Monday, May 17, 2010

Typhoon by Joseph Conrad

The sea story. The fo'c'sle and the mizzenmast, the bosun and the 'tween-decks. The storm.

I have tremendous respect for Joseph Conrad, even though I never could finish Lord Jim. I understand that Conrad muscled himself into being a gorgeous stylist of English prose, and an utterly natural recorder of English dialogue, despite not knowing the language until he was twenty (he was born a Polish aristocrat). Still, there is something about the sea story that must only appeal to a limited cadre of readers. If you have lived on a boat and loved it, perhaps you're the cadre; but in that case you would not need the careful descriptions of rigging, pistons, and booms. They are for the landlubber, and more power to Conrad and his fellow sea-writers for trying to make it all clear to us. The trouble is, after a while, all the fo'c'sle talk does become so enervating. It would be as if an ordinary writer were to tell a tale set in a house, and painstakingly depict everything about how the faucets and the doorknobs work. Perhaps, by definition, the writer of sea stories is no ordinary writer.

In Typhoon, Conrad sets himself the task of recording two things, apart from the fo'c'sle talk which sets the stage. He records the reactions of a good, competent, but by no means dazzling man, to his first life-and-death challenge from his chosen element, the sea. We know that Captain MacWhirr ran away to be a sailor when he was fifteen, and has ploddingly loved it and never looked back. Now he is well into middle age. And Conrad tells us, as well as he can, what a typhoon is.

That last is hard to do, though I doubt anyone could do it any better or try any harder. Deafening noise, blackness, the glimpse of huge walls of water approaching the crew on deck, and then the sensation of their weight hitting, which is all the passengers below can know, all give as good an idea as any of a storm that lasts hours, and that seems to take place in some other universe, where calm and sunshine are unknown.

One more obstacle to the landlubber's enjoyment of the sea story, and one that is not remotely Conrad's fault, is the tendency while reading it to remember your undergraduate training in everlastingly analyzing Litt-trah-ture. It poisons good books in any case, but the sea story in particular is so helpless to defend itself against English Lit preciousness. Of course any voyage in a boat represents life. Of course the passengers below decks, scrambling in the midst of the storm to recover their money scattered from the broken chests, represent the futility of man. Since the passengers are "Chinamen," and are brought to order and given lifelines to cling to by the actions of the English captain and crew, I suppose today that must raise shrieks of racism and the condescension of the imperialist West towards the East. Reading the story as Conrad wrote it, and not as the poison of your training has taught you to read it, will be your best corrective here.

At the end we come away, lubbers though we are, with an affection and respect for Captain MacWhirr, unimaginative, untalkative, untried man who had to consult books about typhoons when he noticed the "glass" falling, but in whom the storm finally "met its match." And there are some great lines, lessons really, which stand out partly because they are great and partly because the ex-English major has been trained to spot them. In a lesser author they would merely be precious, attention-please, drumroll prose. In Conrad they are true, and striking. At the beginning, we read,

Captain MacWhirr had sailed over the surface of the oceans as some men go skimming over the years of existence to sink gently into a placid grave, ignorant of life to the last, without ever having been made to see all it may contain of perfidy, of violence, and of terror. There are on sea and land such men thus fortunate -- or thus disdained by destiny or by the sea.
But midway through, already things have changed. They have encountered far more than "dirty" weather, and the worst is to come. Expecting he might die, he tells his second in command,

"Don't you be put out by anything. Keep her facing it. They may say what they like, but the heaviest seas run with the wind. Facing it -- always facing it -- that's the way to get through. You are a young sailor. Face it. That's enough for any man. Keep a cool head."

"Yes, sir," said Jukes, with a flutter of the heart.

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