Now and then I stumble across some article or essay whose author claims to have pinpointed the real life Lord Jim – and every time I can’t help wondering: does it really matter? What changes, story-wise, whether Jim was based on Rajah Brooke, Stephen Crane or a combination of the two? Continue reading
“I wonder – no, I want to know, I demand to know how come that, of all books, your Book is that depressing Lord Jim,” says T.
“Oh, for… for any number of reasons. And it’s not depressing.”
“Any number… Such as?”
Such as. I start counting on fingers, and come up with ten – which is not any number, but is a number, undeniably.
“You are going to make a post out of this, aren’t you?” asks T., with that air of knowing the ways of bloggers… And well, I couldn’t very well disappoint, could I?
So, what it says on the tin: ten reasons why Conrad’s Lord Jim is My Book.
I. Because the first time I read it, I gave up on page 12, thinking that I thoroughly disliked it. In fact, by then, I was so hooked that I had to go back, and read, and finish it.
II. Because, twentyfive years later, every time I re-read it, I find some new nuance, some facet I had missed, some wonder buried a little deeper.
III. Because the main character is so beautifully written, that he is as real to me as though I’d met him in the flesh. I know Jim – I know his voice, the way he thinks, the way he moves*. He is very nearly family.
IV. Because at hard times, or facing tough choices, this is the book I go back to, even though – or perhaps just because – it is a sorrowful story of guilt, failure, regret, of missed chances, and missed redemption.
V. Because at eighteen, reading an abridged version of the English original, I fell in love with the language, and discovered its beauty, and lost my faith in literary translation. That the author was, like myself, a non-native speaker, was to become highly inspirational in later years.
VI. For the tiny scene where, after defeating Ali’s people, the villagers wildly cheer Jim with gongs and tam-tams, waving yellow, white and red banners. It’s just five lines, told by a narrator who heard Jim’s version from Marlow – a rather dizzying game of Chinese boxes – and yet, it’s… illuminated in my memory with startling vividness.
VII. Because, in lesser hands, this could have been just another exotic adventure, and a very melodramatic one – but Conrad makes it a tragic tale of the unability of living up to one’s own standards. Not only is Jim flawed, buy he succumbs to his flaws. He misunderstands himself and everyone else, pursues or dreads illusory things, fails to learn how to deal with reality, and pays (and makes many others pay) a terrible price, in the bleakest of endings.
VIII. Because at sixteen, reading this book for the first time, I learnt that writers must be merciless to their characters – never spare them anything, never protect them from themselves, from the plot, from the reader’s judgement.
IX. Because through Conrad’s complex structure and characterization, I had my first inkling of the certainty that writing was not about waiting for inspiration to open one’s heart and pour the contents on the blank page. Through readings, re-readings, analyses and dissections, LJ was my first writing course.
X. Because for twentyfive years I have beem yearning to write… not a book like this, but one with its itensity, shadows, depth, power and beauty. Wish me luck.
And what about you? What has Your Book done for you?
* And he doesn’t look like Peter O’Toole. Not in the least.
And so it happened that the creative task for week 4 of StoryMOOC was to put together a small video, with a list of one to three books, movies, paintings or whatever that we find especially inspiring – storytelling-wise.
The hardest part, frankly, was choosing just three of them – but the choice was an interesting exercise in itself.
I spent nearly five days wondering: which three pieces of inspiration would I most care to share? Which three books, movies or whatever do I want to recommend to other storytellers?
The first one, actually, was very much a given: Joseph Conrad‘s Lord Jim is the book of my life, and the standard of literary quality I aspire to, and an endless source of wonder. It was also an eye-opener the first time I came across it, with its intenseness, psychological depth, poignancy, complexity… It also made me fall in love with English, when I was eighteen – and thus very likely changed the course of my life. All else apart, as a non-native speaker, I rather hero-worship Conrad, who learned English in his twenties, and learned it well enough to become one of its great storytellers…
My second choice was less obvious, but I wanted something to do with my love of history and history’s fictional treatment. I dithered between Josephine Tey‘s The Daughter of Time and Rodney Bolt’s History Play… Bolt won the day in the end: his not-quite-novel plays with a growing distance between facts and their telling, documents and their interpretation. It plays with readers’ expectations and trust. There’s a lot of food for thought in this book – especially about the iridescence of history, a pet theme of mine. Besides, I am thankful to Rodney Bolt for sparking up my interest in Christopher Marlowe.
The last item in the list was, as usual, the hardest to pick. So many inspiring pieces, and just one slot left… In the end I settled on a detail from Jan Van Eyck‘s Arnolfini Portrait, the one you can now see at the Portrait Gallery in London. There is a round mirror on the wall, behind the merchant and his green-clad bride. The mirror shows the Arnolfinis from behind, and the window lighting the scene, and the door where the painter is working at his easel – and another small figure: the viewer. I’ve always loved it: the mirror shows the story, the storyteller at work, and the viewer/reader/listener – all together. I find it a perfect symbol for meta-literature and meta-theatre, both of which I love dearly.
So in the end these were the relevant inspiration I wanted to share – all of them well steeped in the past, aren’t they? Perhaps, it strikes me, a rather strange choice for The Future of Storytelling. Then again, I’ve always been more of a keeper than an innovator… after all, the nature of my inspiration comes as no great surprise.
- A Masterpiece in the spotlight: The Arnolfini Marriage (Jan Van Eyck) (peteomer.wordpress.com)