Tag Archives: 19th century literature

Almayer’s Folly: Conrad

A review copy of Joseph Conrad: The Dover Reader arrived before I finished Before the Party by W. Somerset Maugham. The Maugham short story describes the afternoon of a British family as they prepare to attend a garden party during which the chinese missions are to be discussed. Maugham contrasts some of the realities of colonialism with the very mannered preparations for the party, and so the mood was set to dip into the book which offers quite a bit of Conrad:

The Congo Diary

Almayer’s Folly

An Outpost of Progress

Heart of Darkness

Youth: A Narrative

An Anarchist: A Desperate Tale

The Secret Agent

The Secret Sharer

The Congo Diary is just a few pages and is basically just a sketchy outline of travel with a few details of the journey. That brought me to Almayer’s Folly for a reread.

Almayer’s Folly is Conrad’s first novel, so it’s fitting that it’s included in this anthology. It’s a flawed novel–certainly not perfect, but for Conrad fans, it’s well worth reading if only to fit the novel in the context of Conrad’s later, better work. In its conception, for this reader, the plot is perfect, but the execution is flawed. More of that later.

ConradYou can’t read books about colonialism without coming to the conclusion that it’s bad for everyone involved. Bernardo Atxaga’s  Seven Houses in France, for example, set in the Belgian Congo, shows how the soldiers and officers in the jungle run amok with the natives. While the women are kidnapped, caged and raped, the soldiers have shed whatever humanity they possessed and become bestial. Colonialism says a lot about human nature, exploitation and what we become when removed from our society with its rules of behaviour. Almayer’s Folly,  a tale of identity, displacement and greed, goes in a slightly different direction as the novel portrays a blend of cultures and the unfortunate outcome.

Almayer, born and raised in Java, is the son of Dutch parents. His father was a “subordinate official” and his mother “from the depths of her long easy-chair bewailed the lost glories of Amsterdam, where she had been brought up, and of her position as the daughter of a cigar dealer there.” As a young man with a good head for arithmetic, Almayer is employed in a trading warehouse in Macassar when he meets Tom Lingard, the so-called “King of the Sea,” a wealthy man whose bold adventures include tangles with pirates and the capture of a young girl found on a pirate vessel. Lingard adopted the girl, the pride of his existence, and shipped her off for a convent education in Java.

It’s rumoured that Lingard has discovered a river and that he uses this route in his business ventures, and this rumour, together with the fact that he adopted the child, have contributed to the myth and mystery that surround Lingard. Lingard employs Almayer as a captain’s clerk, but as it turns out, his real purpose in employing Almayer is to persuade him to marry his adopted daughter:

“And don’t you kick because you’re white!” he shouted, suddenly, not giving the surprised young man the time to say a word. “None of that with me! Nobody will see the colour of your wife’s skin. The dollars are too thick for that, I tell you! And mind you, they will be thicker yet before I die. There will be millions, Kaspar! Millions I say! And all for her–and for you, if you do what you are told.”

Startled by the unexpected proposal, Almayer hesitated, and remained silent for a minute. He was gifted with a strong and active imagination, and in that short space of time he saw, as in a flash of dazzling light, great piles of shining guilders, and realized all the possibilities of an opulent existence.

Almayer, thinking that “old Lingard would not live for ever,” agrees to marry to Malay girl.

in the far future gleamed like a fairy palace the big mansion in Amsterdam, that earthly paradise of his dreams, where, made king amongst men by old Lingard’s money, he would pass the evening of his days in inexpressible splendor. As to the other side of the picture–the companionship for life of a Malay girl, that legacy of a boatful of pirates–there was only within him a confused consciousness of shame that he a white man–Still, a convent education of four years!–and then she may mercifully die. He was always lucky, and money is powerful! Go through it. Why not? He had a vague idea of shutting her up somewhere, anywhere, out of his gorgeous future. Easy enough to dispose of a Malay woman, a slave, after all, to his Eastern mind, convent or no convent, ceremony or no ceremony.

This passage shows Almayer’s thought processes as he contemplates the wealth of Lingard weighed against a lifetime with Lingard’s adopted daughter. The dreams of wealth cloud his decision, so we don’t feel too sorry for Almayer when we fast forward and Almayer is very unhappily married to a wife who hates him.

The title Almayer’s Folly could refer to Almayer’s decision to base his life on an elusive future fortune, but it also refers quite literally to his dilapidated, unfinished house built on the Pantai River in expectation of the “big trade Almayer was going to develop,” while his father-in-law Lingard goes on a succession of expeditions, an “exploring craze,”  to discover gold and diamonds in the interior.

Moving to the present, Almayer is a broken man whose hopes of fortune are almost entirely extinguished. He’s terrified of his wife but loves his daughter, Nina. Nina was brought up in a Dutch household in Singapore, but she returns home when her race poses a problem for her caretaker. Circumstances reawaken Almayer’s ambition, but now he focuses on Nina’s future.

Almayer is a fascinating, well-drawn character. Born from Dutch parents, he identifies with a country he’s never visited, and yet even in this displacement, he dreams of returning to a country he does not know. Amsterdam assumes mythical stature in his head, but at the same time, having a Malay wife and a daughter of that marriage presents social problems which Almayer never tackles. Almayer’s wife, shipped off to a convent for four years came away only with superstition,  a hatred of whites , and a sense of her rights, but it’s in the portrayal of Nina that some jarring, patronizing statements occur:

Her young mind having been unskillfully permitted to glance at better things, and then thrown back again into the hopeless quagmire of barbarism, full of strong and uncontrolled passions, had lost the power to discriminate. It seemed to Nina that there was no change and no difference. Whether they traded in brick godowns or on the muddy river band; whether they made love under the shadows of the great trees or in the shadow of the cathedral on the Singapore promenade; whether they plotted for their own ends under the protection of laws and according to the rules of Christian conduct, or whether they sought gratification of their desires with the savage cunning and the unrestrained fierceness of natures as innocent of culture as their own immense and gloomy forests, Nina saw only the same manifestations of love and hate and of sordid greed chasing the uncertain dollar in all its manifestations and vanishing shapes. To her resolute nature, however after all these years, the savage and uncompromising sincerity of purpose shown by her Malay kinsmen seemed at last preferable to the sleek hypocrisy , to the polite disguise, to the virtuous pretences of such white people as she had had the misfortune to come in contact with.

Another problem with the novel is that there are many secondary characters who are mentioned but who never really take shape.  Additionally the writing is occasionally sludgy and slow to plough through.

The novel offers a portrait of a displaced man with a skewed sense of identity who pins his life on the promise of an elusive fortune; he’s yet another man whose dreams and ambitions cause him to be swallowed up by the jungle. While Almayer’s life is a failure, his daughter, Nina, a product of two vastly different cultures, and rejected by white culture, claims her own destiny.

There’s a Chantal Ackerman film version of this. I tried it–couldn’t finish it.

Review copy

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Filed under Conrad, Joseph, Fiction

Gabrielle de Bergerac by Henry James

The title Gabrielle de Bergerac from Henry James was new to me when I stumbled across it on Amazon for the princely sum of $2.99 for a Kindle edition. For those who don’t mind reading large amounts of material on the computer, I’ve since found it free online. Gabrielle de Bergerac is set pre-French Revolution, so it’s not standard James fare. It’s not a perfect novella, but it starts off strongly over the discussion of an ancestral portrait. The elderly M. de Bergerac owes the unnamed narrator a sum of money which he realises he can never repay. In lieu of payment, M. de Bergerac offers the narrator one of his paintings instead:

He told me frankly that he saw no way, either in the present or the future, to reimburse me in cash. His only treasures were his paintings; would I choose one of them? Now I had not spent an hour in M. de Bergerac’s little parlour twice a week for three winters, without learning that the Baron’s paintings were, with a single exception, of very indifferent merit. On the other hand, I had taken a great fancy to the picture thus excepted. Yet, as I knew it was a family portrait, I hesitated to claim it. I refused to make a choice. M. de Bergerac, however, insisted, and I finally laid my finger on the charming image of my friend’s aunt. I of course insisted, on my side, that M. de Bergerac should retain it during the remainder of his life, and so it was only after his decease that I came into possession of it. It hangs above my table as I write, and I have only to glance up at the face of my heroine to feel how vain it is to attempt to describe it.

But he does describe it:

The countenance is interesting rather than beautiful,-the forehead broad and open, the eyes slightly prominent, all the features full and firm and yet replete with gentleness. The head is slightly thrown back, as if in movement, and the lips are parted in a half-smile. And yet, in spite of this tender smile, I always fancy that her eyes are sad. … The whole face has a look of mingled softness and decision, and seems to reveal a nature inclined to reverie, affection, and repose, but capable of action and even of heroism.

The narrator, half in love with the portrait of a long-dead woman, presses his elderly friend to tell him the story of his aunt, Gabrielle de Bergerac, and so the narration passes to the elderly Baron who recalls his childhood as the little Chevalier, pre-French Revolution at the Bergerac estate. There’s little money and not much of a social life, and the person to potentially suffer the most from social isolation and the lack of money neccesary to enter into the sort of entertainments that might offer a new way of life through marriage, is Gabrielle de Bergerac, the 9-year-old Chevalier’s aunt. Gabrielle isn’t, however, interested in marriage:

I remember that she frequently dressed in blue, my poor aunt, and I know that she must have dressed simply. Fancy her in a light stuff gown, covered with big blue flowers with a blue ribbon in her dark hair, and the points of her high-heeled blue slippers peeping out under her stiff white petticoat. Imagine her strolling along the terrace of the château with a villainous black crow perched on her wrist. You’ll admit it’s a picture.

The elderly Baron recounts the story of Gabrielle de Bergerac to the unnamed narrator, so we get a story told through another story–a neat framework for a short summer that took place decades earlier. All of the characters in the elderly Baron’s story are dead and he’s now displaced in another country, but he remembers this significant summer when he was 9 and his role in the events that took place.

There’s a frequent visitor to the Bergerac estate–a close family friend, the Vicomte de Treuil. He’s run through his entire fortune and now he lays siege to a wealthy elderly uncle who lives in the “adjacent château, and who was dying of age and his infirmities.”  The Vicomte’s visits bring life to the Bergerac household as his “conversation  was a constant popping of corks.” While the Vicomte is the Chevalier’s father’s closest friend, his fiercest defender is the Baronne:

She had a passion for the world, and seclusion had only sharpened the edge of her curiosity. She lived on old memories–shabby, tarnished bits of intellectual finery–and vagrant rumours, anecdotes, and scandals.

Gabrielle de Bergerac is a beautiful story for its marvellous descriptions of its characters. We know, of course, that all of those involved–with the exception of the elderly Baron are all dead, so this frail old man’s story–filled with nostalgia and sadness and recalled after his death–has incredible, vital power. There are no villains here, and instead James creates well-rounded characters who are trapped by class and circumstance, and through the author’s sagacious eyes, we see the dying embers of a class and culture on the verge of disappearance. The Vicomte, the elderly baron tells us:

was the last relic of the lily-handed youth of the bon temps; and as he looks at me out of the poignant sadness of the past, with a reproachful glitter in his cold blue eyes,and a scornful smile on his fine lips, I feel that, elegant and silent as he is, he has the last word in our dispute.

My kindle version gives the date of the story as 1918 (James died in 1916), but elsewhere on the internet, I see the date 1869, and that Gabrielle de Bergerac first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly.  For the subject matter, Gabrielle de Bergerac is an excellent companion story to Balzac’s The Ball at Sceaux.

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Filed under Fiction, James, Henry