A synopsis of Conrad’s life at sea that begins “He had been to the corners of the earth” culminates in “He had read widely in English and French.” Conrad objected to being defined as “the greatest sea-writer,” and Knopf instead celebrated a man who “has attained a distinction as a master of the art of fiction as great as that of any living writer.”Thanks to Galsworthy’s intervention, Conrad became a best-selling Doubleday author, but Knopf quit the company soon afterward, leaving Conrad’s work with those who hadn’t been so closely coached.
In his great novella, “The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ ” (1897), about a sailor who refuses to accept that he is dying, the material world—the sailors’ “forecastle,” the London streets—is solidly present and correct. Simmons explains in his new scholarly edition, part of Cambridge’s complete printing of Conrad’s works, the novelist distinguished between writers who treat the sea as simply “a stage” and writers in whose work the sea represents “a factor in the problem of existence.” “The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ ” straddles the border. a whispering ‘daemon,’ ” Marlow is more specifically a vehicle for exploring the perspectival nature of human affairs—the idea that, for example, the Indian Ocean has no stable essence or identity beyond the excitement it inspires in one excitable twenty-year-old sailor.
On receiving word from Galsworthy, he sent Conrad an effusive letter along with an aging, error-strewn ten-page typescript entitled “Joseph Conrad,” which he had found somewhere and was gutting for information.
Conrad read the typescript carefully, and made numerous amendments and additions.
Marlow doesn’t celebrate the role played by passion or prejudice in our descriptions of the world; it’s just something he acknowledges.
In Conrad’s next Marlow story, “Heart of Darkness” (1899), set in an unnamed colony whose rulers talk exclusively in propagandist falsehoods, Marlow is the one person willing to call a rattletrap a rattletrap.