Joseph Conrad and his imaginary friend

October 03, 2004|By Laura Demanski | Laura Demanski,Special to the Sun

Sailors on the Inward Sea, by Lawrence Thornton. Free Press. 288 pages. $24.

About a hundred years ago, a new age of literary suspicion dawned: the suspicion that novels must be, to some degree, autobiographical. Alongside psychoanalysis rose a modern, deeply interior brand of psychological realism that lent itself to such suppositions. In Sailors on the Inward Sea, Lawrence Thornton's daring premise is that the great modernist writer Joseph Conrad based his recurring character Marlow -- who narrates Lord Jim (1900) and Heart of Darkness (1902) -- not on his own life (which would seem to be simply par for the course) but on somebody else's.

If this seems merely an innocuous variation on standard novel-writing practice, Thornton also imagines that Conrad borrowed his close friend Jack Malone's experiences surreptitiously, without the sea captain's knowledge or consent. Furthermore, these are the two works of Conrad's that did the most to secure his place in the English literary canon. In Thornton's provocative scenario, the books' success seals Conrad's debilitating guilt over stealing their raw materials.

Not until 1903 does the fictional Malone learn that he has an alter ego within Conrad's books. When a friend puts him on their trail, Malone reads the novels in five obsessive days. A heady welter of conflicting responses follows: in the space of one page, Malone feels by turns "exposed," "flattered," "ingested" and "possessed" by Conrad. Most of all, he feels madly curious: "I wanted to know how he did it, what he felt as he knitted the two of us together and named the product Marlow."

Thornton's novel doesn't answer this seductive question about the alchemy by which the artist transforms life into literature. His brand of historical fiction cleaves closer to fiction than history, and he concentrates far less on Conrad than his friend. He focuses on how it feels for Malone to become a secret sharer in Conrad's art and, especially, on what consequences this tribute -- or betrayal -- has for their friendship.

Diverting the focus from Conrad frees Thornton from what could have been the constricting facts of the writer's biography, and from the wrath of purists. While overtly treating the ethical complications that attend the spinning of life into art, the book draws vitality from its whole-cloth inventions, rather than from its borrowings. The most spellbinding sequence in the book is a long invented episode in which Conrad witnesses a crime at sea during World War I.

Thornton's breathtaking place descriptions -- of London, Batavia (now Jakarta), and Singapore, to name a few -- nearly steal the show. Description in fiction is often seen more as dressing than substance. But this novel's wonderful eye alone is reason enough to read it.

Cities at night have their own distinct characters here: Batavia is "a net of lights" set against "the silky blackness of an Indonesian night," while Cracow, "sparkling like a Christmas tree," is a place where "spires rose dark against the waning light." Thornton persuades the reader that this is how the world looked to the early 20th century's great globalists: its sailors.

A grand tour of the turn-of-the-century world, an open-ended meditation on art and experience, a human story about friendship and mortality: in this, his sixth novel, Thornton has much to offer. He's a born writer, and Sailors is a mesmerizing read.

Laura Demanski is a writer living in Chicago.

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