Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Joseph Conrad: A SET OF SIX

short stories

"Gaspar Ruiz"
This story takes place in South America during the period when the colonies were struggling with Spain to gain their independence.  While many of the combatants had strong views for maintaining Spanish rule or for gaining their independence, numerous others were drafted or conscripted by either the Royal or by the republican forces.  It was pure chance in many cases which side one ended up with.

Gaspar Ruiz is the son of a poor farmer and had no political views.   A rebel contingent appeared one day, killed the guard dogs, stole some cattle, and persuaded Gasper to join them.  Shortly after he left, a royalist force appeared and finished the destruction of the farm.  In a subsequent battle, Ruiz was captured by the royalists.   He was given a musket and forced to the front of the attacking forces and was given the choice of firing his weapon or of being shot by a royalist officer.

Again he was captured--this time by the rebels.  Declared a traitor, he was sentenced to be shot with a number of others, but covered with the blood of others he manages to play dead.   Wounded, he finds a refuge with local royalists.   Because he feels the rebels treated him unfairly, he becomes an ardent royalist.  

"Gaspar Ruiz" is probably set before the time of Conrad's South American novel, Nostromo, in this story the colonies are fighting for independence while in the novel, countries have their own government but are regularly overthrown by various factions, some little better than bandit gangs.

"The Informer"  is set in the world of Conrad's novels of political espionage The Secret Agent  and Under Western Eyes , the world of anarchists, who are hiding out in England.  In fact, one of the group refers to the Professor who "was engaged in perfecting some new detonators." This could be the same professor in The Secret Agent who supplies Verloc with the bomb that had such tragic consequences for Verloc and his wife Winnie.  That Professor was also known to be obsessed with finding the perfect detonator.

A group of anarchists are located in a house in London on Hermione Street.  The European leadership has come to the conclusion that the Hermione St. group has been infiltrated by an informer.  They decide to gather together some comrades unknown to the Hermione St. group and pretend to be police conducting a raid.  In this way, they hope the informer would reveal himself. 

"The Brute"
This is the only sea tale in the collection.  The Brute of the title is a ship, a monster according to the tales told of it.  The setting is a classic for sea yarns: a small local pub,  on a rain-swept street, with three friends and a stranger in the parlour.  It's the stranger, of course, who provides the tale of the murderous ship, The Apse Family.  It was owned by the firm of Apse & Sons, shipowners.  All of their ships were named after family members. This one, representing the entire family, was to be the biggest and safest ship of the fleet.  Unfortunately, they went overboard and ended up with the biggest, heaviest, and clumsiest ship in their fleet, and murderous too.  During every journey, at least one sailor was killed.  While reading the story, one could almost believe that ship was fully conscious of what it was doing.

"An Anarchist"
This story is a classic example of how a chance encounter can determine the course of one's life.  "An Anarchist" is a story within a story.  The narrator meets the manager of a plantation on an island in a South American river and rents a room in order to conduct his research.  While there the narrator meets Paul, the engineer of the plantation's steam boat.  The manager insists Paul is an anarchist from Spain and has spread the word in the vicinity, thus ensuring Paul can't get work anywhere else.

The narrator's kindly treatment of Paul eventually leads Paul to tell his story.  He is French, not Spanish.  Shortly after serving his term in the French army, he gets a well-paying job as a mechanic.  At a dinner with friends one night, he invites several strangers at a nearby table to join them.  Paul becomes inflamed by their talk of the plight of the working man and drunk, he jumps up shouting "Vive l'anarchie" and "Death to the capitalists."  A riot breaks out and he is arrested, convicted, and sent to prison as an anarchist, a threat to France.  His life has changed irrevocably.

Two interesting characters are developed in this tale:  that of Paul "the anarchist"  and that of the manager of the plantation who is the type of a manager who will turn anyone into an anarchist or anti-capitalist.  Conrad has captured this employee of a large corporation perfectly:  he can justify any cruel act as being for the good of the company profit-and-loss statement, just as government operatives  justify their actions in the name of  "national security."

"The Duel"
"The Duel" is the longest story in the collection--perhaps closer to being a novella in length.  The story covers the events of over twenty years as an officer in the French army challenges another officer to a duel.  It began because of a misunderstanding and continued through the years as various attempts at holding the duel were either prevented by other events or ended unsatisfactorily.  Both officers were generals at the time the issue was finally resolved.  

"Il Conde"
Il conde  (the count), an aged nobleman,  suffering from rheumatism, finds that the climate at Naples is most salubrious for him, but, because of a chance encounter, he finds he must leave.  If he stays, he will be killed, and if he leaves, he will die, probably within a year.  The plot is minimal, barely a story, but the meticulous depiction of the count makes it well worth reading--actually more a portraiture than a story.

   "-- having conversed already in the morning I did not think I was intruding when in the evening, finding the dining-room very full, I proposed to share his little table.  Judging by the quiet urbanity of his consent he did not think so either.  His smile was very attractive.
   He dined in an evening waistcoat and a "smoking" (he called it so) with a black tie.  All this of very good cut, not new--just as these things should be.  He was, morning or evening, very correct in his dress.  I have no doubt that his whole existence had been correct, well ordered and conventional, undisturbed by startling events.  His white hair  brushed upwards off a lofty forehead gave him the air of an idealist, of an imaginative man.  His white moustache, heavy but carefully trimmed and arranged, was not unpleasantly tinted a golden yellow in the middle.  The faint scent of some very good perfume, and of good cigars (that last an odour quite remarkable to come upon in Italy) reached me across the table.  It was in his eyes that his age showed most.  They were a little weary with creased eyelids.  He must have been sixty or a couple of years more.  And he was communicative.  I would not go so far as to call it garrulous--but distinctly communicative."

I can picture him now, and his reactions to later events seem perfectly understandable when considering Conrad's outer and inner portrayal of him.

Overall comment:  Joseph Conrad is probably best known for his novels, but his short stories are just as good.  Highly recommended.


  1. What always amazes me about Conrad is his near-perfection as a writer in English -- not his native language. Few if any other non-English-born authors have made the transition so perfectly.

  2. RT,

    There are various stories about how this came about, why it happened, and who suggested it. But it did happen, and probably both Ford and Conrad benefited from it. See my post on Conrad and Ford's collaboration--The Inheritors.

    But, however it happened--I agree, Conrad is one of the great English writers.

  3. Fred, very valuable post. I have Nostromo on my read before I die list.

  4. mel u,

    Thanks for the kind words. Nostromo is one of his great novels, very different from his sea tales.

  5. Nostromo is one of my favorites, too. The last time I read it was in South America, in Patagonia.

  6. Tarnmoor,

    That seems like a very apt locale to read it.