First published in 1897, The Nigger of the Narcissus is the story of a black West Indian, James Wait, who signs aboard the Narcissus, a merchant sailing ship on a journey from Bombay to London. Wait almost immediately becomes ill and bedridden for the remainder of the journey, splitting the crew into factions. The Nigger of the Narcissus has long been considered one of Joseph Conrad's best and most important works. Unfortunately, the title has caused the book to be little read and largely ignored in modern times.
AKA Children of the Sea
"The were the everlasting children of the mysterious sea. Their successors are the grown-up children of a discontented earth. They are less naughty, but less innocent; less profane, but perhaps also less believing; and if they had learned how to speak they have also learned how to whine."
- Joseph Conrad, The Children of the Sea
"All work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line."
- Joseph Conrad, Introduction to The Children of the Sea
IN a book whose very title suggests it is rigged with the weight of race and racism, bigotry and brutality, it is strange to discover the book is really not especially about race. While the main character in The N____ of Narcissus IS black, the book's narrative (after the beginning) doesn't hardly deal with that. Race is practically the least interesting, least compelling THING about James Wait. It is hard to figure out how to talk about the book. I have no card. Nobody who isn't black has a card, so do I avoid the title. Use the alternate title (The Children of the Sea)? Do I only use N______? Do I bow to Kanye and use broke broke?
The disastrously named book is, however, fundamentally about humanity. Like most of Conrad's books, the sea provides a rhythm and a boat provides the setting for exploring the way men interact. Looking at the way men deal with life and death and the contradictions we feel towards those we love and those we hate is a taut canvas for Conrad to sew what was probably the beginning of his best period of writing. This novella was followed immediately by such masterpieces as: Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, Typhoon, etc.
The other gem from this book is Conrad's bold introduction, which is considered one of the best "manifestos of literary impressionism". If you don't like fiction, the short introduction, all by itself, is almost worth the price of admission.