JOSEPH CONRAD – Lord Jim. William Blackwood & Sons, UK, hardcover, 1900. Previously serialized in Blackwood’s Magazine, October 1899 to November 1900. Film adaptations: Lord Jim (1925), directed by Victor Fleming; and Lord Jim (1965), directed by Richard Brooks and starring Peter O’Toole as Jim. Comic Book: Classics Illustrated #136, 1947?. Art by George Evans.

   Sometime last April, I found myself unaccountably seized by a compulsion to read a Great Novel: Something on the order of Faulkner, James or Kesey. I thought also, though, that I might try a foray into High Adventure, so I ended up ploughing through Joseph Conrad’s turn-of-the Century-epic, Lord Jim.

   This entry is hardly the place to launch a critique into waters already charted, plumbed, tested and trolled to depletion by Academic Analyzers worthy, weighty and wise. And in fact, when I dissect the novel mentally, I find myself doing it in terms of old paperbacks and B-Movies. I should just say here that I was not sleeping very much or very well then, but as I tossed in bed, Lord Jim, with its dense prose and compelling story, was the perfect anodyne on a dark, restless night.

   Conrad’s prose is indeed tangled. At one point he takes nearly a paragraph to liken moonlight to sunshine, only to produce a metaphor so goldbergesque that by the time he’s though crafting it, it can but lie there on the page, whirring and wheezing to minuscule effect. His narrative style is likewise more roundabout than linear, with characters and events flashing forward and back through time with an abandon that recalls Marcel Proust and Phillip K. Dick in equal measure.

   Those characters and events, however, are inspired and wrought with nothing less than Pure Genius. The dramatis personae who strut on and off stage in Lord Jim are a colorful lot (low-brow that I am, I kept thinking of the thumbnail-sketch heroes and villains who keep appearing and disappearing in Winchester ’73.) evoked in wrenching, vivid, pulp-paper splendor that will stay with me long after Time has healed the wounds of Conrad’s primeval syntax. And the novel’s big set-pieces – the sinking of the Patna, the native revolts, the pirate siege — are magnificently foreshadowed, then packed word-for-word with all the excitement of a Talbot Mundy or H. Rider Haggard.

   Beyond all this, though, there is the haunting power of Conrad’s tale, with a moral in it somewhere, somehow, as complex and compelling as his prose. The notion of a man driven by a personal code somehow hinged on — yet apart from — the opinions of those around him, destroyed ignominiously by a world tragically unworthy of him, is one that will color the way I see things for some time. Which, to my way of thinking, is the measure of a Great Novel.

   By the way, do not, under any circumstances, try to watch the film of the same name Richard Brooks made back in 1966. No, I don’t care how cute Peter O’Toole was in those days — don’t watch it! Even at his least pretentious (The Professionals, Bite the Bullet) Brooks has a stultifying tendency to say what the thinks when he ought to show how he feels. Given the temptation of filming a Really Important Novel, he went after it like Ahab after the Whale — and ended up swallowing it whole.