THE BOOK THAT CHANGED ME: LORD JIM
William Riviere on Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad
Sunday 04 April 1999
I was about 15.
Why did it strike you so much?
Jim starts out as a dreamy-headed boy with very little understanding either of the world or of himself, and I was just as romantic and hopeless, so I identified with him 100 per cent right from the first page. Those were the years when I wanted to win the Single-Handed Trans-Atlantic Race, so I knew all about Jim's longing to achieve heroic rescues at sea. Later I began to grasp a little how sad and how dangerous it was that Jim hadn't a clue how malevolent the sea can seem, nor how horrifying his own inner weaknesses might be. No doubt that did me good. I mean, I remember the shock of finding out that this guy I liked, liked in the thoughtless way you quite like yourself till you discover you don't, was capable of behaving extremely badly, was capable of abandoning a shipload of innocent people and jumping into a life-boat with a bunch of some of the nastiest shits Conrad was capable of describing when he really rolled up his sleeves for the job.
Have you re-read it?
I am still re-reading Conrad every now and then. Lord Jim has a fiendishly labyrinthine narrative structure, which I'd scarcely noticed when I was a boy (shows you how beautifully dove-tailed it is), and it started to change the way I thought about narrative form, the way I tried to put my stories together as powerfully as I could. Jim's public disgrace could still make me feel very cold, very sober, and his final personal victory moves me terribly - but now I was going back to the book for all sorts of nitty-gritty technical reasons. How to switch back and forth in time, and and in space, so that exactly the right impressions come to your reader's mind in the right order - that kind of thing. How to slide from one point of view to another, or to change from voice to voice, so it doesn't jolt but enrich the story - you hope.
Trying to write a my latest novel, I kept getting stuck, naturally enough. One day, despairing for about the 50th time, I picked up Lord Jim because it was lying around, and ... I didn't do any more writing that day. But, slowly, as I read, glimmerings of hope began to return. I thought, come on, it can be done. Cut out that flabby bit, turn that other episode inside- out so it has the opposite effect, do a quick close-up of that character so he's much more vivid. So Jim goes on being a good friend to me.
William Riviere's latest book is `Echoes of War', published by Sceptre at pounds 6.99
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