folded-over and non-linear, as detailed and expository, as this) is actually a sort of deliberate estrangement technique.

By Adam Roberts on 09/24/07 at 01:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Florida accent” ?

By Jonathan Goodwin on 09/24/07 at 05:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Nor does anyone seriously believe that Wuthering Heights is an accurate transcript of what one Nellie Dean told to one Lockwood who, in turn, passes it on to us just as Nellie told it to him. And Ms. Bronte sold this stretcher (to borrow a term from I forget whether it’s Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn) before Conrad sold Lord Jim.

Has anyone done work on the history of this trope, that of the oral narrator of a story we know only through an implausibly longish written text?

By Bill Benzon on 09/24/07 at 07:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill: I don’t know.  I’d be interested, though.

Jonathan: point taken.

By Adam Roberts on 09/25/07 at 08:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The Russian formalists’ definition of ‘skaz’ (written style which imitates oral storytelling), and their commentators, might be a place to start looking.

By JoseAngel on 09/29/07 at 04:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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