Joseph Conrad

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) has recently become my favorite novelist of all, supplanting such favorites as Graham Greene, John Le Carre, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. His combination of slyly understated wit, of a very perceptive awareness of the hearts of darkness in all hu­man­kind and of his own genius level of mastery of English as a second language are seen in his Lord Jim, Typhoon, Victory and Under Western Skies.

I have been slowly but surely reading his 1913 novel Chance, a book that others find not one of his best; I disagree most vehemently.

The story focuses on a young woman Flora de Barral who runs off to sea in holy wedlock with a Merchant Marine Captain Anthony who is more than old enough to be her father. The novel deals, quite captivatingly, with the repercussions of this marriage. The Anthonys simply want a private life in which they mind their own business but are surrounded by people who make it impossible.

Much of the time in this novel, Conrad uses the first person narrator Charles Marlow who is constantly brooding on the significance of everything he sees and hears with respect to the couple.

One situation has Marlow conversing with an unnamed acquaintance about the gap between people with real integrity, such as the Anthonys who , through no fault of their own, get caught up in absurd, even traumatic situations; and the people who think they’re better than everyone else, but are actually ignorant, if not downright destructive guttersnipes:

“‘They say,’ pursued the unabashed Marlow, ‘that we laugh from a sense of superiority. Therefore, observe, simplicity, honesty, warmth of feeling, delicacy of heart and of conduct, self-confidence, magnanimity are laughed at, because the presence of these traits in a man’s character often puts him into difficult, cruel or absurd situations, and makes us, the majority who are fairly free as a rule from these peculiarities, to feel pleasantly superior.’ “

One could say that Conrad had a very cynical view of human nature but what distinguished him from other writers with a similar worldview was his having made peace with this cynical view and the sense of humor he maintained.

Finally Conrad incorporated elements of his own experiences as a Merchant Marine officer from the age of 18 to 37 when he left that life behind to devote himself full time to writing into his fiction, especially drawing on his own travels to the Far East and other such exotic locales. The grand impersonal immensities of the ocean and its depths, combined paradoxically with its ability to shelter the individual from the toxic humanity on land, held ardent fascination for him, as seen in another quote from Chance, in which the chief petty officer is on night watch:

“The very sea, with short flashes of foam bursting out here and there in the gloomy distances, the unchangeable, safe sea sheltering a man from all passions, except its own anger, seemed queer to the quick glance he threw to windward where the already effaced horizon traced no reassuring limit to the eye.”

One highly recommended novel.


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1 reply
  1. Geo Platt
    Geo Platt says:

    If you are interested in Ian Fleming, Oleg Gordievsky, John le Carré or Kim Philby you should have heard of Pemberton’s People in MI6 by now. Colonel Alan Pemberton CVO MBE knew all of them and features as a leading protagonist in Beyond Enkription in The Burlington Files series.

    The book “Beyond Enkription” by Bill Fairclough is the first stand-alone fact-based espionage novel of six autobiographical tomes in The Burlington Files series. As the first book in the series, it provides a gripping introduction to the world of British intelligence and espionage. It is an intense electrifying spy thriller that had me perched on the edge of my seat from beginning to end. The twists and turns in the interwoven plots kept me guessing beyond the epilogue. The characters were wholesome, well-developed and intriguing. The author’s attention to detail added extra layers of authenticity to the narrative.

    In real life Bill Fairclough aka Edward Burlington (MI6 codename JJ) was one of Pemberton’s People in MI6; for more about that see a brief News Article dated 31 October 2022 published in TheBurlingtonFiles website. The series follows the real life of Bill Fairclough (and his family) who worked not only for British Intelligence, but also the CIA et al for several decades. The first tome is set in 1974 in London, Nassau and Port au Prince: see TheBurlingtonFiles website for a synopsis.

    Fairclough is not a professional but his writing style is engaging and fast-paced, making it difficult to put the book down as he effortlessly glides from cerebral issues to action-packed scenes which are never that far apart. Beyond Enkription is the stuff memorable spy films are made of. It’s raw, realistic, punchy, pacy and provocative. While the book does not feature John le Carré’s “delicate diction, sophisticated syntax and placid plots” it remains a riveting and delightful read.

    This thriller is like nothing we have ever come across before. Indeed, we wonder what The Burlington Files would have been like if David Cornwell (aka John le Carré) had collaborated with Bill Fairclough whom critics have likened to “a posh Harry Palmer”. They did consider collaborating but did not proceed as explained in the aforementioned News Article. Nonetheless, critics have lauded Beyond Enkription as being ”up there with My Silent War by Kim Philby and No Other Choice by George Blake”.

    Overall, Beyond Enkription is a brilliantly refreshing book and a must read, especially for espionage cognoscenti. I cannot wait to see what is in store for us in the future. In the meantime, before reading Beyond Enkription do visit TheBurlingtonFiles website. It is like a living espionage museum and breathtaking in its own right.


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