Stolen Lives

It should be clear by now that Henry James and Upton Sinclair are hardly the only 20th century authors to enjoy generous, wide-ranging afterlives in contemporary works.

On the spectrum of life-to-lit authenticity, author Lawrence Thornton’s fictional treatment of Joseph Conrad falls somewhere between Chris Bachelder’s wildly imaginative rumpus with Sinclair, U.S.!, and two relatively straightforward engagements with James, David Lodge’s Author, Author and Cólm Toibín’s The Master.

The narrator of Thornton’s work is at once the fictional sailor and memoirist Jack Malone – neatly shoehorned into Conrad’s social life – and his luminous shadow, Marlowe, famed narrator of Heart of Darkness and, in this telling, a thinly disguised version of Malone himself. The larger story unfolds in the form of a letter, written by Malone after Conrad has died, and addressed to author and (real) Conrad confidant and collaborator Ford Madox Ford.

In this book-length letter, Malone writes, in part, of the pains Conrad took to disguise the “theft” of Malone’s life and the anguish he experienced on its revelation, as though Conrad then had to confront the implication of losing himself in the shadow of a larger-than-life character. Marlowe, it follows logically, is not a character who Conrad invented – and there might be some genuine glory in that act – but only one who he made the subject of a life study, about which he remained silent when it was mistaken for a powerful work of imagination.

This scenario, an extension of Malone himself, springs from Thornton’s imagination and not any real chapter of Conrad’s life. Historian Adam Hochschild has described several real figures upon whom Conrad may have based another character from Heart of Darkness, that of Kurtz, but it’s not clear what cause Conrad would have had to feel guilty for doing so.

Does Thornton’s fictional Conrad, then, have anything to teach us about his factual counterpart? The question matters, because, arguably, there is only one purpose in bringing a historic figure back to life as a literary character in a serious literary work and, that is, to seek a better understanding of his or her character and the way circumstances shaped it. Otherwise, why not simply conjure up someone entirely new? Someone truly fictional?

At the same time, one might say that fiction has its own singular purpose, one that, just as convincingly, makes lesser purposes of the rest: To tell a true story is to tell a good story. And if it is good, we feel it as true in our bones. All thefts (short of blunt plagiarism) are thus redeemed.

You’ll have to read the novel to draw your own conclusions as to whether Thornton’s “what if” justifies itself. In the meantime, a short excerpt from Thornton’s novel, in which Malone shares with Ford the revelation that made his own writing possible, a visitation at once imaginary and, on the inward sea that writers sail, utterly real:

Five years were to pass before I finally sat down to see what I could do in the way of memoir writing. After three false starts, I was close to giving up. I remember crushing what I thought might well be the last page of my efforts and rolling it across the table, where the bloodless thing disappeared over the edge. And then, half an hour later, you appeared, Ford, descending like a ministering angel from the silky blackness of an Indonesian night to show me the way…

Suddenly, I recalled an afternoon you and I spent with Conrad in Kent at his country house. We three had walked from Pent Farm to Stanford for lunch at his favorite pub, the one with the weathered picnic benches that stood outside on the grass, and afterward returned to the parlor. Nothing earth-shattering, simply a rescued moment that somehow led my thoughts to the opening pages of your “Good Soldier,” where John Dowell frets over how to tell his story and finally decides to imagine himself talking to a sympathetic soul in a country cottage. I had a vision of him and this nameless chap sitting by a crackling fire – Dowell, heartbroken and confused going on about his trials with his poor wife, Florence, quite as a man would to someone who understands the torments of love and sex.

Well, my heart started pounding. In that instant I realized that I, too, needed a confidant, someone interested enough in Conrad to listen to what I had to say. There were plenty of candidates among Conrad’s writer friends – Henry James, H.G. Wells, Stephen Crane, Rudyard Kipling – but none was as well suited for the job as Ford Madox Ford, his friend and steadfast ally ever since you two had met in 1898. The fact that you had lived at Pent Farm and vacated it just before Conrad moved in made your role as my Muse even more natural. And it was also there at Pent that you and he began your collaboration…I also knew that you had a hand in revising “Heart of Darkness,” “Nostromo,” and parts of “The Mirror of the Sea” – work that let you understand far better than I what drove the man and what made him the artist we admired.

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