One of the things that always intrigues me when I read a novel by Joseph Conrad is the way he effortlessly shifts points of view mid-paragraph. It’s something I would never dare to do. But then he does many things I would never dare to do. He’s one of the most daring writers I know. He moves backwards and forwards in time and never seems to stumble in his use of the pluperfect. Without warning he will veer off into an intense description of the world seen through the eyes of a very minor character. He will introduce a backstory that goes on for fifty or more pages. A sentence that begins with the panoramic description of a continent can end with a tiny detail like a donkey kicking up some dust on a mountain trail. He has narrators begin a novel by handing over the task to a character they meet in a boat. Almost the whole of Lord Jim is written within speech marks. What a nightmare for a proofreader!
Yet he was a very nervous writer. Each paragraph was a colossal effort. I think he counted himself successful if he wrote 500 words in a day without having some sort of paroxysm.
Some topics made him more nervous than others. He said in one of his prefaces that he had no idea what two society women would talk about when they were having a chat in a drawing room and he really envied people like Henry James and Edith Wharton, who knew what they were about.
But what a great writer of love scenes!
I’ve been reading a lot of love scenes recently and I have to say that his are some of the best. Maybe I’ll quote some of the others that have impressed me another time. But here, for now, is an extract from Almayer’s Folly, Conrad’s first novel. Dain, the son of a Malay prince, is hiding in a jungle clearing, waiting for Almayer’s daughter, Nina.
I’ve missed out the section where she’s approaching with a paddle (With what skill and what endurance could those small hands manage a heavy paddle! ) and he’s wondering if she’s going to come. I suppose that would only make modern readers snigger.