Youth by Joseph Conrad is the first short story in my edition of Heart of Darkness and Selected Short Fiction, and I liked it very much. The title reflects the recurring thought of “youth” as if he were saying, “Sure, this is what happened, but maybe I’d do things differently now that I’m older.”
Stories about the ocean, ships, weather, etc. are usually beyond me. You might as well be talking about an alien world. I’m not an ocean enthusiast, not by a long shot. I don’t even like hanging out at the beach, a mortal sin for a Southern California native. And sailing?! The extent of my experience ON the sea boils down to two instances.
When I was in my 20’s, I worked as a stage hand at Disneyland and during the strike each night at Fantasmic!, I would pretend I was a pirate on the Columbia while I coiled cables, threw lighting fixtures into the hatch, and stacked things away in the hold for the next nights show. Also, I once went on a cruise to Mexico, and I was sick nearly the entire time.
So, when I read, “…England, where men and sea interpenetrate, so to speak – the sea entering into the life of most men, and then men knowing something or everything about the sea, in the way of amusement, of travel, or of bread-winning.” I had a feeling I’d be a bit lost in this one.
But amazingly, I was not! Conrad sure does have a way with words. Every scene is crystal clear, even if you are unfamiliar with ship terms. In this edition, there are footnotes for some terms, and I found them a tad annoying, especially when it would explain one term that seemed obvious from the context and then not another. Those I had to look up, but I’ve seen enough movies to get the picture.
Describing the ship that he’s about to be First Mate on:
“There was on it, below her name in big letters, a lot of scroll work, with the gilt off, and some sort of a coat of arms, with the motto “Do or die” underneath. I remember it took my fancy immensely. There was a touch of romance in it, something that made me love the old thing – something that appealed to my youth!”
When we’re young, that “do or die” attitude is so appealing. As we get into middle age, the motto “do and see what happens, it’s all good” seems more appropriate.
Here’s something I could relate to:
“It was January, and the weather was beautiful – the beautiful sunny winter weather that has more charm than in the summer-time, because it is unexpected, and crisp, and you know it won’t, it can’t last long. It’s like a windfall, like a godsend, like an unexpected piece of luck.”
And other synonyms. Joe, please. We get it. I do love that feeling though. In the desert, we get it in the reverse here in the summer. Those unexpectedly cool days when a summer storm comes in, the sky clouds up, the wind blows…mmm…so nice. But you know it’s only a cool day. The tomorrows won’t be colder and colder.
And then this about a sudden explosion on ship:
“…felt a dull concussion which made my ribs ache suddenly. No doubt about it – I was in the air, my body was describing a short parabola. But short as it was, I had the time to think several thoughts in…”
My sons have both described something similar when they have crashed while racing dirt bikes. One said that he saw me as he took a jump a little wonky and thought, “Oh my poor mom is going to freak out!” Yes, I did. I had the same feeling myself when I fell ten-foot bungy jump scene on to the top of junk yard car at Knott’s Berry Farm while building the Halloween Haunt. “This is how I die.” I didn’t.
“Ah! The good old time – the good old time! Youth and the sea. Glamour and the sea! The good, strong sea, the salt, bitter sea, that could whisper to you and roar to you and knock your breath out of you.”
He drank again.
“By all that’s wonderful it is the sea, I believe, the sea itself – or is it you alone? Who can tell?”
It’s youth. Those things we look back on, even if they were hard times, when we are older always seem so romantic. For me it was the shows I worked on at Knott’s and Disney. Starving, scrambling to pay rent, relationship drama, growing away from family, late nights, exhaustion, broken limbs, and near misses.
It wasn’t the job, or the art. It was youth. Everything was amazing, new, an adventure! Not so much now. I’d rather read about it, have a nice meal, and go to bed early. The young can keep their adventures.
Like I said, I enjoyed story much more than I thought I would. It turns out there is a lot to relate to. Even if the context of life isn’t the same, the humanity rings true to us all.