By Maya Jasanoff
I need to admit something right up front. I had meant to be reviewing Nostromo, Joseph Conrad’s twenty-four-players-without-a-scorecard novel set in Costaguana, a fictional country in South America. Two hundred impenetrable pages in, with three hundred more to go, I took a break to browse in a bookstore.
It’s a used-books store, called op. cit. here in Santa Fe. Crammed floor-to-ceiling with books, sporting obstacle-course piles in nearly every aisle, the good folks who run it are always willing to juice my account with a few bucks credit for used fiction I’m not saving in the bookcase. I dropped a few of these at the counter and headed into the stacks. I soon found myself fingering spines in the Biography section, unusual territory for me.
There must be dozens of biographical works on the life of Joseph Conrad, who was being lionized while he was still alive and died nearly a hundred years ago. They didn’t have all of them, but they did have one from the 21st Century – 2017, in fact—by a Guggenheim Fellow who teaches at Harvard. Just five minutes paging through Maya Jasanoff’s fine and lucid prose had me walking out with it.
Jasanoff tells the story of Jozef Teodor Konrad Korseniowski’s childhood in Poland, losing his father early and being supported by his uncle, his emigration to England as a young man to work sailing vessels and eventually steamships while writing in their close quarters. But she also tells the story of all the major novels he wrote, in accounts far more lucid than any of them, including Nostromo. After pleasurably reading all the way through her three-hundred pages of text (and a select few of the eight-hundred-and-fifty footnotes), I decided to try Lord Jim instead. Both these books, along with The Heart of Darkness and The Secret Agent, made the Modern Library’s List of the Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century.
Lord Jim has a manageable number of characters. It is burdened somewhat by overuse of the semi-colon and long, winding paragraphs, largely because large swaths of the novel are narrated by the actual live testimony of the first mate of a ship abandoned by its captain and crew to avoid going down with the passengers. Except the passengers were saved, the captain ran away, and the first mate—once held in such high regard by the rest of the crew as to be called Lord Jim—was left to be crucified by court trial.
It’s slow going for this sailor. But it’s very cool reading it from the First Modern Library Edition, 1931, lent by my younger and smarter brother who’s read Conrad’s whole canon. I might get through it by Christmas . . . but I’m not saying which Christmas.