The Shadow Line

The Shadow Line


(3 Reviews)
The Shadow Line by Joseph Conrad







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The Shadow Line


(3 Reviews)

Book Excerpt

said weightily: "Oh! Aye! I've been thinking it was about time for you to run away home and get married to some silly girl."

It was tacitly understood in the port that John Nieven was a fierce misogynist; and the absurd character of the sally convinced me that he meant to be nasty--very nasty--had meant to say the most crushing thing he could think of. My laugh sounded deprecatory. Nobody but a friend could be so angry as that. I became a little crestfallen. Our chief engineer also took a characteristic view of my action, but in a kindlier spirit.

He was young, too, but very thin, and with a mist of fluffy brown beard all round his haggard face. All day long, at sea or in harbour, he could be seen walking hastily up and down the after- deck, wearing an intense, spiritually rapt ex- pression, which was caused by a perpetual con- sciousness of unpleasant physical sensations in his internal economy. For he was a confirmed dyspeptic. His view of my case was very simple. He said it was nothing but de

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I had read a number of Conrad's works before this. "The Secret Sharer" is one of my favorites, and of course "Heart of Darkness" is famous for a reason.

But, like another reviewer (below), I came to "The Shadow Line" specifically because Philip Roth mentions it in "Exit Ghost." However, my estimate of the book is quite different from the preceding reviewer's.

On the surface, the story is simple: a young man quits one ship and ends up, unexpectedly, with command of another ship. Things proceed from there.

I read "The Shadow Line" at one sitting. Conrad's characters are brilliant -- there are characters in the book with the barest walk-on parts and despite that have a fully real feel to them. Brilliant ain't the half of it.

I did trade "The Shadow Line" once or twice, for a few minutes, with another book (R. Austin Freeman's "A Silent Witness," to be exact), when the mood got too heavy.

For "The Shadow Line" is a heavy book. Not only its themes -- illness and death, and especially the workings of chance on human life. It is also heavy because of the mood, which starts light and becomes progressively darker, until the climax, which is much more a climax of Stygian atmosphere than it is of action in any usual sense of the word.

It's easy to see why Roth mentions this book. Its themes are similar to his own, of course. But more important, I think, is that "The Shadow Line" is a very "modern" book, in which the concern with plot is replaced by character and situation.

In fact, even more than Roth's work, "The Shadow Line" made me think of J.M. Coetzee's books, particularly "Disgrace." I haven't had time yet to fully think about how and why, but at the very least, "Disgrace" is another book written in exquisite prose, filled with characters having real depth, and in which conventional climax has been replaced by one internal to the characters.

So if you're looking for action and plot in the more usual sense, this is probably not the book for you.

But if you're interested in reading (and maybe thinking) about other approaches to literature and thus to life, I highly recommend "The Shadow Line."

I would, however, also recommend having something lighter at hand, should the mood prove too dark. It did for me.
I came to this Conrad through Philip Roth's latest, "Exit Ghost". Nathan Zuckerman, old and incontinent, decides to reread the classic novels that impressed him as a young man and re-reads this one 'all in one go'. The novel is mentioned again, about a hundred pages in, because both protagonists, Zuckerman and the narrator of "Shadow Line" act recklessly at the beginning of their stories, doing something that will entirely change their way of life. But in Conrad's case it's a young man who takes his first command of a ship and feels old by the end of the story; in Roth's case it's an old man acting like a young one, wanting to be young again, but knowing that death is trying to intervene. I'm sure it's a good counterpoint to Roth's novel but in "Shadow" the ship refuses to move for most of its 126 pages and the story also doesn't move. I can see where someone might consider the difficult voyage a metaphor for the changes that occur to the main character's outlook, but it's too laboured. If you haven't read Conrad before, this is not the place to start. Try "Heart of Darkness" (among the short works) or the unforgettable "Lord Jim" (among the longer).
If you like "Heart of Darkness", you'll like this book. It is an intense, atmospheric character study of a young man's first command of a sailing ship. Well written - I felt like I was on that ship with him.