Joseph Conrad once said that every book he wrote cost him a tooth. He was mortally afraid of dentists (and who wouldn’t have been in those pre-anaesthetic days) and prefered to have them simply go bad on the gum and drop out of their own accord.
Putting to one side this strangely disturbing lack of dental hygiene Conrad was, (in our humble and completely unqualified opinions), undoubtedly the greatest writer in English of his, and arguably any other, generation.
Kipling said that when Conrad…”held a pen in his hand he was the first among us”.
Incredibly, English was his sixth language, after Polish, French, Russian, German and Latin, and he didn’t learn it until he was well into his twenties.
An aristocrat who met him just after the Great War reported that he spoke slowly and thoughtfully, as if he were tasting the words in his mouth before speaking them.
Conrad had a unique ability to describe thoughts, feelings and emotions that we hold so deeply within ourselves that we barely acknowledge, or are even aware of, their existence. It’s surprising, and a little disturbing, to have someone describe your own interior monologues to you, as if you had dictated them to him.
Chance was published in serial form in 1913 and was Conrad’s first major success. It follows the life and fortunes of Flora de Barrall,
the daughter of a failed , disgraced and imprisoned entrepreneur, she is sadly misused by a succession of unscrupulous people.
There are heroes and villians, (and, just as in real life, people who are a bit of both at different times), fools and mountebanks, wise men and ingenues, sailors and criminals, confidence tricksters and tub thumpers, sanctimonious social theorists and obnoxious cardboard box manufacturers. Dickens had a big influence on Conrad and many of his characters and supporting cast are as beautifully drawn and evocative as his.
Flora’s story is related beautifully by Conrad’s usual narrator, the extraordinary Marlow, who takes us by the hand and leads us through the tale for 337 gripping, psychologically enthralling, slow burning pages.
Then, suddenly, (if a lead up of 337 pages can be called sudden), on page 338 this slow burn touches a piece of rope left lying on the deck of a ship.
The rope acts, if you like, as a sort of metaphorical fuse, which smokes, splutters, embers and taking light runs quickly to a nearby keg of dynamite.
The slow meticulous pace of the story shatters as everything changes in a rush. Bodies go flying and come down in surprising places. And all this because a piece of rope was left lying on a deck.
Chance, despite it’s initial success, is considered these days to be one of Conrad’s lesser works, but we absolutely loved it and recommend it to you.