The Rescue: A Romance of the Shallows

by Joseph Conrad. New York: Doubleday, Page & Co. 1920. 12mo, vi+404 pp. $2.00.
The Rescue, incidentally to its intrinsic merits, is a quite extraordinary challenge; or, rather, the publication of it at this time constitutes a challenge, none the less spirited for being, so far as the author is concerned, unconscious. Not many books can invite the verdict of posterity coincidently with their appearance: yet that is just what The Rescue manages to do. For it is essentially a book of 1900, and it recalls in scene and substance the Conrad of Lord Jim, An Outcast of the Islands, and Almayers Folly. What it proves is the unfading modernness of that Conrad of the first phase. How many novels of 18951905, outside of Conrad and Henry James, could endure the test of first publication to-day, or miss evoking in us a sense of archaic strangeness? Of the fiction between the end of Hardy s and Meredith’s work in the novel (1895) and the appearance of Mr. Bennett’s Old Wives’ Tales (1908), astonishingly little has to-day any other than an historical existence. Most of it is as dead as The Grand Cyrus or Queen-hoo Hall. Yet the books of Conrad just named, and with them Tales of Unrest and The Nigger of the Narcissus, Typhoon, and Youth, are as modern at this moment as they ever were. The Rescue, which is of them in all but chronology, serves the purpose of bringing home to us, as a living and contemporary phenomenon, that whole unique group of exotic tales and romances. So far as that group is concerned, we ourselves are posterity. The æsthetic of fiction has done a deal of growing in a quarter of a century; but the young writer who first signed himself Joseph Conrad in 1895 stood even then, thanks to Henry James, Flaubert, Anatole France, and Turgenev, well in advance of all the growing it has contrived to do as yet.
This romance of the shallows turns on an earlier phase of Captain Tom Lingard’s history than that recorded in either of Mr. Conrad’s first two books. One of its two pivotal motives is Lingard’s political project of restoring to crown and country an outlawed Malay prince, Hassim, who has saved Lingard’s life, and Hassim’s sister, the Princess Immada. The other is Lingard’s inarticulate, ravaging, and hapless love for Edith Travers, wife of the owner of an English schooneryacht which stumbles upon the scene of his intrigue with a party of over-civilized Europeans. Between these two tyrannic loyalties Lingard is spiritually trampled, the action dragging him on to predestined tragedy against a sombre and splendid background of shallow sea and lagoon and river jungle. Neither loyalty wins a material victory; yet the abstract principle of loyalty wins the spiritual triumph without which no tale of this author would be recognizable as his.
In a fashion more tenuous than that of symbolism — so imponderable, in fact, that the reader must be left to discover and define it for himself — The Rescue makes its sad, its ironic and disillusioned, its movingly humane comment on the baffled idealism of a whole world maddened with self-consciousness and given up to the forces of a tragic unrest. W. F.