Read of the Week: Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

This week our read comes on recommendation from Fiona, a Reader Leader in our Criminal Justice team. She’s chosen Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim.

I didn’t really want to read Lord Jim; I was told to by someone, for work, and I was not that up for it to be honest, as I’ve always found Conrad almost deliberately difficult, with hugely long sentences that you read and then think, ‘Sorry, what?’. I still think his sentences are like that…but I’m making it my recommended read in any case, for the following reasons:

One: in this job, where you read for work all the time, it felt good to read something disconnected from modern life, complicated and occasionally incomprehensible – because it is, after all, sort of what we ask the people who come to our groups to do (or, that’s how some see it, at least). So there was a kind of quid pro quo in me tackling this strange book full of sea-faring and historical terms and references. It was an interesting exercise in watching myself try at something, get bored or frustrated at times, interspersed with pay-off moments of total recognition and awe.

Two: there’s a lot in this book about self-knowledge and knowing others – both the strive for and the impossibility of both of those things. And again, there’s a link there to the work of Shared Reading.

It’s a book about two haunted men: Jim, the young man who committed a bad deed by abandoning a sinking ship (or did he? He isn’t even sure himself) is haunted by the one event in his young life that now defines him as a moral coward; and Marlow, the old man and narrator who is drawn to Jim and tries to help him and who is haunted by Jim’s inner struggle and his plight.

Three: It’s a book full of thoughts and ideas that are just….massive! (if I was an intellectual I would call them metaphysical…?) I mean the kind of sentences that shock you and stop you and that you think about for days.

Here’s one:

When Jim is facing trial, Marlow says:

“They wanted facts. Facts! They demanded facts from him, as if facts could explain anything”.

And here’s another:

“Firmness of courage or effort of fear? What do you think? What I could never make up my mind about was whether his line of conduct amounted to shirking his ghost or to facing him out…as with the complexion of all our actions, the shade of difference was so delicate that it was impossible to say.”

And one last one that I’ll leave you with:

“It is when we try to grapple with another man’s intimate need that we perceive how incomprehensible, wavering, and misty are the beings that share with us the sight of the stars and the warmth of the sun. It is as if loneliness were a hard and absolute condition of existence; the envelope of flesh and blood on which our eyes are fixed melts before the out-stretched hand, and there remains only the capricious, unconsolable, and elusive spirit that no eye can follow, no hand can grasp.”

Difficult – in all kinds of ways – eh?

PS. Big respect to my colleague George, who told me he had used it in a Shared Reading group and said it was ‘like Marmite’.

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