June 3, 2016

The Art of the Novella challenge 45: Freya of the Seven Isles


IMG_8660Title: Freya of the Seven Isles

Author: Joseph Conrad

First published: 1912

Page count: 117

First line: One day — and that day was many years ago — I received a long, chatty letter from one of my old chums and fellow-wanderers in Eastern waters.

Joseph Conrad was a great teller of tales, perhaps the last great teller of tales in a way that makes him peculiarly modern and ancient at the same time, and particularly suited to the art of the novella — which, as I’ve tried to argue in this overview of the form, is one in constant negotiation between oral and written culture. A novella is a written narrative that mimics the feel, for the reader, of hearing an extended anecdote, an after-dinner, fireside tale that somehow bewitches the company, dragging them out of themselves to enter into the world — weird and deluded and monopolistic as it may be — of the teller.

In reality, half an hour would be a long time to listen to somebody tell a story, no matter how good the dinner had been. And half an hour would suffice to read out loud only a short story of ordinary length, but still be long enough to immerse any reader, if the teller were a good teller, in the world of that story, to make it somewhere the reader felt they had to emerge from.

A novella — to take Peirene Press’s rough point of comparison — should take about as long to read as a feature film does to watch: somewhere between ninety and 150 minutes, say, but to my mind the story — the tale itself — should be no bigger or wider in scope than one that could be told, orally, in that after-dinner half-an-hour. It’s just filled out a little, the written details standing for the nuance of delivery and performative insight that the teller would naturally to bring to their telling. Sometimes a written sentence is merely the functional equivalent of a moment’s spoken silence.

When I talk about Conrad being perched between the ancient and the modern, I refer in part to his perennial subject and setting: the sea. Sailors, in Conrad’s day if not now, carried stories like dogs carry fleas, both because they had been places other people hadn’t (and so those other people couldn’t verify or deny what they said) and because they had the time to tell them. (Remember that we only get to read Heart of Darkness, that classic of the modern novella, because a boat is waiting for the tide at Gravesend to turn, no one can be bothered to play dominoes, and Marlow feels the need to break the silence.)

Like Heart of Darkness, Freya of the Seven Isles is a twice-told tale, by which I mean a tale recounted, at one remove, by a narrator who claims only to have overheard it — which also adds spice to the enterprise. For if it’s one thing to hear something from the horse’s mouth, it’s another thing entirely to hear it from someone who heard it from the horse. The second teller, however much they assure you of the story’s veracity, and of the trustworthiness of that particular horse, will always puff things up a little, in the retelling, if only to compensate for the lack of authenticity.

In fact, the unnamed narrator of Freya does know all the characters of his tale, and has observed some of it at first hand, but he wasn’t there to see the most dramatic elements, which doesn’t stop him telling them as if he had been there, with a novelist’s characteristic willingness to broach the boundaries of people’s interiorities — to treat people in a story as characters, in other words.

“Remember old Nelson! Certainly. And to begin with his name was not Nelson. The Englishmen in the Archipelago called him Nelson because it was more convenient, I suppose, and he never protested” — this is the narrator at the beginning of the story, establishing himself as credible, brandishing that “I suppose” the way a man leaning on a mantelpiece with a cigar in his hand night wave his hand airily.

Skip forward seventy pages and that same narrator is vouchsafing this, of a character: “He lay on his back staring vindictively in the darkness.” It’s night, and the man — the Dutch naval lieutenant, and villain of the piece, Heemskirk — is lying in bed, unable to sleep, fuming over his humiliation at the hands of Freya herself. He lay on his back staring vindictively in the darkness. In the darkness, indeed! And there’s plenty more like this.

Oh, it’s a slippery piece of work, this novella. It comes on all reasonable and responsible, and then, before you know it, pulls this kind of narrative trick on you. It is the work of a master illusionist.

Make no mistake: the construction is masterly. It is a story with a setting, four major and two minor characters (not including the narrator), and two pivotal events, one an indirect response to the other. I could lay out the plot in a couple of paragraphs. And yet, a look at how the characters are introduced reveals the thaumaturgy at work here.

For instance, remember old Nelson? Of course you do. I quoted the narrator remembering him a few lines above. He is a Danish trader, widowed and retired to the East Indies under the suspicious eyes of the Dutch colonial authorities, and he has a daughter, Freya, a young woman as beautiful as she is self-possessed. She loves and is loved by Jasper Allen, a slightly disreputable English trader who will, the two of them have agreed, marry her and carry her off on his splendid brig, the Bonito, the moment she turns twenty-one. Nelson doesn’t suspect the romance, and wouldn’t approve if he knew. Freya loves her father too much to cause him pain. All they must do is wait the time out.

What is superb about the single, seventeen-page chapter that Conrad takes setting this situation up is how these basic relationships gather a kind of tension, simply through the way he establishes them. Here, for instance, is the narrator’s long description of Freya:

Freya Nelson (or Nielsen) was the kind of girl one remembers. The oval of her face was perfect; and within that fascinating frame the most happy disposition of line and feature, with an admirable complexion, gave an impression of health, strength, and what I might call unconscious self-confidence — a most pleasant and, as it were, whimsical determination. I will not compare her eyes to violets, because the real shade of their colour was peculiar, not so dark and more lustrous. They were of the wide-open kind, and looked at one frankly in every mood. I never did see the long, dark eyelashes lowered — I dare say Jasper Allen did, being a privileged person — but I have no doubt that the expression must have been charming in a complex way. She could — Jasper told me once with a touchingly imbecile exultation — sit on her hair. I dare say, I dare say. It was not for me to behold these wonders; I was content to admire the neat and becoming way she used to do it up so as not to conceal the good shape of her head. And this wealth of hair was so glossy that when the screens of the west verandah were down, making a pleasant twilight there, or in the shade of the grove of fruit-trees near the house, it seemed to give out a golden light of its own.

What can we take from this? That Freya is a wonderful romantic heroine — or not quite a heroine, for whimsical determination is not enough to drive a story by itself, but certainly a creditable love interest in a romance, and worthy of Jasper’s affections. Worthy, too, of the narrator’s, for it’s clear that he is in love with her, just as much — and this is all the more clever of Conrad, for this repressed emotion does not colour the plot of the story at all, but imbues its telling at crucial moments, generally when something dramatic is afoot, and Freya looks at him, and the look tells him that they two, alone, understand one another, and that it would have been a better thing all round if he had stepped in and proposed marriage to this young woman—this girl, really—only he didn’t: he’s the narrator, not the hero, and where’s that whisky, by the way, but I could have had her, believe you me, thank you, a drop of soda, thank you. I often wonder what would have happened if I’d stepped in. She would have seen sense. A catastrophe averted, it would have been. I understood her, you see (“My eyes alone could detect a faint shadow on the radiance of her personality”) and Jasper, oh he loved her alright, but he didn’t see her as I saw her…

But that’s by the bye.  The fun-poking at the narrator is subtly done. (“I dare say, I dare say”; not to mention the chummery and Eastern waters of that opening line.) Subtly, but effectively: compare this to the contortions I twisted myself into trying to parse the narrator in Melville’s Benito Cereno.

No, it’s the three others — Nelson (or Nielson — it’s a repeated refrain, a little nudge to re-establish the bona fides of the narrator, his mastery of the niceties of the matter), Freya, and Jasper — that Conrad builds into a taut, tensile, but more or less stable triangle of love and kinship. To Nelson he gives a masochistic fear of the authorities. To Jasper he gives his ship, on which as many romantic descriptions are lavished as on Freya —and indeed in Jasper’s eyes the two of them are identical, the twin sources of his happiness, to be brought together on their marriage. To Freya he gives an upright grand piano, which she loves to play, especially during tropical storms:

Then, with the lowered rattan-screens rattling desperately in the wind and the bungalow shaking all over, Freya would sit down to the piano and play fierce Wagner music in the flicker of blinding flashes, with thunderbolts falling all round, enough to make your hair stand on end; and Jasper would remain stock still on the verandah, adoring the back view of her supple, swaying figure, the miraculous sheen of her fair head, the rapid hands on the keys, the white nape of her neck.

Into this triangle steps Heemskirk. He’s the baddie. (The descriptions tell you this clearly.) He desires Freya, if “love” is too dignified a word, and in one climatic scene — when she’s playing the piano, no less — makes a pass at her. Repulsed and indignant, she slaps his face, and from there the tragedy of the piece plays out. Even here, though, Conrad isn’t done, structure-wise. The machine is set in motion, but one more piece is needed to keep tragedy from being averted: the well-meaning but entirely untrustworthy sailor Schultz, whom you mustn’t pay till the end of a trip, because once he gets drunk he’ll start stealing things from the ship he’s on to buy more booze… Schultz, though, with the beautiful voice… Schultz, who offers here the element of chaos needed to tip any drama into a crisis… Schultz, who cuts his own throat in the end, in remorse at what he unwittingly caused.

But, as I say, the structure is clever. Conrad sets up these characters, shows them to us through the eyes of his unnamed narrator, and then takes them out of the picture. Numerous times we read the likes of this:

This peaceful occasion was the last on which I saw all these people assembled together…

I would have been very much cut up had I known that this hurried grasp of the hand with “So long, old boy. Good luck to you!” was the last of our partings.

I remember the occurrences of that visit especially, because this was the last time I saw the Nelson bungalow.

And all of these little more than a third of the way into the narrative.

I said in an earlier blog post how RL Stevenson’s The Beach of Falesá practically invented the standard scenario of the James Bond movie. Well, in a similar fashion, Freya in its outline contains all the details of, if not quite a film noir, certainly the kind of post-war romance-adventure melodrama that has been seen in retrospect to share many of the crucial expressionist elements of that genre.

Or perhaps I’m just trying to say that Freya would have made a superb Howard Hawks or John Huston movie?

The characters are types, but strong examples of the type. (Who would you cast as Freya? Who? Who? Which actor could do what is needed, bringing ferociousness to her few moments of action, and a fervent desirableness to the rest of her rather passive business?) The setting is evocative, exotic (forgive me), and distinct. Nobody is given too much to do. The few crucial scenes needed to let the actors turn the characters into star turns are there. (That Wagner in the storm. That slap.) Freya even calls Jasper “kid.”

To be sure, the script needs a new ending. There is drama, but the fight to the death is missing. The tragedy is one of dissipation, not catastrophe. Conrad’s novella sticks to the logic of its telling, and follows its surviving characters — or some of them — “down the corridor” to a diminished existence in poor, sorry old England, as if to bring the readers back to their senses, back down to earth with as gentle a bump as possible. You do not have an exotic existence. You remind no one sometimes of “a flashing sword-blade perpetually leaping out of the scabbard.” You have never played Wagner during a tropical downpour. These things do not happen to you. You read about them. As you were. On your way, please, gentlemen and ladies.



Jonathan Gibbs is the author of Randall, or The Painted Grape, published by Galley Beggar Press, and lectures in Creative and Professional Writing at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. He tweets as @Tiny_Camels and blogs at Tiny Camels.