Conrad’s warning and challenge for writers.
March 13, 2015
THE FIRST attempt failed.
The second was so successful it inspired a third.
I have now read The Dirty Dozen twice and referred to it numerous times.
The characters are interesting and challenging.
Nathanson’s writing inspires.
One of the training missions assigned the unclean twelve was to enter a nearby mansion and “borrow” several books of their choice without detection. A subsequent mission involved the return of those same tomes, again without detection by the mistress of the manor.
The mission was led by Napoleon White, the only member of the twelve who was Black (The Dirty Dozen dates back to 1965 and is set in 1944). Two of the books he chose were T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom and the other is the subject of this blog. Even in 1896, the original title was inappropriate. In the United States, the novel was first published under the title The Children of the Sea: A Tale of the Forecastle (pronounced, “foaksul”). Still more controversy arose and finally, the offensive word was restored. White’s choices were the subject of some thought provoking dialog between him and his commanding officer, especially Conrad’s novella. After the last reading of Nathan’s masterpiece, we purchased both of the just mentioned titles.
Joseph Conrad’s writing was given a renewed interest when his book, Heart of Darkness, inspired Francis Ford Coppola’s movie, Apocalypse Now. I read that book, too, after about the ninth viewing of the movie.
The Narcissus was a merchant marine sailing ship. The ship and its needs and its requirements of the crew become one of the central characters of Conrad’s story. The other main character, James Wait, is a member of the crew who makes as memorable an entrance as Harry Lime in The Third Man. The pivotal action around which much of the story revolves, and through which we learn much of the character traits of each member of the crew, is a major storm at sea.
The good shipping crew was in peril.
A subplot that provokes the crew is Mr. Wait’s illness.
The life of the protagonist is in peril.
Despite a collection of sentences that make Faulkner’s work look like Hemingway, Conrad dazzles readers with incredible similes, ingenious metaphors, and classic writing. This was a book I enjoyed reading at a pace of only a page or two a day. It is a book to savor the prose, inspire the wordsmith in you, and make you look twice at what the actions of humans have to say about their character and integrity.
Here are a few of my favorite excerpts of Joseph Conrad’s composition:y
“The little cabin was as hot as an oven. It contained an immensity of fear and pain; an atmosphere of shrieks and moans; prayers vociferated like blasphemies and whispered curses.”
“The stars burned steadily over the inclined mastheads. Trails of light lay on the water, broke before the advancing hull, and, after she had passed, trembled for a long time as if in awe of the murmuring sea.”
“He was one of those commanders who speak little, seem to hear nothing, look at no one—and know everything, hear every whisper, see every fleeting shadow of their ships’ life.”
“On all sides invisible men slept, breathing calmly. He seemed to draw courage and fury from the peace around him.”
“And suddenly all the simple words they knew seemed to be lost forever in the immensity of their vague and burning desire.”
“‘Ten days,’ he said, promptly, and returned at once to the regions of memory that know nothing of time.”
Conrad leaves authors of today with a warning and a challenge.
The warning: If you want your book to be read, be discriminating with the choice of a title.
A challenge can be found in the first line of the book’s preface (which critics say is among Conrad’s finest non-fiction writings): “A work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line.”
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