Nathaniel Hawthorne / Secret Sharer / Hunted Down

The Secret Sharer
by Joseph Conrad
Overall rating:  5 out of 5 stars. 

What would you do if you found out your roommate is a wanted criminal?  This is the narrator’s dilemma after he rescues a man, Leggatt, from the ocean and brings him aboard his ship.  The narrator finds that they share not only a similarity in rank, but a similarity in appearance; and this strange coincidence helps influence the narrator’s tough decision.

I really enjoyed this short story–the writing style was amazing, as always, and the story itself was more figurative than literal.  Good read.

Hunted Down
by Charles Dickens
Overall rating:  4 out of 5 stars.  

…my first impression of those people, founded on face and manner alone, was invariably true.  My mistake was in suffering them to come nearer to me and explain themselves away.

So states Mr Sampson, ‘Chief Manager of a Life Assurance Office’, who believes in the truth of first impressions.  And one day, he has a particularly bad first-impression–that of Mr Julius Slinkton, a handsome, middle-aged gentleman with his hair “parted straight up the middle”.  Even after they strike up an acquaintance, Mr Sampson has ominous premonitions about this man, and fears for the victims of a crime which has or will inevitably occur.

This was a very good mystery short story, written in a style similar to, but somewhat unlike, Dickens’s novels.  The style is concise and fast-paced, and the atmosphere is wonderfully eerie.  I only wish that the plot had been a little less predictable and the story a bit longer, more detailed.

Recommended.

Personal Recollections of Nathaniel Hawthorne
by Horatio Bridge
Overall rating:  5 out of 5 stars.  

Just what the title says…a biographical book about Nathaniel Hawthorne, by his college friend, Horatio Bridge.  It focuses on Hawthorne’s college years, careers, family life, and personality; and it’s written in a respectful, accessible style.  I highly recommend it for anyone who’d like to learn more about him, especially if you’re looking for an “eye-witness” type of biography.  It’s also an encouraging read for young authors who struggle with self-doubt, like Hawthorne initially did.

Under Western Eyes

Under Western Eyes (1911)
by Joseph Conrad
Overall rating:  5 out of 5 stars

By his comrades at the St. Petersburg University, Kirylo Sidorovitch Razumov, third year’s student in philosophy, was looked upon as a strong nature—an altogether trustworthy man. This, in a country where an opinion may be a legal crime visited by death or sometimes by a fate worse than mere death, meant that he was worthy of being trusted with forbidden opinions.

Forbidden opinions…those are precisely what Razumov wishes to avoid.  An illegitimate son of a Russian nobleman, Razumov lives alone and has no expectations in the world, nothing except what he can earn through persevering work.  Content with his life, he tries to ignore the revolutionists on campus and instead turns his energy towards earning “the silver medal”, by which he can better his academic standing.  But one day, he comes home to find an assassin hiding in his rooms, expecting aid in escape.  Razumov’s reaction ruins his life as he knows it, and drives him to insanity with his own hatred, fear, and conscience.

At a glance, one would say that Under Western Eyes is about secret agents and the Russian revolution, but taken as a whole, that’s not quite the focus of the book.  It is much more a ghost story than a story about revolution.  And the actual, intended point of the book seems to be to portray how Russians and Westerners perceived things–namely life and politics–during the times this was written.  As such, and with the characters’ abstract style of speaking, it’s not really written for 21st-century readers.  You’d at least have to know the Russian history concerning that time to fully appreciate this illustration; and as of now, I don’t know enough about the subject to say whether it’s an authentic portrayal or not. 

But intriguing, fascinating?  I’d say so.  As I’ve mentioned before, nobody writes about psychology/human nature like Conrad; and it’s through human nature–something that makes us all related–that he did a great job depicting different viewpoints.

Personally, I could hardly put the book down.  Conrad has the power all writers wish for–of pulling you along breathlessly through the story, even if it’s during an excruciatingly long dialogue between two rather boring characters.  His use of phrases, remarks, and word choice to achieve subtle but powerful effects is, I think, at its height here as well.

But to me, the greatest strength of Conrad’s style is all condensed in his protagonist, Razumov.  Razumov has the heart of a hero and the head of a villain; he is, in a sense, the worst and best character of the book.  More importantly, he’s human.  And not like the self-deceived characters of many novels, whose human-ness is usually unrepentant vice, self-justified and glorified by society.  But rather, Razumov is an honest human; whatever he does, good or bad, he is inwardly honest about it…there’s even an ironic sense of honesty in him when he’s up to his neck in lies.  His last journal entry (or confession, if you will) has got to contain some of the most brilliant and heartbreaking paragraphs in literature.  Spoilers in white:  As wretched as he is, I think he’s ultimately a hero.  There’s that verse about “the wicked shall prosper”; and, sure enough, Razumov had a chance at earthly happiness after all his deceit, hatred, and evil intentions.  But in the end, he chooses to repent.  Again he loses everything; but he accepts his punishment and miserable future.  While other fictional characters would give up, for even lesser reasons, Razumov did the right thing, and that takes real bravery.           

The plot is secondary to everything else in the book, but it’s still interesting and rather complex.  The first part follows Razumov, the second and third a young lady named Nathalie Haldin, and the last part ties everything together.  As for the minor characters, half of them are boring and the other half are the ghosts in the ghost story, resulting in some very chilling scenes.  Nobody thinks of Conrad as famous for his characters; but certainly, each one has their own voice and makes an impression on you.

The ending isn’t exactly what I’d call a happy one–“pure misery” was my mental note.  Yet it was also strangely excellent.  There was the very good and the very bad, all wound up together in a sort of poetic justice; and it left me convinced that, however depressing it seemed, there couldn’t have been a better ending written for it.

The Shadow-Line

The Shadow-Line, A Confession
by Joseph Conrad
Edition:  Oxford World’s Classics, paperback
My overall rating:  5 out of 5 stars.  Recommended.

A young merchant officer finds his career taking an unforeseen turn, when he is suddenly promoted to becoming captain of his first ship.  What he doesn’t know is that its last captain died a deranged man; and the ship’s second-in-command, Mr Burns, is still haunted by the memory. And when the voyage starts to go very wrong, the new captain realises he must fight something different than physical hardships, if he is to lead the ship safely to port.

This is the third story by Conrad I’ve read, and maybe even the best.  It is only about 130 pages long and very readable, but Conrad’s signature style–full of eerie atmosphere, eccentric characters, and intense narration–was strong from start to finish.  At the same time, The Shadow-Line has a very youthful narrator with an entirely different “voice” than Marlowe (the narrator of several Conrad books).  Another thing that impressed me was the perfect flow of narration, which covered a lot of time but didn’t feel rushed or abrupt.  And he could depict each setting very clearly and poignantly, without wallowing in superfluous description.  I don’t agree with everything he says, but Conrad’s writing style is pure genius, in my opinion.

This book feels like a portrait of one event in the narrator’s life.  The title would confirm this–the “shadow-line” refers to the “line” which a person crosses as they go from youth to “grownup”.  This is the overall focus of the book, but unlike similar books, I wonder if there might be something else underlying this story.  There is certainly a strain of mystery–and even ghost story–in the whole thing, especially in the characters–what it is that Captain Giles leaves unsaid, what made the ship’s former violinist-captain go crazy (and no, it wasn’t the violin-playing, lol), what kind of person the ship’s steward really is, etc.  This is the brilliant realism of The Shadow Line…some things we’ll never find out.  

Another theme (foreshadowed again by the title) is the power of guilt.  Without describing this subplot, I will say that it’s very well-written.  I don’t get the impression that the narrator was self-pitying, and he didn’t run away from his responsibility. 

I loved the bittersweet ending, too.  Unlike Heart of Darkness, which ends in as much mystery as it began, the ending of Shadow-Line felt complete, and the themes of the story were pretty clearly defined.  So not only being a short, page-turner read, I think The Shadow-Line was a very worthwhile one.