Saturday, 18 July 2015

Joseph Conrad

When Konrad Korzeniowski left Poland he became the great English novelist Joseph Conrad. He was a fine literary prose stylist, but his novels can also be read as straightforward ripping yarns; some have been made into Hollywood films. Many of his books are set on board ship and in the harbour towns of the Far East in the last years of the square-riggers, just as sail was giving way to steam. His sympathies were very much with sail. Here is a short passage from ‘The Shadow Line’, which I am currently reading; the ship is becalmed, and the young captain — this is his first command — is worried; all the men have fever and he has just discovered that the quinine has run out:


For myself, neither my soul was highly tempered, nor my imagination

properly under control. There were moments when I felt, not only that I

would go mad, but that I had gone mad already; so that I dared not open

my lips for fear of betraying myself by some insane shriek. Luckily I

had only orders to give, and an order has a steadying influence upon him

who has to give it. Moreover, the seaman, the officer of the watch, in

me was sufficiently sane. I was like a mad carpenter making a box. Were

he ever so convinced that he was King of Jerusalem, the box he would

make would be a sane box.

I suppose during his years at sea — well, I haven’t checked his biography, but surely he must have written from experience — Conrad must have come across more than his fair share of madmen. I know I have, but that is because, as a life-long sufferer from serious depression, I have been in more psychiatric hospitals than I care to remember. So the above passage struck me enough to copy it and write about it: he is quite right. The very maddest people, the ones who are off in an alternative world and who, much of the time, one just can’t reach, are still nevertheless not mad all the time, or in everything they do. Like the carpenter above, the cook is likely to be able to produce a good meal, and  the mechanic to retain the ability to fix an engine. In fact that reminds me of a little tale I read in, of all places, the ‘Reader’s Digest’:

A chap’s car broke down way out in the wilds, though he noticed there was a high chain-link fence to one side of the road. He opened the bonnet and started poking about ineffectually inside. (Really, basic mechanical knowledge ought to be part of the driving test, but that’s another story.) One by one, people, some of them a touch odd-looking, gathered on the other side of the fence. ‘Oh Lord,’ thought the driver; ‘I’ve just realized: this is the local loony-bin.’ One or two of the people on the other side of the fence started offering advice; at first our driver tried to ignore this, but slowly he realized that much of it was good advice, which he followed, and he soon got the engine running again. As he shut the bonnet and went to get back in his car, one of the loonies, perhaps noticing his puzzled look, said ‘What you’ve got to understand is that we’re in here because we’re mad, not because we’re stupid.’


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