Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon and Other Tales – a book review
This short Oxford University Press edition includes four short stories by Joseph Conrad: Typhoon, Falk, Amy Foster and The Secret Sharer, and a very useful introduction. I loved it. I do not typically read shorter fiction, but these stories were incredibly satisfying in their sense of completeness and wholenesss as works of art. Nabokov once said in his Lectures on Literature that it would take an entire lifetime just to know one novel properly – but these short stories by Conrad give one the opportunity of getting familiar with his particular craft of writing in a much shorter amount of time. It is much easier to get a sense of structure of the whole from a short story than it is from a full-length novel.
Typhoon is very much a typical Conrad story, and I would recommend it as an introduction to his more complex works – it is basically a story about the truth of one’s character being tested by extreme conditions at sea. There is more to characters than might initially meet the eye and a seemingly inept captain proves a hero. It reminded me a great deal of Lord Jim.
Falk was not a particular favourite of mine, even though I acknowledge that its theme of appetite and hunger was very well carried through. The other thing I may note is that I think the introduction simplified the moral ambiguity of Falk too much for my taste (though perhaps the critic was using Conrad’s letters in some way that I am unaware of). I don’t think it’s simply a sympathetic tale of survival, and I suspect that the narrator of the story feels that there is something primitive in Falk, which is unappealing to him. Even though the narrator does not share Schomberg’s unthinking moral condemnation, he does wonder why instead of committing cannibalism, Falk did not commit suicide…. (that’s typically a Joseph Conrad-style moral problem to ponder, by the way)
Amy Foster was the short story that touched me greatly as it seems to embody all of Conrad’s greatest fears about being isolated in a foreign country that has become one’s home. The story of Yanko Goral lost on the shores of Kent, though it may be similar to other Eastern European narratives of the time, is deeply personal in Conrad’s retelling. I was heartbroken to read in the introduction that Conrad suffered a fever during his honeymoon during which he spoke in a ‘strange language’ which his wife couldn’t understand. He later guessed he must have been speaking Polish. When I read this fragment I determined to get my hands on at least an excerpt of Conrad’s letters. I need to read as much as I can about him.
The Secret Sharer is an amazing artwork in its own right. But I confess that even as I can easily imagine critics writing pages and pages about doppelgangers and potentially homosexuality, I was fascinated by the very strange treatment of justice and injustice in this tale. It seemed very unlike Conrad’s other stories.
All in all, definitely a recommended read, and it has made me think I have not planned to squeeze in enough of Conrad’s writing in his 160th birthday year…