I suspect that Joseph Conrad’s short 1917 novel The Shadow-Line, a Confession would have a difficult time finding a publisher today.

Let me amend that:  Yes, the head of some small, feisty, independent press would find Conrad’s book beautifully intense and get it in print and sell maybe a couple hundred copies.

But getting a major house interested and having the possibility of finding a wide audience? No, I don’t think so.

What are the comps?  That would be the question.  What are the published bestsellers that are like — comparable to — this manuscript?  What are the books that have a large established audience that is likely to find this novel similar and therefore attractive?  Otherwise, how can we be sure this thing will make money?

The Shadow-Line was published a century ago when much of the publishing industry wasn’t so much an industry as a vocation or avocation. Breaking even was OK. There were a great many books then that found their way into print, not because they were going to bring in huge amounts of cash, but simply because the publisher wanted to publish them. 

Easy to drop in the garbage

Today, it would be easy enough for a front-line reader at a major house to drop Conrad’s book into the garbage.

For one thing, it’s about men. Only. There’s not a single female in its 128 pages.

For another, it’s a sea story without much of a plot: A young sailor, never named, becomes captain of a ship and has to lead the ship and its crew through a lot of difficulties before reaching harbor.

No pirates.  No swashbuckling. No mutiny.  No desert islands. No treasures.  And, for that matter, no sex, no romance, no drugs, no scrumptiously described dinners, no earnestly detailed clothing, no transgressive cigarette-smoking.

Really, why would anyone buy a book like this?

“Chucked my berth”

Well, because The Shadow-Line, despite its seeming simplicity, is a complex, sharply nuanced took at a callow but generally steadfast young man — by the man much later in life.

That’s the “Confession” of the subtitle.  An older man is recounting with more than a little ruefulness a key moment in his life, a moment when he crossed the line — that shadow line — between boyishness and adulthood, between happy-go-lucky and battle-tested, between self-ignorance and grimly won self-knowledge.

As his account opens, the older man is recalling how, on the spur of the moment, he quit his ship and decided to return to his home port.  It was, he says, the product of boredom, weariness and dissatisfaction.

My action, rash as it was, had more the character of divorce — almost of desertion. For no reason on which a sensible person could put a finger I threw up my job — chucked my berth — left the ship of which the worst that could be said was that she was a steamship and therefore, perhaps, not entitled to that blind loyalty which…. However, it’s no use trying to put a gloss on what even at the time I myself half suspected to be a caprice.

“My ship!”

As he is awaiting his return home, the sailor — a skilled hand who is respected by his former master — is offered his first captaincy. He will take over a ship whose captain has died suddenly.

He accepts. And he is filled with an elation not based on reality — he has never seen his new ship — but on imagination — how he pictures the place where he is to be master:

A ship! My ship! She was mine, more absolutely mine for possession and care than anything in the world; an object of responsibility and devotion. She was there waiting for me, spell-bound, unable to move, to live, to get out into the world (till I came), like an enchanted princess. Her call had come to me as if from the clouds. I had never suspected her existence. I didn’t know how she looked, I had barely heard her name, and yet we were indissolubly united for a certain portion of our future, to sink or swim together!

The blissful dopiness of youth!

A restless, relentless intensity

Yet, the young captain’s first voyage with his ship is a series of afflictions, starting with sickness in the crew, stolen medicine, dreadful calms on the water and a horrific storm.

There is a restless, relentless intensity to the old man’s tale of his young self.

I’m tempted to say that every page of the story is heightened as if in a fever dream, but that would be wrong inasmuch as the young captain’s ordeal isn’t an illusion and one of his great challenges is to keep as clear-headed as he can — because, if not him, who?

“Turned into water”

The concentrated energy of The Shadow-Line includes acutely delineated evocations of a handful of key characters, each an individual.  This is a novel with no cardboard characters, no stereotypes. 

Each character is himself, just as the twists and spasms of Nature that the young man and his ship must face are each themselves, nothing generic about them.

The intensity of The Shadow-Line is poetic in its ferocious concentration while, also, never getting airy-fairy.  It is poetic in the sharpness of Conrad’s prose:

Suddenly—how am I to convey it? Well, suddenly the darkness turned into water. This is the only suitable figure. A heavy shower, a downpour, comes along, making a noise. You hear its approach on the sea, in the air, too, I verily believe. But this was different.

With no preliminary whisper or rustle, without a splash, and even without the ghost of impact, I became instantaneously soaked to the skin. Not a very difficult matter, since I was wearing only my sleeping suit. My hair got full of water in an instant, water streamed on my skin, it filled my nose, my ears, my eyes. In a fraction of a second I swallowed quite a lot of it.

Well, why would anyone read a book like this?

Core questions

Because it tells a universal tale about a human being facing adversity, as each of us does in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.

Because it isn’t trying to copy some bestselling formula but, instead, is trying to reflect what it feels like, in fact, to be caught off guard by opportunity and by calamity, to be young and suddenly weighted by responsibility, to be pushed to the edge of ability and energy and stamina, to be faced with ultimate loss.

Because, like all great art, it is one of a kind.  It is itself. 

And because it hasn’t been written to entertain but to offer the reader a chance to consider core questions of what it means to be alive.

Patrick T. Reardon


Written by : Patrick T. Reardon

For more than three decades Patrick T. Reardon was an urban affairs writer, a feature writer, a columnist, and an editor for the Chicago Tribune. In 2000 he was one of a team of 50 staff members who won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting. Now a freelance writer and poet, he has contributed chapters to several books and is the author of Faith Stripped to Its Essence. His website is https://patricktreardon.com/.

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