1901, 1902, 1917, Books, Non-Fiction

Three Sea Stories: Typhoon, Falk, The Shadow-Line (1902, 1901, 1917) by Joseph Conrad

This is a collection of three pretty great Conrad novellas, the rather incredible Typhoon, Falk and The Shadow-Line. Though all three are not of the same quality, to show off many of the things that make Conrad great, including his ability to innovate and create tension at the same time. I sort of feel like he was unparalleled for that age in this, but then I haven’t read everyone from back then.

Typhoon deserves a movie. Given the kinds of innovations in filmmaking that have occurred recently I think it could actually be done extremely well, with some kind of combination of the innovations of Gravity and Inception. I wonder if anyone has the rights. Anyway…

The description of a ship in a typhoon is masterful and some of Conrad’s best writing about events in motion. You can feel the terror and uncertainty from both the force of nature and the strange Captain who seems very stupid.
But the novella is also really free with chronology and it jumps around like crazy. I have no idea off the top of my head who first wrote this way but 1902 feels really early for how aggressively Conrad jumps around. The fact that he’s able to do this while simultaneously writing such a tense story is incredibly impressive and, for the most part I think you can say this is one of Conrad’s very best works.

Of course there is the a problem with Conrad, which is problem with other European writers who wrote about the world back then, and that’s how he treats the non-European characters (who aren’t even characters in any real sense). Now, you can have an argument that observing isn’t condoning, that the behaviour of these white sailors was real and Conrad is not endorsing their behaviour. Given how Conrad writes, I tend to think that’s true. Still, the way the Chinese passengers are treated (however accurate) and the way they are used to reveal the true nature of the Captain feels cheap and lazy. Had the passengers been white people would the plot have unfolded differently? It’s certainly a major issue with what is otherwise one of Conrad’s best works.

Falk uses the same device as Lord Jim of someone telling a story in a place sailors congregate. It is necessarily both less ambitious than Lord Jim (in at least one sense) and less notable, but it’s still kind of a fascinating story. It’s been a few years since I read Lord Jim but I don’t remember if he tells a story of someone else telling a story, as happens here. In that sense this novella is actually more ambitious, or at least more aggressively modern: now you’ve got two unreliable narrators. The whole thing is a little vexing at first, until the reasons for Falk’s behaviour come out. But I think that’s the point and I think it’s a fairly effective story for how it’s told.

The Shadow-Line is more mystical/supernatural than usual for Conrad, though the fact that the main character never believes helps keep the story in his usual territory. Much like Typhoon, this one features pretty compelling descriptions of life at sea in difficult circumstances. The main character is a bit of an ass – more so than usual – but I suspect that is entirely on purpose. (It also suggests a bit of a disdain for the young that I’m not sure is entirely warranted.) I read that it might be an allegory for World War I and I kind of buy that, given what happens. I’m not sure it’s worthy of its length – I think it’s the longest of the three stories and it’s certainly not the best of the three – but it still manages to be pretty compelling, especially once the boat gets sailing.

Overall, it’s a really good collection, combining three of Conrad’s better novellas which are probably too short to be featured independently as books but are also way too long to be put in short story collections. If you like Conrad, you’re interested in stories about the sea, or you are just looking for some compelling but innovative turn-of-the-last-century fiction, this is a pretty good sample.


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