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Tales of Unrest

Of the five stories in this volume The Lagoon, the last in order, is the
earliest in date. It is the first short story I ever wrote and marks, in
a manner of speaking, the end of my first phase, the Malayan phase with
its special subject and its verbal suggestions. Conceived in the same
mood which produced "Almayer's Folly" and "An Outcast of the Islands,"
it is told in the same breath (with what was left of it, that is, after
the end of "An Outcast"), seen with the same vision rendered in the same
method--if such a thing as method did exist then in my conscious
relation to this new adventure of writing for print. I doubt it very
much. One does one's work first and theorizes about it afterwards. It is
a very amusing and egotistical occupation of no use whatever to any one
and just as likely as not to lead to false conclusions.

Anybody can see that between the last paragraph of "An Outcast" and the
first of The Lagoon there has been no change of pen, figuratively
speaking. It happens also to be literally true. It was the same pen: a
common steel pen. Having been charged with a certain lack of emotional
faculty I am glad to be able to say that on one occasion at least I did
give way to a sentimental impulse. I thought the pen had been a good pen
and that it had done enough for me, and so, with the idea of keeping it
for a sort of memento on which I could look later with tender eyes, I
put it into my waistcoat pocket. Afterwards it used to turn up in all
sorts of places, at the bottom of small drawers, among my studs in
cardboard boxes, till at last it found permanent rest in a large wooden
bowl containing some loose keys, bits of sealing wax, bits of string,
small broken chains, a few buttons, and similar minute wreckage that
washes out of a man's life into such receptacles. I would catch sight of
it from time to time with a distinct feeling of satisfaction till, one
day, I perceived with horror that there were two old pens in there. How
the other pen found its way into the bowl instead of the fireplace or
waste-paper basket I can't imagine, but there the two were, lying side
by side, both encrusted with ink and completely undistinguishable from
each other. It was very distressing, but being determined not to share
my sentiment between two pens or run the risk of sentimentalizing over a
mere stranger, I threw them both out of the window into a flower
bed--which strikes me now as a poetical grave for the remnants of one's

But the tale remained. It was first fixed in print in the _Cornhill
Magazine_, being my first appearance in a serial of any kind; and I have
lived long enough to see it most agreeably guyed by Mr. Max Beerbohm in
a volume of parodies entitled "A Christmas Garland," where I found
myself in very good company. I was immensely gratified. I began to
believe in my public existence. I have much to thank The Lagoon for.

My next effort in short story writing was a departure--I mean a
departure from the Malay Archipelago. Without premeditation, without
sorrow, without rejoicing and almost without noticing it, I stepped into
the very different atmosphere of An Outpost of Progress. I found there a
different moral attitude. I seemed able to capture new reactions, new
suggestions, and even new rhythms for my paragraphs. For a moment I
fancied myself a new man--a most exciting illusion. It clung to me for
some time, monstrous, half conviction and half hope as to its body with
an iridescent tail of dreams and with a changeable head like a plastic
mask. It was only later that I perceived that in common with the rest of
men nothing could deliver me from my fatal consistency. We cannot escape
from ourselves.

An Outpost of Progress is the lightest part of the loot I carried off
from Central Africa, the main portion being of course The Heart of
Darkness. Other men have found a lot of quite different things there and
I have the comfortable conviction that what I took would not have been
of much use to anybody else. And it must be said that it was but a very
small amount of plunder. All of it could go into one's breast pocket
when folded neatly. As for the story itself it is true enough in its
essentials. The sustained invention of a really telling lie demands a
talent which I do not possess.

The Idiots is such an obviously derivative piece of work that it is
impossible for me to say anything about it here. The suggestion of it
was not mental but visual: the actual idiots. It was after an interval
of long groping amongst vague impulses and hesitations which ended in
the production of "The Nigger" that I turned to my third short story in
the order of time, the first in this volume: Karain: A Memory.

Reading it after many years Karain produced on me the effect of
something seen through a pair of glasses from a rather advantageous
position. In that story I had not gone back to the Archipelago, I had
only turned for another look at it. I admit that I was absorbed by the
distant view, so absorbed that I didn't notice then that the _motif_ of
the story is almost identical with the _motif_ of The Lagoon. However,
the idea at the back is very different; but the story is mainly made
memorable to me by the fact that it was my first contribution to
_Blackwood's Magazine_ and that it led to my personal acquaintance with
Mr. William Blackwood whose guarded appreciation I felt nevertheless to
be genuine, and prized accordingly. Karain was begun on a sudden impulse
only three days after I wrote the last line of "The Nigger," and the
recollection of its difficulties is mixed up with the worries of the
unfinished Return, the last pages of which I took up again at the time;
the only instance in my life when I made an attempt to write with both
hands at once as it were.

Indeed my innermost feeling, now, is that The Return is a left-handed
production. Looking through that story lately I had the material
impression of sitting under a large and expensive umbrella in the loud
drumming of a furious rain-shower. It was very distracting. In the
general uproar one could hear every individual drop strike on the stout
and distended silk. Mentally, the reading rendered me dumb for the
remainder of the day, not exactly with astonishment but with a sort of
dismal wonder. I don't want to talk disrespectfully of any pages of
mine. Psychologically there were no doubt good reasons for my attempt;
and it was worth while, if only to see of what excesses I was capable in
that sort of virtuosity. In this connection I should like to confess my
surprise on finding that notwithstanding all its apparatus of analysis
the story consists for the most part of physical impressions;
impressions of sound and sight, railway station, streets, a trotting
horse, reflections in mirrors and so on, rendered as if for their own
sake and combined with a sublimated description of a desirable middle
class town-residence which somehow manages to produce a sinister effect.
For the rest any kind word about The Return (and there have been such
words said at different times) awakens in me the liveliest gratitude,
for I know how much the writing of that fantasy has cost me in sheer
toil, in temper and in disillusion.

J. C.

Joseph Conrad

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