Marlow’s Dream is the title of a book I’ve been working on for a while. Years, actually. Subtitled ‘Joseph Conrad in Antipodean Ports’. The first version was, more or less, a disaster and, unfortunately, a couple of prospective publishers saw it. Neither responded. As they don’t, these days. I knew it was bad but didn’t know how to fix it. As you don’t. And then one day I came across an essay, by Italo Calvino, from his book Why Read the Classics? It was called ‘Conrad’s Captains’ and in a way I can’t explain, led me back to my own book, which I rewrote over the next few months. I like it now, which is not the same thing as saying it’s good. That’s for other people to decide. The ms is with my agent so I suppose I’ll find out, eventually, what its prospects are.
In genre terms, it would have to be called literary non-fiction. There are no inventions therein: though there’s plenty of speculation, I haven’t made anything up. I have quoted large amounts of words from other authors, mostly Joseph Conrad himself; but also from his biographers, his critics, his contemporaries, his interlocutors. The entire work, viewed one way, is made up mostly of quotations. A collage, a bricolage. In this way it isn’t very different from any of my other books. Usually I indicate quotations in one of two ways. I italicise them. Or I put them between quote marks. In this ms, they are italicised. That doesn’t always mean they are attributed as well. Some are, some aren’t; some are identified by their context; but I know where they all come from and could, if pressed, footnote every one. Something I really dislike doing. Not because I want to cover my tracks but because footnotes interrupt the flow of the reading.
Anyway, that will be sorted out if and when the book finds a publisher. Joseph Conrad died in 1924, so all of his works are already out of copyright. As for the rest – we will see. On the opening page I quote lines from a Bob Marley song: that will have to be cleared, and perhaps paid for too. There’s something similar on almost every other page. Sometimes I’m quoting my friends; sometimes myself. I have a head full of lines of verse and I drop them in here and there, often without explanation. But I always know.
What about quotes from others, that I may use without knowing? Well, I can’t be sure, but I don’t think I do that. I don’t keep notebooks. I don’t have a library of extracts I refer to. And I don’t have the kind of memory that can recall whole sentences from prose works, let alone paragraphs. It’s inconceivable. Anything I do quote from, at length, I keep a note of the source text. If I’ve found the words online, I copy and keep the link. If I find it in a book that’s on my shelves, I put a bookmark there. If it’s in a book I don’t own . . . but that hardly ever happens any more.
A few days after I sent the ms to my agent, as always happens, I came across something I wished I’d included. The dream that provoked the book was a real dream, one I had in Darlinghurst in 1990, and in it I mentioned to Joseph Conrad (or his avatar) something that happened to him at Circular Quay in 1879. He’d met a man called Mr Senior and had a conversation with him. Conrad was a young sailor, the night watchman on his ship, the Duke of Sutherland. Mr Senior was on the dock, awaiting cartage for a piano that had been unloaded from the hold. They spoke together for a while then Mr Senior went off, presumably to his hotel.
In the state of distraction that often follows an act like that (‘submission’), I happened to open up Geoffrey Dutton’s bio of Kenneth Slessor – and there discovered that the maiden name of Slessor’s first wife, Noela, was Senior. That sent me into a frenzy: What! Was she related to Conrad’s Mr Senior? If so how? Where . . . It turns out that her step-father was a ship’s captain called Stanton John Senior and he was the son of one George Senior, a coal magnate from Derbyshire who was, quite possibly, the man Conrad met at Circular Quay on that night in 1879. Noela’s birth father was the notorious axe murderer Edwin Glasson, the first husband of her mother, Annie May Summerbelle, a composer of popular songs who’d worked with Nellie Melba. There were other sea-farers in the extended family.
I tried to incorporate some of this cascade of information (there is more) into the ms; but realised, quite quickly, it was impossible. It’s for another book; which, it turns out, I already have in draft form. Not that I know how to finish it; but never mind. I’ll find a way; or else I won’t. It doesn’t matter if I don’t; if I do it’ll make me happy, and perhaps some others too. The point is, there’s a wealth out there that might be made into story. The point isn’t that all the stories have already been told. They haven’t. Europe’s stories (America’s too) may have been told already, and told again, and again. Plagiarised, if you like: a word that derives ultimately from a Latin term for a net in which birds and other creatures might be caught and came into English as a synonym for kidnapping – ‘plagiary’.
Non-fiction writers like me rely upon sources that are mostly non-literary in origin. Information recorded for reasons that have nothing to do with the tradition that began (we think) with Homer; if it was not with Gilgamesh. It’s raw material. People write things down because they want to understand what has happened to them. They note down things that may be significant without yet knowing what that significance might be. That’s an honourable tradition which continues apart from (maybe alongside) the writing of fiction; and isn’t to do with ‘the greats’, whoever they might be, either; or only in the sense that the greats may have honoured it too.
The last book I published in Australia includes an extended sequence that paraphrases Rimbaud’s Le Bateau Ivre. I used it because it got me out of a hole in the narrative that was caused by an interruption in my life. I didn’t attribute it because I thought that it would have sounded pretentious to do so; but imagined a discerning reader might read and understand what I had done. Nobody did; or nobody said they did; but that’s probably because very few people read that book; and those who did might have been thinking about things other than an unattributed prose version of the drunken boat. I hope so.
Rimbaud turns up in Marlow’s Dream as well; how could he not? Conrad read him (in French) in the 1890s; he probably knew the famous ‘Je suis un autre’. But that in turn is more than a fashionable disavowal. It’s a credo. If an author is an other, they should be respected as such. Their words should not be co-opted under the pretence that they are your own. That’s wrong. And if it’s done as an artifice to attract attention to yourself, and your writing, that’s a worse wrong.
Anyway, the lyrics of that Bob Marley tune, ‘Time Will Tell’, are obscure and have been interrogated by fans (me included) for years. Turns out it’s most likely the song he wrote after gunmen tried to shoot him dead during the lead up to the election in Jamaica in 1976. The bits that no-one has been able to construe before are about his wife also being shot (in the head); some of their children being there too; and himself escaping away into the back yard, where there was a sycamore tree. I will footnote that, if my book is published, and if I can get permission to quote. I’ll also say that ‘Marley’ is a version of ‘Marlow’. Meanwhile: Time alone, oh time will tell / Think you’re in heaven but you living in hell.
image © 2018 Museo delle Culture | Scultura raffigurante un’antenata, Oceania. Melanesia. Nuova Guinea. Lago Sentani. Area orientale. Villaggio di Asei, Fine XIX secolo, legno e pigmenti. Lugano, MUSEC – Collezione Brignoni