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Chance

"Chance" is one of my novels that shortly after having been begun were
laid aside for a few months. Starting impetuously like a sanguine
oarsman setting forth in the early morning I came very soon to a fork in
the stream and found it necessary to pause and reflect seriously upon
the direction I would take. Either presented to me equal fascinations,
at least on the surface, and for that very reason my hesitation extended
over many days. I floated in the calm water of pleasant speculation,
between the diverging currents or conflicting impulses, with an
agreeable but perfectly irrational conviction that neither of those
currents would take me to destruction. My sympathies being equally
divided and the two forces being equal it is perfectly obvious that
nothing but mere chance influenced my decision in the end. It is a
mighty force that of mere chance; absolutely irresistible yet
manifesting itself often in delicate forms such for instance as the
charm, true or illusory, of a human being. It is very difficult to put
one's finger on the imponderable, but I may venture to say that it is
Flora de Barral who is really responsible for this novel which relates,
in fact, the story of her life.

At the crucial moment of my indecision Flora de Barral passed before me,
but so swiftly that I failed at first to get hold of her. Though loth to
give her up I didn't see the way of pursuit clearly and was on the point
of becoming discouraged when my natural liking for Captain Anthony came
to my assistance. I said to myself that if that man was so determined to
embrace a "wisp of mist" the best thing for me was to join him in that
eminently practical and praiseworthy adventure. I simply followed
Captain Anthony. Each of us was bent on capturing his own dream. The
reader will be able to judge of our success.

Captain Anthony's determination led him a long and roundabout course and
that is why this book is a long book. That the course was of my own
choosing I will not deny. A critic had remarked that if I had selected
another method of composition and taken a little more trouble the tale
could have been told in about two hundred pages. I confess I do not
perceive exactly the bearings of such criticism or even the use of such
a remark. No doubt that by selecting a certain method and taking great
pains the whole story might have been written out on a cigarette paper.
For that matter, the whole history of mankind could be written thus if
only approached with sufficient detachment. The history of men on this
earth since the beginning of ages may be resumed in one phrase of
infinite poignancy: They were born, they suffered, they died.... Yet it
is a great tale! But in the infinitely minute stories about men and
women it is my lot on earth to narrate I am not capable of such
detachment.

What makes this book memorable to me apart from the natural sentiment
one has for one's creation is the response it provoked. The general
public responded largely, more largely perhaps than to any other book of
mine, in the only way the general public can respond, that is by buying
a certain number of copies. This gave me a considerable amount of
pleasure, because what I always feared most was drifting unconsciously
into the position of a writer for a limited coterie; a position which
would have been odious to me as throwing a doubt on the soundness of my
belief in the solidarity of all mankind in simple ideas and in sincere
emotions. Regarded as a manifestation of criticism (for it would be
outrageous to deny to the general public the possession of a critical
mind) the reception was very satisfactory. I saw that I had managed to
please a certain number of minds busy attending to their own very real
affairs. It is agreeable to think one is able to please. From the minds
whose business it is precisely to criticize such attempts to please,
this book received an amount of discussion and of a rather searching
analysis which not only satisfied that personal vanity I share with the
rest of mankind but reached my deeper feelings and aroused my gratified
interest. The undoubted sympathy informing the varied appreciations of
that book was, I love to think, a recognition of my good faith in the
pursuit of my art--the art of the novelist which a distinguished French
writer at the end of a successful career complained of as being: _Trop
difficile!_ It is indeed too arduous in the sense that the effort must
be invariably so much greater than the possible achievement. In that
sort of foredoomed task which is in its nature very lonely also,
sympathy is a precious thing. It can make the most severe criticism
welcome. To be told that better things have been expected of one may be
soothing in view of how much better things one had expected from oneself
in this art which, in these days, is no longer justified by the
assumption, somewhere and somehow, of a didactic purpose.

I do not mean to hint that anybody had ever done me the injury (I don't
mean insult, I mean injury) of charging a single one of my pages with
didactic purpose. But every subject in the region of intellect and
emotion must have a morality of its own if it is treated at all
sincerely; and even the most artful of writers will give himself (and
his morality) away in about every third sentence. The varied shades of
moral significance which have been discovered in my writings are very
numerous. None of them, however, have provoked a hostile manifestation.
It may have happened to me to sin against taste now and then, but
apparently I have never sinned against the basic feelings and elementary
convictions which make life possible to the mass of mankind and, by
establishing a standard of judgment, set their idealism free to look for
plainer ways, for higher feelings, for deeper purposes.

I cannot say that any particular moral complexion has been put on this
novel but I do not think that anybody had detected in it an evil
intention. And it is only for their intentions that men can be held
responsible. The ultimate effects of whatever they do are far beyond
their control. In doing this book my intention was to interest people in
my vision of things which is indissolubly allied to the style in which
it is expressed. In other words I wanted to write a certain amount of
pages in prose, which, strictly speaking, is my proper business. I have
attended to it conscientiously with the hope of being entertaining or at
least not insufferably boring to my readers. I can not sufficiently
insist upon the truth that when I sit down to write my intentions are
always blameless however deplorable the ultimate effect of the act may
turn out to be.

J. C.

1920.

Joseph Conrad

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