This is only the second Joseph Conrad book I have read, the other being The Heart of Darkness, but they both have several things in common, most notably boats and a sense that what happens on the water cannot always be explained naturally.
The story starts with a seaman giving up his position on a steamer because he is bored and wants to go home but he then gets offered the chance of his own captaincy and jumps at the chance. But the boat seems to be under the curse of the previous captain who went mad and tried to send the crew on a suicidal journey until the first mater Burns stood up and questioned the captain who died shortly afterwards. Stranded in calm seas with the crew becoming ill Burns is convinced that the old captain is against them until he comes on deck from his own sick bed and laughs in the face of the storm he believes has been sent to destroy them. The winds pick up and the boat limps into Singapore and then with a fresh crew the narrator and captain heads out to sea again.
Is it well written?
This short story is prefaced by a long introduction and an author’s note that tries hard to make it clear to the reader that it is not a supernatural tale. What it does seem to be about is the First World War and the bravery and camaraderie of men facing perhaps certain death and although it is not that clear if you have read the introduction that message does come across.
Should it be read?
As a metaphor for the First World War and the bravery of the men then it provides quite a good idea of how those facing death can behave. But to my mind the old captain plays a role here and his curse and the idea of his body being buried being a point at which the boat cannot get across could easily represent the difficulties the troops had in the First World War had getting past just a few yards in trench warfare and who is the mad old captain – any number of war time leaders fit the frame but presumably the Kaiser is the intended target? Not sure but the fact you go away thinking about not just the war but the sea and its strange ways means this short volume is worth reading.
More Conrad including the Heart of Darkness if you haven’t read that and on my shelf waiting to be gone through is The Secret Agent by him as well. It also reminds me a bit of Moby Dick so the classic by Herman Melville might be a good next stop.
Version read – Penguin Twentieth century classic paperback
this short but odd tale of the sea ends and leaves you wondering if everything that Conrad writes has this edge of the supernatural to it. It also reminds you a liuttle bit of the Rhyme of the Ancient mariner and Moby Dick in terms of the battle a sailor has not only with the elements but with their own mind
Highlights from chapters five and six
* The boat still sits in the ocean without a breeze and with the medicine gone the men resign themselves to illness and the captain is moved by their dedication and attitude – the only tangible moment when you think of the troops in the trenches
* Burn’s is still convinced that the fate of the ship is being determined by the old caprain and black clouds surround the ship with the lifeless men doing what they can to prepare the sails and deck for a storm
* As the darkness descends Burns comes up on deck and laughs at the curse and tells the captain it has to be dealt with head-on and it seems to do the trick and thre winds pick up and they manage to get into Singapore
* The whole crew except for the captain, Burns and Ransome, who has been the only other member of crew not to fall prey to the sickness, are taken off the ship into hospitals and then the captain gets ready with a shipwrecked crew to carry on
it does make you think of the First World War not just because of the bravery the men show against almost impossible odds but also as Giles says to the captain in port there is never any rest they just have to keep going (fighting) on.
Review will probably come shortly after Christmas Day…
The story starts to get interesting as the ship and the crew pit their mental strength against an unforseen enemy – the weather and the curse of the former captain.
Highlights from chapter Four
* The boat is hardly moving at all and the men are getting exhausted trying to get the boat to move faster and one by one they go down ill but the captain is relieved because he has six bottles of quinine to fight the fever
* Burns, the first mate continues to improve but is obsessed with the idea that it is the old captain that is holding up the ship and his theories start to get to the captain when freak winds push the sjip back, the spare bottles of quinine turn to dust and the crew starts to go down with illness
Can they escape from the calm sea? More tomorrow…
Lunchtime came and went and the afternoon was spent with my sons watching Flushed Away, which was a great film, so here is the delayed thoughts on what was meant to be a short story choice for this week.
The minute that Conrad used his own author’s notes to challenge the idea that the book was a supernatural story you knew that you were in for some content that would cause some people to think that way and the evidence for it starts coming in chapter three.
Highlights from chapter three
* Now installed as captain the first task is to get briefed on the boat and find out what happened about the former captain from the first mate a man called Burns who seems to have taken an instant dislike to the new captain
* Burn tells the story of how the captain, a 65 year old violin player, went slowly mad and was in the process of taking the ship and crew on an impossible voyage to Hong Kong before Burns confronted him and made him see sense although the captain cursed him and the ship
* As they wait in port one by one the crew start to fall ill until Burn’s himself is taken off the ship and taken to a hospital where he begs for the boat not to sail without him and he is returned aboard and the boat limps out to sea waiting for a breeze to come
This can hardly be called a lunchtime post but anyway until I get back to posting at the right time here here are the highlights from chapter two
* Having been given a command of the boat the narrator heads back to the seaman’s hostel and discovers that the steward had been trying to shoehorn his troublesome guest Hamilton into the job to get rid of him
* Captain Giles, who seems to know all about the intrigue, is pleased for him in a subdued way and walks with him to the boat carrying him to the port to meet up with his boat and because he is three hours late the captain of the steamer is hostile towards him for the entire trip
* He trembles when he first sees the boat he will command and boards her with a mixture of pride and trepidation and starts to look arund her and hears a humming from below which stops as soon as he starts to descend the stairs
More hopefully close to a recognisable lunchtime tomorrow…
Life is hard at the moment and I have to go and have a business meeting in town so have cut my lunch short so this is only chapter one.
Highlights from most of chapter one
* The story starts with a man who has decided to resign his position as mate on a steamer that is berthed in a Turkish harbour despite the fact that he likes the boat and the captain
* He goes to stay until he heads home in a seaman’s hotel and meets a strange navigator who makes him discover that there is a vacancy for a master’s job and urges him to go to the harbour office to apply for it before a rival, Hamilton, at the boarding house also applies for it
* He goes to the Harbour master and is criticised for not coming sooner and is told about the position and accepts it and signs a contract to that effect and is told to get ready to head off that evening to go and meet the boat
Most of the first half of this book by Joseph Conrad is taken up by an introduction, bilbiopgraphy and then the author’s own note before the text starts. Rather than devle straight into the story (and I should have done this yesterday) here are the highlights of all of the above to put the book in context
The book was written in 1916 and the author’s son was at war and he came to with a mixture of pride for his offspring’s efforts and envy because he was unable to fight himself so he put his energy into this book and finished in in three months
The book includes biographical touches, concurs with Conrad’s view of war, which was based on a basic acceptance of human beligerance and was something that he fought hard to keep out of a short stories volume and have printed on its own
He dismisses that the book is about the supernatural as some critics must have suggested and instead talks about his owen experiences at sea and the pleasure and importance of commanding a group of men that would die for their comrades