Joseph Conrad's powerful novels anticipate the bloody political conflicts of the modern worldby Clive James / September 17, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
When Clive James was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2010, as he writes in the introduction to his new book Latest Readings, he “could hear the clock ticking.” He decided to dedicate the rest of his life to reading—and re-reading. “If you don’t know the exact moment when the lights will go out, you might as well read until they do.”
One of the authors he rediscovered was Joseph Conrad, whom he had first come across as a student in Sydney. He was struck by how in novels such as Lord Jim, Nostromo and Victory, Conrad showed how revolutionary idealism is at the root of terrorist violence. In the following three essays, taken from Latest Readings, James reflects on how Conrad anticipated the worst conflicts of the 20th century, including the Russian Revolution, and how his work can inform our response to the political extremism of today.
Among the disadvantages of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which used to be called emphysema, is a susceptibility to chest infections. Despite one’s daily intake of antibiotics, different bacteria keep arriving from all directions, eager to squat. One day I was checking in at the hospital for a routine clinic, and my temperature was deemed to be too high for me to go home. I spent 10 days in the pulmonary ward, while the fever turned into pneumonia. A flood of intravenous antibiotics eventually got on top of it, but meanwhile the problem of boredom loomed. I staved it off by re-reading Lord Jim, a copy of which, along with the usual epics about swords and dragons, was on the library cart which a very sweet and obviously fulfilled senior female volunteer was wheeling around the wards. More than half a century ago Lord Jim had been one of the set novels for my first-year English class at Sydney University, and I remembered it as a boring book. I suppose I had a plan to stave off one kind of boredom with another, as a kind of inoculation.
On the strength of this long-delayed second reading, the book struck me as no more exciting than it had once seemed, but a lot more interesting. I had long known Conrad to be a great writer: on the strength of Under Western Eyes alone, he would have to be ranked high among those English writers—well, Polish writers resident in England—who, dealing with eastern Europe, analysed the struggle between the imbecility of autocracy and the imbecility of revolution. But on the strength of my earlier memories, I didn’t see Lord Jim as part of that international historical picture. Now, reading a few pages at a time as I lay fitfully on a sweat-soaked sheet while my fever refused to break, I could see that I had been laughably wrong about Conrad’s most famous book for the whole of my reading life. An international historical picture is exactly what is exemplifies.