BY CYNTHIA HAVEN
On May 10, the Another Look book club will weigh in on Conrad’s The Shadow-Line, written by one of the darkest and most prophetic voices in English fiction.
The author Joseph Conrad insisted his work The Shadow-Line: A Confession was not a book about the supernatural. But sometimes the real can be spookier than the imagined, and what we observe outpaces our worst nightmares. So it is with Conrad’s late novella.
“The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness,” Conrad said a few years before World War I. Certainly the rest of the century bore out his conclusions.
The Another Look book club will discuss Conrad’s 1917 novella and the Polish author at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 10, in the Bechtel Conference Room of Encina Hall. The Shadow-Line is available at Stanford Bookstore, Kepler’s in Menlo Park and Bell’s Books in Palo Alto.
The panel will be moderated by Another Look director Robert Pogue Harrison, an acclaimed author and professor of Italian literature. Harrison is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and the host for the popular radio talk showEntitled Opinions. He will be joined by drama Professor Rush Rehm, artistic director of the Stanford Repertory Theater, and Monika Greenleaf, associate professor of Slavic languages and literatures and of comparative literature.
The event is free and open to the public.
“I chose this short novel because of its exquisite prose and quintessentially Conradian drama,” Harrison said. “It probes the enigma of fate by putting circumstance, landscape and depth psychology into play all at the same time.”
He added, “Conrad is a master when it comes to putting his characters through trials. The Shadow-Line is one of the most intense of Conradian trials of character. It is not one of his best known novels and is certainly deserving of another look.”
Conrad’s short masterpiece describes the “green sickness” of late youth, when a young man desires to “flee from the menace of emptiness.” The unnamed narrator’s flight ends when he is captain of a merchant ship in Southeast Asia; the terrors of sickness and the sea bring him to grief, maturity and wisdom.
In a two-page author’s note, Conrad denies the supernatural has anything to do with his story. We are meant, then, not to draw a line between the mate’s superstitious and feverish fear of his former captain, buried at sea, and the destruction of the ship to weather, wind and contagious fever. The mate says the ship will not have luck until it passes the spot where the reckless and demented captain was put overboard.
The Shadow-Line can also be read as a psychological study of the disintegration of an entire ship’s crew. That would be in keeping with Conrad’s worldview; he once called life a “mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself – that comes too late – a crop of inextinguishable regrets.”
The year The Shadow-Line was published, The Argus praised the novel: “It holds the reader under a spell so strong that the book must be finished at one sitting, and even when it is laid aside it keeps its grip on the memory, and the impression left remains with a curious persistence.”
The Sunday Times wrote, in 1917, “Mr. Conrad is an expert in the business of suggesting mystery and the action of malevolent agencies and the endurance of a man under the buffets of fate. Not even Coleridge has held passers-by more spellbound under a tale of horrors on the ocean than does Mr. Conrad in this work.”
Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski – Joseph Conrad – was born in 1857 in a largely Jewish village in territory that is now Ukraine; it had been part of the Polish-Lithuanian Respublica before partition, and at the time of his birth was part of the Russian Empire. His father was a Polish patriot and man of letters, and the family had a migratory existence. Conrad began a seafaring career as a teenager, and eventually joined the British merchant marine and became an English citizen.
He was one of the very few writers to establish his literary reputation in a foreign tongue. (Vladimir Nabokov comes to mind as well, but the author of Pale Fire and Lolita was reared in an aristocratic Russian family; however, he later claimed English was the first language he learned in his trilingual household.)
World War I was much on Conrad’s mind as he wrote Shadow-Land, and the book is dedicated to his son Borys, a soldier. By the time it was published, Borys had returned from the front, shell-shocked and gassed in the new technology of warfare. The war’s end would change forever the face of the Europe Conrad remembered.
Shortly after the war, a visitor to the Conrad household observed: “Conrad spoke fluently, but his accent, his manner of expression were such as I observed among the inhabitants of the south-eastern Polish borderlands. One felt clearly that when he thought of Poland, it was of a Poland of half-a-century ago. When I listened to him, I could not evade the impression that I am being carried back in time and talk to one of the people of long ago.”
Another Look is a seasonal book club that draws together Stanford’s top writers and scholars with distinguished figures from the Bay Area and beyond. The books selected are short masterpieces you may not have read before.
“Some insignificant boy, from the borderlands, from an out-of-the-way province, from some place called Poland, became a captain in the British Merchant Marine without any backing.” So Joseph Conrad described his own history to a Polish newspaper in 1914. And from that simple sentence flows the plot of The Shadow-Line, his late 1917 novel.
The Shadow-Line‘s subtitle – “A Confession” – is not an offhand flourish. The story closely parallels Conrad’s own beginnings – in fact, he said, it was “not a story really but exact autobiography.” That comment, however, should be taken with a grain of salt.
Three of Conrad’s works – “Falk,” “The End of the Tether,” and The Shadow-Line – have elements of the same plot: a ship in the Bangkok harbor, waiting for a new captain. In “The End of the Tether,” however, the command is offered to Hamilton, a hanger-on at the Sailors’ Home, who refuses it; in The Shadow-Line, the Sailors’ Home manager wants to get rid of the indebted Hamilton, and so manipulates to secure the command for Hamilton rather than the narrator. Conrad scholar Norman Sherry suggests that the first version is essentially correct, but that Conrad was initially refused because of his heavy accent.
Here’s what happened: On January 9, 1888, Conrad was staying at the Officers’ Home in Singapore. The harbor master told him that the captain had died onboard the Otago, and the British Consul in Bangkok was looking for a replacement. Conrad took a steamer to Bangkok that night and reached the city four days later. A little over a year after he had passed his master’s exam, he was now the “master” of a 345-ton iron sailing barque. On January 24, he assumed his first command.
One contemporary described the role of the ship’s master this way: “His word is law, which nobody must dispute, and which permits of no argument. … He stands no watch, comes and goes when he pleases, and is accountable to no one except to his owners. He has entire control of the discipline of the ship; so much so that none of the officers under him have any authority to punish a seaman, or to use any force without the master’s order, except only in cases of urgent necessity that admit of no delay.” The task is a lonely one, and even intimate friendships are of men who were not equals. Nevertheless, Conrad found the role intoxicating: “Command is strong magic,” he writes in The Shadow-Line.
Like the incident onboard the ship Melita in The Shadow-Line, in real-life the former captain of the Otago had sold the ship’s supply of quinine and substituted a worthless powder. The captain, too, had spent most of his time during his last voyage locked in his cabin, playing the violin. And in real-life, the German chief mate had taken the ship to Bangkok rather than Singapore (where there were many qualified masters), expecting to be put in temporary command. Conrad’s arrival aroused his resentment.
Once onboard, Conrad faced a crew that was suffering from tropical fever, dysentery, and cholera. The steward was an opium addict, a gambler, and a thief.
Because of the calms on the Gulf of Siam, the ship took three weeks to travel the 800 nautical miles to Singapore, and he felt the full weight of the loneliness of command.
Conrad compounded the situation with his own questionable calls. After several voyages between Sydney and Melbourne, he was inspired to take a faster but longer and more dangerous route, between New Guinea and the northern tip of Australia. Perhaps he wanted to test his courage in his new command. In his own words, he “insisted on leaving Sydney during a heavy southeast gale. Both the pilot and the tug-master were scandalised by my obstinacy, and they hastened to leave me to my own devices while still inside Sydney Heads. The fierce southeaster caught me up on its wings, and no later than the ninth day I was outside the entrances of Torres Strait.” He saw two vessels that had been wrecked on the reefs, but brought his own ship through the straits safely.
Not quite straight autobiography, as he had claimed – but close enough that it’s the story he had to tell, and retell, and retell again, remembering the harrowing trip, his own failures, and the headiness of first command.
On a South Sea voyage in 1893, John Galsworthy met Joseph Conrad, then the first mate of a sailing ship harbored in Adelaide, Australia. The chance meeting convinced Galsworthy, the future author of The Forsyte Saga, to give up law for good and become a writer instead. As he wrote decades later, ”no other writer knew him quite so long, or knew him both as sailor and novelist.”
Six year’s after Conrad’s death, Galworthy’s Two Essays on Conrad was privately printed in 1930, in a fine edition of less than a hundred copies – pale gray blue boards, backed with dark blue cloth. One of them is in Special Collections at Stanford’s Green Library.
A few excerpts:
Many writers knew my dead friend, and will write of him better than I; but no other writer knew him quite so long, or knew him both as sailor and novelist. It was in March 1883, that I first met Conrad on board the English sailing ship “Torrens” in Adelaide Harbour. He was superintending the stowage of cargo. Very tan he looked in the burning sunlight – tanned, with a peaked brown beard, almost black hair, and dark brown eyes over which the lids were deeply folded. He was thin, not tall, his arms very long, his shoulders broad, his head set rather forward. He spoke to me with a strong foreign accent. He seemed to me strange on an English ship. For fifty-six days I sailed in his company. … With the crew he was popular; they were individuals to him, not a mere gang; and long after he would talk of this or that among them, especially of old Andy the sail-maker: ‘I liked that old fellow you know.’ … Ever the great teller of a tale, he had already nearly twenty years of tales to tell. Tales of ships and storms, of gun-running adventure, of the Malay seas, and the Congo; of men and men; all to a listener who had the insatiability of a twenty-five-year old.
It was the sea that gave Conrad to the English language. A fortunate accident – he might so easily have been acquired by the French. He started his manhood, as it were, at Marseilles. In a letter to me of May 8th, 1905, he says: ‘In Marseilles I did begin life thirty-one years ago. It’s the place where the puppy opened his eyes.’ He was ever more at home with French literature than with English, spoke that language with less accent, liked Frenchmen, and better understood their clearer thoughts. And yet, perhaps not quite an accident, for after all he had the roving quality which has made the English the great sea nation of the world; and, I suppose, his instinct led him to seek in English ships the fullest field of expression for his roving nature. England was to him, too, the romantic country; it had been enshrined for him, as a boy in Poland, by Charles Dickens. He always spoke of Dickens with the affection we have for the writers who captivate our youth.
… he was habitually impatient with labels, and pigeonholes, with cheap theorising, and word-debauchery. He stared life very much in the face, and distrusted those who didn’t. Above all, he had the keen humor which plays old Harry with class and catalogues, with all ideals and aspirations, too, not grounded in the simplest springs of human nature. He could not bear the clichés of so-called civilization. His sense of humor indeed was far greater than one might think from his work. He laughed with an almost ferocious enjoyment of the absurd.
I saw little of Conrad during the war. Of whom did one see much? He was caught in Poland at the opening of that business, and it was some months before he succeeded in getting home. The tall words – ‘war to end war,’ and the rest of it, left him, a continental and a realist, appropriately cold. When it was over he wrote: “So I send these few lines to convey to you both all possible good wishes for unbroken felicity in your new home and many years of peace. At the same time I’ll confess that neither felicity nor peace inspire me with much confidence. There is an air of ‘the packed valise’ about these two divine but unfashionable figures. I suppose the North Pole would be the only place for them, where there is neither thought nor heat, where the very water is stable, and the democratic bawlings of the virtuous leaders of mankind die out into a frozen unsympathetic silence.” Conrad had always a great regard for men of action, for workmen who stuck to their last and did their own jobs well; he had a corresponding distrust of amateur omniscience, and handy wiseacres; he curled his lip at political and journalistic protestation; cheap-jackery and clap-trap of all sorts drew from him a somewhat violently expressed detestation. I suppose what he most despised in life was ill-educated theory, and what he most hated blatency and pretence. He smelled it coming round the corner and at once his bristles would rise.
He never shirked. In an age more and more mechanical, more and more given to short cuts and the line of least resistance, the example of his life’s work shines out – its instinctive fidelity, his artist’s desire to make the finest think he could. Fidelity! Yes, that is the word which best sums up his life and work. The last time I saw Conrad – about a year ago – I wasn’t very well, and he came and sat in my bedroom, full of affectionate solicitude. It seems, still, hardly believable that I shall not see him again. His wife tells me that a sort of homing instinct was on him in the last months of his life; that he seemed sometimes to wish to drop everything and go back to Poland. Birth calling to Death – no more than that, perhaps, for he loved England, the home of his wandering, of his work, of his last long landfall. If to a man’s deserts is measured out the quality of his rest, Conrad shall sleep well.
The Shadow-Line earned wide acclaim when it was published – though one critic said it was “scarcely one of Conrad’s big achievements.” That judgment aligned with the Achievement-and-Decline view of Conrad’s career. Yet the book’s brooding and ominous mood is now considered to be Conrad’s sustained response to the Great War, and the cultural climate it created in Britain. It is considered by many a gem among his later works.
A sampling from the many reviews at the time of its publication in 1917:
Mr. Conrad’s “confession” is based, we are to suppose, upon some episode of his early experience – how closely must be, as always, a matter for rather tantalizing surmise. Some analogous incident lies, it is clear, in his memory, and interests him in retrospect not only for its own sake but because he sees it as typical of what in some form is bound to happen to every man.
– “Three Ages of Youth,” The Nation, 28 June 1917
The almost uncanny power of description which is revealed in all of Joseph Conrad’s books invests his new novel, The Shadow-Line, with an atmosphere of awe and mystery. It holds the reader under a spell so strong that the book must be finished at one sitting, and even when it is laid aside it keeps its grip on the memory, and the impression left remains with curious persistence.
– “Joseph Conrad’s New Book,” The Argus, 29 June 1917
For in the era of steam and electricity men have neither time nor patience for quests. As though great experiences were so much merchandise, if the one desired be not immediately at hand we take a substitute and go our way, ignorant of lack. And as for absorbing passions, we distrust them to the point of erecting a barrier betwixt us and them, and labelling our own field “sanity,” and the mysterious land beyond, first “eccentricity” and then “delusion.” …
About The Shadow-Line there is an extraordinary atmosphere of beauty. Not merely in its verbal descriptions of the “gorgeous and barren sea,” or of the ship which, “clothed in canvas to her very trucks … seemed to stand as motionless as a model ship set on the gleams and shadows of polished marble,” though not even in “Youth has the author dipped his pen in whiter magic. It is a beauty deeper than mere words go. Though Mr. Conrad’s work has always run the feeling that however much his favourite virtue, fidelity, may profit a man’s soul, his earthly existence is largely the sport of circumstances. Over and over again his heroes go down into the darkness after a losing fight with villainy or stupidity or mere inertia – dauntless and gallant figures who leave but a name behind to drift upon the light and treacherous airs about obscure gulfs and headlands until in, as it were, some breathless calm, even the name sinks into the forgetful sea.
But in The Shadow Line this is not the case. Now and then there is struck a tense note of foreboding, but the anticipated blow never falls. It is as though the gods of disaster are disarmed for once by the youth and courage shining beneath their hand. So, a beauty of human flesh and blood facing triumphantly, if momentarily, the eternal forces of the universe is in the book; the beauty of pause, as though its handful of characters were lifted for an instant and held between heaven and earth as in a crystal sphere; a beauty of independence, of isolation, and accomplishment. There is something complete, something almost sculptural, about it.
– “A Conrad Hero’s Quest for Truth,” The New York Times Review of Books, 22 April, 1917
The whole thing makes quite a short story, but in it are half a dozen pictures of sailormen, each so sharp and memorable as to make us feel we have lived with them.
– Arthur Stanley Wallace, ”A New Tale by Mr. Conrad,” The Manchester Guardian, 19 March, 1917
Andrzej Wajda in 1974
The Shadow-Line is the story of the inner life of its characters, told through a series of events – and that’s the very quality that defeated the eminent Polish film director, Andrzej Wajda when making his 1976 film, one of his few cinematic failures: “I pursued the mood, the elusive nature of words, understatement. And so I created an inarticulate, elusive, and uncommunicative film.” The film, Smuga Cienia, nevertheless won the Special Jury Prize at the 1976 Polish Film Festival.
The director wrote years later that the book has “a clear, easy-to-follow plot; nonetheless, this prose is difficult to adapt for film.” He made the film in English – another decision that caused misgivings: “Why the hell do I need an English film?” he would ask himself.
Wajda, who turned 90 in March, bypassed a more straightforward idea to make this film – and we can only regret that he made one, not two, films. Screenwriter Bolesław Sulik approached him to make a film about a little-known incident in Conrad’s life. During World War I, Conrad had enlisted on a decoy ship designed to trace German U-boats. The small merchant ship was equipped with a hidden cannon.
The crew was not happy about having a famous writer onboard, given the danger of their mission and their responsibility for his safety. When Conrad developed a bad cold, that was the moment they had waited for. They put him ashore. He was grabbed by the British police watching coastal traffic. Conrad’s heavy Polish accent didn’t help, and he his friends had a hard time getting him out of jail.
“Describing this anecdote now after many years, I can’t understand why I dropped this project,” Wajda muses years later. “Of course, Sulik’s screenplay was not as good as The Shadow-Line, but its essence was beautiful and it contained a noble film idea. However, at that time I believed it would be easier to adapt Conrad’s story than to write an original screenplay about him.”
After a month of filming, he wrote in his diary in October 1975: “I’ve had enough – I’ve lost heart for illustrating something that was written and meant to be read.”
“It is true that this film is different from my other films; it is ascetic, dry, with a single plot. It is a surprise for me as well. It turned out that Conrad’s short story is so cristalline, concise, and perfect in itself that it does not give in to any transformations. Everything that was added was artificial and unnecessary.”
In 1981, he wrote: “If you want to be faithful to a novel which you are transferring to the screen, you must demolish it completely in order to put the pieces back together again and give it an opportunity to live on screen. When I think about adaptation I recall what Hamlet said to his mother: ‘I must be cruel, only to be kind.’ I wasn’t cruel enough to The Shadow-Line.”
“Conrad’s novels were our best loved reading during the Nazi occupation. Oh, how we loved to read them! But the problems contained in Conrad’s works, when presented in the reality of the Warsaw Uprising, acquire dramatic value, clarity and a cinematic character, which my film The Shadow Line is missing.”
Still want to give the film a try? It’s online here. You can hear the English beneath the Polish. Below, Marek Kondrat as the Captain in The Shadow-Line.
In 2014, Drama Prof. Rush Rehm directed the rarely performed Moby Dick – Rehearsed, Orson Welles’s adaptation of Melville’s novel. (A terrific show – read about it here.) We thought Rehm, the founding director of the Stanford Repertory Theater and one of the panelists for our May 10 event on The Shadow-Line, might have some thoughts as an actor and director about Conrad’s short novel and Melville’s long one – both about disasters at sea – plus some thoughts about The Shadow-Line more generally. What he said:
The Stanford Repertory Theater staged Moby Dick – Rehearsed two summers ago. Both of course are set on sailing ships and the sea, but Conrad’s story lacks (purposely) a specific goal or end. No white whale in The Shadow Line! As you know, the arrival of the ship through the doldrums and storm only marks one stage in the narrator’s journey, as he enlists a new crew for what lies ahead. The very shadow-quality of the quest in Conrad’s story suggests something of the mystery of crossing into adulthood, of growing into age. In this sense, the story lacks the clarity of arrival and certainty of discovery and attainment that defines narratives with a more romantic bent. Conrad’s hero clearly has gone through, endured, and learned from an extraordinary set of experiences, but his arrival is to a place where the compulsions are to carry on, not to revel in arrival or settle for whatever one can glean from what has past.
Robert Hampson, a Conrad scholar at the University of London, offered these comments on The Shadow-Line for The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad:
The Shadow-Line begins with the narrator’s younger self going through a period of crisis, which is presented as characteristic of ‘that twilight region between youth and maturity’. He gives up his job as mate and moves into the Officers’ Sailors’ Home, while waiting for a ship to take him back to England. There, he is unexpectedly offered the chance of commanding a ship whose captain has died, and jumps at the opportunity as the ‘ultimate test of my profession’. The story is then constructed in terms of the young captain’s expectations and their frustration by experience. His new role, which he at first sees as the ‘magical solution of all his life-problems’, proves to involve ‘an intricate network of moral imperatives, psychological discoveries, and social responsibilities’ [according to one critic]. Instead of the ‘more intense life’ that he had expected, he finds himself ‘bound hand and foot’; instead of feeling supported by the continuity of captaincy through the ‘succession of men’ who have been his predecessors, he experiences intense ‘moral isolation’. Subsequently, in the various crises the ship faces he feels himself judged and found wanting. In the end, however, through confronting his feelings of guilt and self-doubt, he achieves his professional identity. …
The Shadow-Line recounts a rite of passage into mature identity within the male world of the Merchant Navy. This, however, is not the only border with which the story is concerned. There are also the ‘shadow-lines’ between sanity and madness, the natural and the supernatural, and life and death. Ransome, for example, is not just the epitome of fidelity to duty, but, with his bad heart, is a constant reminder of the imminence of death. Arguably, what the captain learns is what Ransome physically embodies; the performance of duty in the full consciousness of one’s own weakness, the pursuit of ‘a difficult vocation upon an ocean of incertitude’. Liminal states and moments of transition, to which the title The Shadow-Line draws attention, are a recurrent feature of Conrad’s late fiction. Death, in particular, increasingly becomes a focus of attention.
When Joseph Conrad’s first child was born in 1898, the author wrote to Stephen Crane: “A male infant arrived yesterday and made a devil of a row… It’s a ghastly nuisance.”
Yet The Shadow-Line is dedicated to Borys, the first of his two sons. Borys was a soldier in the “Great War” who returned from the front, shell-shocked and gassed. Years later, in 1970, he published a memoir, My Father: Joseph Conrad.
A few excerpts:
When I visited Pent Farm recently I was surprised to see how little it had changed in appearance; and the room in which my Father used to work looked astonishingly familiar. There was an oak table in the corner in the same position as I remembered his desk, and an armchair by the fire exactly as his huge wingchair had been placed. This chair, which remains in my memory as the focal point of the scenery upon the stage of our family life, invariably presented its back to the door so that, when in use, the occupant was invisible to anyone entering he room. Invisible, that is, with the exception of one foot which protruded at the side, owing to his invariable habit of sitting with his knees crossed. I believe we could all assess the mood of the head of the house by a surreptitious glance at that foot. If it was motionless it could be safely assumed that its owner was reading or thinking, and in a reasonably tranquil frame of mind, but any movement of the limb indicated all was not well. In fact, the degree of his displeasure oculd be fairly accurately gauged by the rapidity with which the foot waggled, and really violent movement was a danger signal unwise to ignore.
At this point it is necessary to mention that my Father had difficulty in pronouncing certain words in English, and there were those who wrote about him as having a strong foreign accent, but I consider this to be a gross overstatement. Nevertheless, it is true that, when unwell or under emotional strain his mispronunciation became more marked. We in the family were, of course, familiar with most of the words with which he had difficulty but occasionally one would crop up which was not known to all of us. This happened after our visit to the doctor and, for a short time, caused me acute distress.
First the dynamite onstage conversation, now the movie!
Our February 2 event with legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog discussing J.A. Baker‘s The Peregrine – and so much more – is now available on youtube, in a full-length version (here) and a highlights version (here). Or look below.
Another Look’s director, Prof. Robert Harrison, a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and host for the popular “Entitled Opinions” radio talk show, was the interlocutor for the discussion.
The event was covered by Caille Millner in the San Francisco Chronicle (here). Meanwhile, the highlights version is below, and the full hour-and-a-half discussion below that.