Classics corner 002: The Tale by Joseph Conrad
Jean Hannah Edelstein
Sunday 11 January 2009 00.01 GMT
ould Joseph Conrad be published if he were writing today? It's a question prompted by Philip Hensher's introduction to this new edition of four long short stories. Conrad's best work, Hensher muses, lies "somewhere between the long short story... and the short novel", two forms that are frequently disregarded by contemporary publishing houses as too difficult and unpopular in a market catering to readers who want something long enough to last them the duration of their beach holiday.
The four stories herein are classic Conrad: stories within stories, unfold by nameless narrators who recount the plots with minimum blandishment and maximum brutality. "The Prince Roman" is remarkable as Conrad's sole story about Poland, his homeland. The titular story is framed as a conversation between the narrator and the woman with whom he is having a love affair (and who, perhaps, he does not love). "Tell me something," she begs him, caught in a moment between love and despair; her suitor responds with a tragic naval yarn. This, too, is classic Conrad: men tested by evil, but the frame adds a melancholy frisson absent from his more masculine texts. "The Black Mate", which concludes the collection, also picks up the dark, seafaring motif, but contains an amusing twist.
Conrad can feel old-fashioned - the portrayal of women in these narratives as gauzy ciphers seems a little weak to the modern reader - but overall this is a brilliant demonstration of the power of textual brevity, a lesson for contemporary writers who bloat their texts to excess for fear of writing now-unfashionable shorter forms of fiction.