Conrad was a sailor and gave us a flavour of seamanship: read ch1-20, there are segments that should not be missed.
In Youth (1828), Conrad wrote a fiction based on his first-hand experience as first mate on board a ship called the “Palestine”. He was directly involved in an incident: the Palestine caught fire and the team, including Conrad, were obliged to abandon the ship.
A trial took place and the team was cleared because they had done everything they could. In Youth, Conrad’s double was a character that he called Marlow: it was the first time Marlow was introduced. In Lord Jim, Conrad is not directly involved.
The Jeddah incident was the model of the Patna (p319-358) : Conrad intertwines facts and fiction in an osmosis.
“the pilgrims of an exacting faith” (p15): indicate a harsh religion, they are obliged to go to Mecca at least once in a lifetime. The voyage takes place in horrendous conditions: every deck is packed (children, women, men). People are suffering from heat and promiscuous conditions.
The team knows of other conditions: debauchery and absence of morals. There is an opposition between the East (the pilgrims) and the West (Europeans).
The “unconscious crowd”: trust the white man and the ship. Dramatic irony, the ship is everything but safe.
“Unconscious believers” seem to be doomed to die. The irony lays in the fact they are doomed to survive. They will prove to be right in their belief and will be saved in the end.
“A free and wandering tale” about “the acute consciousness of lost honour”. Lord Jim is not a simple book that could be called novel: this is too reductive.
From a technical point of view, it is an idealistic image, a Jamesonian novel. Conrad tries to innovate by rejecting Victorian methods of writing and patterns.
In an essay called “The New Novel” (1914), Henry James tries to analyze Conrad’s complexity: “Conrad’s first care is explicitly to set up a reciter, a definite responsible first person singular, possessed of infinite sources of reference who immediately precedes to set up another to the end that this other may conform again to the practice”.
Conrad’s mark resides in a series of embedded testimonies. The narrative complexity brings about mystery and elusiveness as if nothing could be pinned down.
E.M. Forster’s try to give a definition of elusiveness: “What is so elusive about him is that he’s always promising to make some general philosophic statement about the universe and then refraining. […]. He is misty in the middle as well as at the edges.”
Conrad was never understood by his contemporaries, for instance Virginia Woolf said:
“Mr Conrad is a Pole, which sets him apart and makes him however admirable not very helpful.” (helpful on the reflection on the English novel).
James coughed at Conrad’s technique and compared his situation of elocution to buckets of water being passed on for the improvised extinction of a fire, before reaching our apprehension. In a nutshell, Conrad creates a sense of suspense but it’s like it’s created for nothing because the end does not live up to the promises.
Thus, Conrad’s fiction writing, consisting of the adding-up of novelties, was ignored by Virginia Woolf. Why rejecting Conrad? Conrad testifies to a complexity of influences which may be what his contemporaries failed. He is a crucible of different influences.