Around 1910 Joseph Conrad, a master of the English novel whose second language was English (ouch), wrote a short novella called Youth: A Narrative. I have it printed in one of those Penguin miniature editions, a tiny book in itself.
Youth is told, like many Conrad works including Heart of Darkness, in a long flashback by one of Conrad’s frequent narrators, a man named Marlow. The story concerns Marlow’s first trip to the East–to Singapore, actually. He’s 20, and it’s his first voyage away from home.
After a series of misadventures Marlow’s ship is disabled and barely makes it to Singapore, but for the young sailor it is a trip filled with joy and self-discovery. As he tells the story 22 years later, he speaks with the voice of an older man who, for all he has accomplished, still wonders if that trip may have been the great moment of his life. As he says to his listeners,
“You here–you all had something out of life: money, love, whatever one gets on shore–and tell me, wasn’t that the best time, when we were young and at sea, young and had nothing, on the sea that gives nothing except hard knocks and sometimes, a chance to feel your strength. . . ?”
All the men listening are lost in thought, remembering the moments of their youth. Conrad concludes the story with these beautiful lines:
“We all nodded at him over the polished table that like a still sheet of brown water reflected our faces, lined, wrinkled; our faces marked by toil, by deceptions, by success, by love; our weary eyes looking still, looking always, looking anxiously for something out of life, that while it is expected is already gone–has passed unseen, in a sigh, in a flash–together with the youth, with the strength, with the romance of illusions.”
Isn’t that the truth? Isn’t that what we’re always doing? All this is just a waiting room, right? We’ll start our real lives someday soon, when things are right, when X has been done, when we’re financially secure, when there’s no bad news in the paper. . . then we’ll be ready for all those peak experiences we just can’t fit in right now. But what if, as Conrad suggests, that moment already has passed while we were looking past it for something that may not come?
And what brought all this up, besides the desire to share some great writing?
For one thing, rebrowsing the Conrad story made me think about one of those imaginary conversations you never really have with real people because the days of our actual lives are so filled with ever-pressing, magnified trivia, which is why we invented fiction, I guess.
Anyway, what if someone asked you this:
If you had to come up with an image or an event or an anecdote –just one; let’s make it hard–that represented the essence of your youth, that crystallizes it for you so that if everything else was forgotten, this moment would still sum it up, what would it be?
A trip? A job? A love affair? A fight? Something you did with your parents? A song you heard one summer afternoon?
I’ve been thinking about this and may have my answer in a day or so.