Chance by Joseph Conrad

I didn’t like Heart of Darkness – found it strangely insubstantial in an exceedingly dense way – and was somehow encouraged to try this on the basis that I’d never heard of it.  It’s one of those books that’s Another-Author-Lite but still manages to be its own thing.  It’s Henry James with a dash of Trollope – the heroine’s father reminding me of Melmotte in situation, with the same emphasis on the belief in non-existent money generating its own temporary wealth.  Conrad and James seem to have the same way of dramatising almost indefinable moral realities and shades of character.  I often stopped to notice how much Conrad was making out of little, which is perhaps hard to make sound admiring, but I usually was.  I like there to be somewhere things are given their due.  James feels very soft to me, and Conrad feels colder and harder edged. 

The difference is effected by Marlow, who prides himself both on being cynical and outside the absurdities of everyday life and, I think, on respecting the things he values more than others.  Marlow contributes sexism in one of the ways that sets my teeth on edge most: intrusive remarks about the limitations of women.  This sort of thing always seems like the author was so overflowing with their tiresome opinions they simply couldn’t keep them to themselves long enough to write a story.  In this case, of course, I was only able to take a dislike to Marlow rather than Conrad, as Marlow is, nominally at least, a character rather than an author.  I can’t say I especially care for Marlow, but filtering the story through him does give it a particular flavour.

Flora, the heroine of a ruined, disgraced financier, is a bit like a Thomas Hardy heroine to start with, in the sense that it is her tragic difficultness which makes her strangely alluring, with her white little face and sense of damage and things left unsaid.  Conrad is more ironic about it though and doesn’t intend to see it through.  She’s really just a nice girl who’s had a hard time.  Dependant on menial spare woman type positions gained through the charitable interposition of an earnest couple, the drama of the first part of the story turns on her engagement to the brother of the earnest woman.  His intervention in her life is made to represent her salvation, but she can only barely accept it and it is greeted with horror by his sister and brother-in-law.  The second part of the story turns on the postponement on the salvation, as Flora and her husband, a captain, are joined on his ship by Flora’s ex convict father.

I didn’t enjoy a lot of the bit on the ship with Flora and Anthony and de Barral all almost hypnotised into stasis by each other, or at least de Barall hypnotising the other two.  It clarified what I didn’t like about Heart of Darkness; the effect of stagnation.  I actually find descriptions of emotional stalemate and apathy viscerally suffocating when the atmosphere is really captured, and Conrad seems to have his own version which almost disappears in nullness.  So I was pleased enough, if a little bemused, when this apparently insoluble situation is dissolved very quickly at the end.

I very much enjoyed a lot of the writing and will try something else by Conrad.


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