Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Conrad and me

"Drop this! I won't fight with you. I won't be made ridiculous."

"Ah, you won't?" hissed the Gascon. "I suppose you prefer to be made infamous. Do you hear what I say? ... Infamous! Infamous! Infamous!" he shrieked, rising and falling on his toes and getting very red in the face.

My grade 11 history teacher wore a brown leather jacket, Lennon specs, and a beard. He was a Harley-riding born-again Christian. Mr Osgan encouraged all sorts of strange ideas. For example, we did a unit on Ancient India, which may not sound so strange in these enlightened times, but back in my day, the classes of my peers were essentially limited to the big three: the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans.

Naturally, the course material lent itself to discussion of philosophy and religion, and really, that's all your typical hormonal teenagers really want to talk about. I don't think it was just me; most kids thought he was pretty cool, laid-back, like, he got it, man.

He'd go off on all sorts of interesting tangents. It seemed to me they were all about road trips, and meeting hippies and drinking tea and playing sitar. No, he probably didn't tell us any stories quite like that, but he may as well have, man, that was totally the aura he exuded.

For some reason, Mr Osgan seemed to think I was pretty bright, and he gave me A++s (that's double pluses) on my essays. I wrote something on Lucretius and Epicureanism. Then there was this thing on Pythagoras's Table of Opposites and how Pythagoras was clearly(!) influenced by Eastern philosophy. I had to present that to the class. Mr Osgan told me he was giving me bonus points for having conducted the whole seminar barefoot, that it somehow enhanced the material. But I hadn't given it any thought. I was just reckless that week. That was the week my mom went to visit my sister, and I stayed home alone with my big brother, though you can't really say my brother was very present. I had friends over, and stayed out late, and didn't prepare for my project at all. I just left my shoes somewhere, or my feet hurt or something. It was spring, and warm and sunny.

Anyway, before all that stuff, on the very first day of class — history was my home room — Mr Osgan had us fill out some basic information about ourselves, things related to culture and language and religion, I think, and we had to respond to something like, I dunno, "How would you describe yourself," or "What do you want me to know about you?" — something like that. And I remember I wrote that I was "a prolific reader" and I think I was going through my Somerset Maugham phase and I said something about that, but then I worried a long time, for days, about whether I'd used the word "prolific" correctly.

So Mr Osgan notes that I'm Polish, and he starts to tell me, and the whole class, about Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, aka Joseph Conrad, and how remarkable it is that he should write so remarkably well in a language (English) other than his mother tongue (Polish), and, really, I should read him. I'm pretty sure he noted Nostromo as being particularly good. And then he went off on a tangent about some commune where they drank tea and read Conrad or something.

Shortly thereafter I had my very own copy of Nostromo (did our rinky-dink local bookstore actually have it in stock? did my mother special order it for me?). I'm sure Mr Osgan noticed me carrying it around for a while, but he had the sense never to ask me about it.

I still have that book somewhere. Dogeared at page 17. It bears the distinction of being the first of very few books I never finished.

University was a lot harder than high school. In first year, I was a math and philosophy major, but everyone still had to take English. Everyone was tested and placed according to their abilities. I was exempt from all the basic grammar and composition stuff, and ended up in a lit survey course, which was one of the very few lit courses I took in university.

Of course, Heart of Darkness was on the syllabus, and nothing in the world could convince me to read it. I'm not sure I even tried. Maybe I tried. Maybe I read a page. I'm pretty sure I didn't even try. I totally faked it. I hadn't even seen Apocalypse Now.

And I've felt this gaping lacuna in my literary education ever since.

I tried to read Nostromo again later, in my twenties, which served only to grant it the the distinction of being the only book I never finished twice.

Enter The Duel. I received my e-book for free when I subscribed to Melville House's mailing list (offer no longer available).

Conrad's Duel. It's funny! And absurd — the extent to which honour may be insulted and defended. I'm not quite finished, but finish it I will. I may even try Nostromo again.

Thank you, Melville House, for reconciling me to Joseph Conrad. Otherwise this standoff might've lasted to the death (mine).

Congratulations, Frances, for all the extraordinary reading you accomplished this month — the Art of the Novella reading challenge — and thanks for the nudge in this direction.

Sorry, Mr Osgan, that I never appreciated Conrad the way you hoped I would. But look at me now.

Saying these words the chief spun round to seize the truth, which is not a beautiful shape living in a well, but a shy bird caught by strategem.
Post a Comment