Joseph Conrad’s “A Smile of Fortune”- book review

I read A Smile of Fortune as a printout from Penn State of Electronic Classics.

I was attracted to it because I was researching material for a story I was writing which was set in Mauritius. Naturally I was very excited to find that Joseph Conrad visited Mauritius too – and that he wrote about it.

The way I first found that Conrad visited Mauritius was rather amusing. In his story, he calls it “Pearl of the Ocean… a pearl distilling much sweetness upon the world” – and the tourist brochure described this rather enthusiastically.

Let’s have a look at the opening lines of the story…

“Ever since the sun rose I had been looking ahead. The ship glided gently in smooth water. After sixty days’ passage I was anxious to make my landfall, a fertile and beautiful island of the tropics. The more enthusiastic of is inhabitants delight in describing it as the “Pearl of the Ocean.” Well, let us call it the “Pearl”. It’s a good name. A pearl distilling much sweetness upon the world.

This is only a way of telling you that first-rate sugar-cane is grown there. All the population of the Pearl lives for it and by it. Sugar is their daily bread, as it were. and I was coming to them for a cargo of sugar in hope of the crop being good and the freights being high.”

I would kill to be able to write stories opening like this. I was tempted to keep typing up this quote as it goes on.

It works by its contrasts. First, the idealized version of the sailor. Then the ideal version of the tropics. The vision of the tropics poisoned by the thoughts of merchandize, which then in turn infuse the description of the sailor. In fact, the narrator says straightforwardly.

“Horrid thoughts of business interfered with my enjoyment of an accomplished passage.”

It is in many ways ironic that “a pearl that distils much sweetness upon the world.” is used by the marketing brief, as in many ways it is almost a parody of a marketing brief.

Caroline Bingley’s quote “I declare after all that there is no enjoyment like reading” on British 10 pound note with Jane Austen serves as a satisfying parallel.

But I digress.

This is a very eerie story, even by Conrad’s standards. The narrator arrives only to be immediately welcomed by a ship supplier, Alfred Jacobus. The narrator has been recommended to another Jacobus living on Mauritius, Ernst, by the ships owners. Naturally, he assumes his acquaintance with Alfred will help him. But in fact, it rather complicates matters. Still Alfred Jacobus, though ignored by the rest of the island’s community, has a beautiful daughter. And the narrator slowly becomes drawn into their story…

In fact, Joseph Conrad did more than simply visit Mauritius. According to Zdzisław Najder’s biography of Conrad, Joseph Conrad proposed to a woman in Mauritius, only to be rejected as she was engaged to someone else. I have a sneaky suspicion that this might have affected the plot of the story a little.

A Smile of Fortune is about desire and about repression. About the sensuous beauty of Alice enclosed in her garden and her fragility – and the feeling of danger she evokes in her admirer

“It was a brilliantly coloured solitude, drowsing in a warm voluptuous silence… She leaned forward, hugging herself with crossed legs: a dingy, amber-coloured, flounced wrapper of some thin stuff revealed the young supple body drawn together tensely in the deep low seat as if crouching for a spring”

Close-reading of this passage would no doubt delight both Freud and Edward Said in an analysis of exoticism, I expect.

The narrator suspect he is being manipulated in his desire.

He feels as if Alfred Jacobus is basically luring him into a honey-trap. The girl has no prospects, she is not educated, and half-wild. Her father perhaps thinks that it would be better for her to be shipped of somewhere far from Mauritius.

And yet somehow, mysteriously, the narrator escapes this “trap”. Because surprise – dear male- the narrator- the woman has the slightest bit agency. She doesn’t want to go with him. She is afraid of sailing away with him. Though she claims she doesn’t care:

“For if you were to shut me up in an empty place as smooth as the palm of my hand, I could always strangle myself with my hair.”

One finds it hard not to find echoes of Bertha Mason from Jane Eyre. It’s both madness and ferocious independence at the same time. Perhaps more Bertha Mason from Wild Sargossa Sea.

I shall stop myself before I give away any more spoilers.

Yet for all the eerie suppressed and evoked desires of A Smile of Fortune, there was one moment Conrad’s writing struck me most. This is at the very beginning of the story- a description of a baby’s funeral.

The narrator does not know the parents or the child but he attends the funeral because all the captains in the harbour are going to attend. He describes a tough sailor who had no family of his own with tears trickling

“Down his weather-beaten face like drops of rain on a rugged old wall… Perhaps he was dropping those tears over his lost opportunity, from sheer envy of paternity and in strange jealous of a sorrow that he could never know…. But he made me feel ashamed of my callousness. I had no tears. I listened with horribly critical detachment to that service… The words of hope and defiance, the winged words so inspiring in the free immensity of the water and sky seemed to fall wearily into the little grave… And then my thoughts escaped me altogether—away into matters of life—and no very high matters at that—ships freights, business… I was disgusted with my thoughts – and I thought: Shall I be able to get a charter soon?… Don’t imagine that I pursued these thoughts with any precision. They pursued me rather: vague, shadowy, restless, shamefaced. Theirs was a callous, abominable, almost revolting pertinacity. “

It stuck with me somehow. We’ve all been angry at the triteness of our own thoughts.

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