Falk: A Reminiscence

I have been chipping away at Joseph Conrad for the last few years, but had forgotten about him for a moment. Novellas in November has allowed me to choose a shorter work from the anthology I have on my e-reader. I’ve chosen Falk as my second read during week one of the challenge, which has the theme of Short Classics.

Coincidentally, W G Sebald provided me recently with a little background on Conrad, writing about him in The Rings of Saturn. Conrad’s maritime career took him to far flung places that then inspired his writing. Falk is one such work, beginning with a meal in an inn on the Thames shared by a group of men “all more or less connected with the sea”.

I luxuriated in Conrad’s language, learning two new words on the very first page. The view from the inn is enfilading, stretched out in a line like a volley of gunfire or a suite of interconnected rooms, the dining room is a lacustrine space, damp and marshy like a lake. His description of the truly awful meal is priceless.

… a decrepit old waiter tottered pathetically to and fro before an antediluvian and worm-eaten sideboard; the chipped plates might have been disinterred from some kitchen midden near an inhabited lake; and the chops recalled times more ancient still.

The sight of a woman in a red hood pacing the poop deck of a barque being towed past their window triggers a story from one of the older men. It concerns the man himself, his friend Hermann and his enemy Falk. It takes place on a German ship in an Eastern seaport. Also on the ship is Hermann’s niece. The narrator of the tale has command of his own ship, from which he observes the family goings-on aboard Hermann’s Diana of Bremen. The ship is likened to a cottage and is unusually home to Hermann’s entire family – wife, four children and orphaned niece.

The old sea dog has an eye for the niece, enchanted by her youth, her solidity, her silence. His appreciation of her silence and modesty made me think of The Silence of the Sea, in which the niece of a man whose home is occupied by a German officer, when Germany occupies France, refuses to speak to the officer but sits and sews in silence, absorbing his monologues. This sea dog was a young man at the time, in charge of his first ship, a rundown vessel bankrupted by its previous captain, and naïve about the ways of his fellow seafarers and the townspeople who serviced them. He uses Hermann’s ship as an escape from his own woes. Into his idyll strides the tugboat captain, Falk, who also has an interest in the niece.

Falk is antisocial but visits Hermann every evening, sitting awkwardly in the cabin, saying little. There comes an evening when Hermann sends his niece off to put the children to bed, a decision that weirdly infuriates Falk. He looms over the tale teller briefly, intriguing him about what he might do next, but leaves abruptly. The next day reveals what Falk has in mind in that moment. It’s nothing good for either Hermann or the narrator of the tale.

The ridiculousness of the situation is brilliantly rendered by Conrad. Here is a situation filled with foolish pride of all types – pride in being the best placed person to do something, pride in believing oneself an irresistible catch, injured pride in being made to look foolish in front of others, the pride of youth, the pride of age, the reticent pride of not wishing to be the one who upsets the status quo. Conrad also captures the feeling of impotence in the face of a monopolist’s arrogance. There are elements of the stupidity evident in Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, in which Robert Pattinson’s young man is constantly thwarted by the truculence of Willem Dafoe’s more seasoned lighthouse keeper.

Things go from bad to worse in an excruciating sequence that has Falk always one step ahead of our hero, thwarting his plans with peevish pettiness. Out of exasperation, the narrator of this story decides to resolve the issue that is being gossipped about directly with Falk. It is a huge misunderstanding grown out of proportion by the characters of the two men and an unwillingness to converse. As soon as the conversation begins, matters improve, which is a lesson against jumping to conclusions and acting in anger.

The story turns into a charming and funny romance to rival Jane Austen in humanity if not setting. This not being Regency England, the entanglements of love are derailed by something heavier than social standing. The narrator of the reminiscence recounts how he works on his supposed enemy’s behalf to resolve the issue.

I really enjoyed this novella. I was immersed from the start, absorbed by the twists and turns of the story and loved Conrad’s mastery of the narrative form. I’ve now read six of his works (reviewed four on here) and not one has been duff.

A bonus second read for Short Classics week in Novellas in November!

Read 03/11/2022-05/11/2022

Rating 4 stars

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8 thoughts on “Falk: A Reminiscence

  1. Heart of Darkness is one of the few books which had such a negative effect on me that I’ve never forgotten it but for all the wrong reasons. I’ve always felt that I missed something in it; I simply could not see why so many others praise it or rate Conrad so highly. I think possibly Falk, which I had not heard of before your post, may be a way to remedy my reaction to Conrad.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can understand that, Sandra. Heart of Darkness is a difficult read, but I loved it. It captures, for me, everything that was wrong with the colonial invasion of Africa, from the inhumane treatment of African people to the impotence of white colonisers in the face of the uncivil way those who had been there for years behaved. Then there’s Conrad’s portrayal of the African landscape and the way Africa confounded everything the white people believed to be true of themselves. Kurtz and his descent into madness is a slap in the face of everything white western ‘civilisation’ claims to be. And the knowledge that it all stems from Conrad’s direct experience, something that sickened him and encouraged him to speak out about it, makes it all the more visceral for me.

      Falk would be a good short read to get more of a feel for Conrad’s writing. I’d also recommend The Secret Agent, which is a political intrigue.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You capture the essence of HoD so well here, Jan. I just couldn’t get past the horror of it, the bleakness. But I’d like to appreciate Conrad more and I’ll try both the books you suggest. Thank you 😊

        Liked by 1 person

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