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Lord Jim

A book by Joseph Conrad

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Facing the darkness at the heart of the Tempest

  • Sep 19, 2012
Rating:
+3
On Bob Dylan's latest album, the title track "Tempest" is a relentless narrative of the sinking of the Titanic, the title itself repeating the title of Shakespeare's account of a shipwreck on a deserted island far from land, believed to be based on the real-life shipwreck of the Sea Venture on the islands of Bermuda at the turn of the 17th century.  These are seas Conrad sailed aboard ship and on paper as one of the great writers of his century, perhaps best known for this story that would find its real life echo in the Titanic's star-crossed builder J. Bruce Ismay (for the Lord Jim/Ismay connection see my review of How To Survive The Titanic or The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay, by Frances Wilson).

The double coincidence adds power to both Conrad's and Dylan's lyrics, both masterful story tellers bending prosaic language to powerful lyrical purposes, a feat even more remarkable in that English was the Polish-born and -raised Conrad's second language.  Conrad's Jim is given the honorary title Tuan (which the whites who know the native language say roughly translates to "Lord") by the people of the fictional South Sea island of Patusan.  Jim had been posted there as a trader's outpost manager at the recommendation of a friend trying to give him one last chance to escape the black shadow of an unforgivable sailor's mistake of abandoning a sinking ship too soon--the ship, with 700 native passengers on board, would be found adrift and abandoned by the white crew, including Jim, who fled too soon.

The story is told almost entirely through the narration of the friend Marlowe (despite the recurrence of the name, this Marlowe seems to be unrelated to the man of the same name in "Heart of Darkness"), a fellow sailor who started following Jim's story during the inquest and befriended him to find out more about the man at the heart of the infamous incident.  Through this device, Conrad is able to give the almost entirely static tale motion by pacing Marlowe's account faster, then slower, skipping forward then looping back, presaging then slowly unveiling events. It is one of Conrad's greatest strengths, this slow revealing of the tale that by turns can be dramatic, sad, suspenseful, and horrifying.  Unlike the bare-bones brevity of Darkness, though, Lord Jim does suffer from some of Conrad's propensity for lengthy, meandering description.  Sometimes the wordy prose paints a picture, sometimes it stalls the story.  

Ismay, in Wilson's biography, also abandoned his unsinkable but finally sunk ship too soon, according to many passengers, historians, sailors, and investigators, and like Jim would never be able to move beyond that one unerasable black mark on his name and legacy.  Both men tried to find redemption; both would die failing.  While Dylan's 15 minute ballad never mentions Ismay by name, the repeated refrain of

The watchman, he lay dreaming
The damage had been done
He dreamed the Titanic was sinking
And he tried to tell someone

seems to echo Ismay's and Lord Jim's impossible effort to tell of the darkness at the heart of their failure.

Tempest is the centerpiece of Dylan's latest album, and it is a strong song, standing alongside the classic storytelling narrative of "Lilly, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts" from Blood on the Tracks.  It is followed and matched in songwriting power on the CD by "Roll On, John" a powerful, moving, and seemingly personal tribute to John Lennon.  This is some of Dylan's best writing in years, capped by the amazingly ominous "Pay in Blood", a reminder that no one has ever done bitter better than the writer and performer-labelled-Judas of Rolling Stone.  Seen through the eyes of an older man, and heard through the gravelly growl of his torn vocal chords, the verses of threats and simple statements of the capability for revenge or justice pale before the simple frightening refrain capping each verse:  "I pay in blood, but not my own."  This is the kind of powerful imagery that makes you involuntarily check that the doors are locked and turn on extra lights if you are listening home alone.

So give Tempest a spin and Lord Jim a sail.  If Conrad's prose gets too wordy, follow the thread through time and the South Seas and see if you can find your own redemption there.  You may find that like Dylan, the debt paid in blood will come from those whom justice or fairness have deserted. 

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More Lord Jim reviews
review by . November 22, 2008
By Giordano Bruno (Wherever I am, I am.) - See all my reviews     That title is a knock-off of Ishmael's description of Captain Ahab in Melville's Moby Dick. My guess is that Joseph Conrad never read Moby Dick. His writing career unfolded during the decades before the rediscovery of Melville. I have no doubt that Conrad would have burst with appreciation if he'd encountered the other "greatest" writer of sea tales in English or any language. Lord Jim begins to remind me of Moby …
review by . November 22, 2008
That title is a knock-off of Ishmael's description of Captain Ahab in Melville's Moby Dick. My guess is that Joseph Conrad never read Moby Dick. His writing career unfolded during the decades before the rediscovery of Melville. I have no doubt that Conrad would have burst with appreciation if he'd encountered the other "greatest" writer of sea tales in English or any language. Lord Jim begins to remind me of Moby Dick in chapter four, when the straightforward 3rd person narrative suddenly shifts …
review by . November 22, 2008
A Grand Ungodly Godlike Narrator, November 22, 2008  By Giordano Bruno (Wherever I am, I am.) - See all my reviews     That title is a knock-off of Ishmael's description of Captain Ahab in Melville's Moby Dick. My guess is that Joseph Conrad never read Moby Dick. His writing career unfolded during the decades before the rediscovery of Melville. I have no doubt that Conrad would have burst with appreciation if he'd encountered the other "greatest" writer of sea tales …
review by . August 22, 2005
Young Jim was probably never meant for the sea. As described by Joseph Conrad, the title character of "Lord Jim" had no real love for ocean voyage or relish for adventure except when it was inside his own head. His "dreams and the success of his imaginary achievements" were "the best parts of life, its secret truth, its hidden reality." His passage to the Far East was destined to prove a ticket to failure, and so it was, when he abandoned a foundering vessel filled with pilgrims to save himself.   &n …
About the reviewer
Todd Stockslager ()
Ranked #38
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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Wiki

WhenLord Jimfirst appeared in 1900, many took Joseph Conrad to task for couching an entire novel in the form of an extended conversation--a ripping good yarn, if you like. (One critic inThe Academycomplained that the narrator "was telling that after-dinner story to his companions for eleven solid hours.") Conrad defended his method, insisting that people really do talk for that long, and listen as well. In fact his chatty masterwork requires no defense--it offers up not only linguistic pleasures but a timeless exploration of morality.

The eponymous Jim is a young, good-looking, genial, and naive water-clerk on the Patna, a cargo ship plying Asian waters. He is, we are told, "the kind of fellow you would, on the strength of his looks, leave in charge of the deck." He also harbors romantic fantasies of adventure and heroism--which are promptly scuttled one night when the ship collides with an obstacle and begins to sink. Acting on impulse, Jim jumps overboard and lands in a lifeboat, which happens to be bearing the unscrupulous captain and his cohorts away from the disaster. The Patna, however, manages to stay afloat. The foundering vessel is towed into port--and since the officers have strategically vanished, Jim is left to stand trial for abandoning the ship and its 800 passengers.

Stripped of his seaman's license, convinced of his own cowardice, Jim sets out on a tragic and transcendent search for redemption. This may sound like the bleakest of ...

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Details

ISBN-10: 0451527674
ISBN-13: 978-0451527677
Author: Joseph Conrad
Publisher: Signet Classics

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"Of Heroes And Zeroes"
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