Would it be surprising if I stacked Heart of Darkness above Lord Jim (and I mean well above Lord Jim)? Because that's what I'm going to do: no doubt about it.
For one thing, Lord Jim is a tough book: more challenging, I felt, than it needed to be. Whereas Conrad clarifies in Heart of Darkness, he obfuscates and meanders in Lord Jim. I found the prose difficult to navigate, the story here opaque.
Which is not to say that there's nothing to like: quite the opposite, in fact. Lord Jim manifests an author at the height of his powers, one who knows his characters well (even too well, I might argue). The result is a novel brimming with adjectives, with descriptors of Marlowe and Jim at any moment, at every moment.
In a sense, Jim's story is a simple one; it's the emotional anguish that results from that story which drives the novel. It's as if Conrad set out in the book to capture the very idea of guilt, to construct a situation in which a character -- Jim -- experiences that sensation and seeks, for the remainder of his time, to navigate its meaning (and if possible, to rid himself of it).
That strikes me as a solid premise for a book; I'm just not sure that it's successfully executed here. Jim runs away from his guilt: he hides at the edge of the earth. But even there, amidst the isolation, amidst the new life he's constructed, he can't quite free himself of the past. And more than that: he can't rid himself of the failure he's become. Indeed, Jim fails one population at the start of the book and fails another at the end. The result is less guilt, I'd argue, than weakness, than some sort of deficiency.
Again, I'm not certain, in the end, what all of this comes to. It was a slog at times getting through Lord Jim, and by the end, after all of the descriptions, after all of the broken dialogue and perfect descriptions of water and time, I'd lost sight of Jim. I'd traded him somewhere along the way for more general meditations on humanity, frailty, and the nature of disappointment.
For what it's worth, this was not the reaction I had when reading Heart of Darkness. There, I knew Kurtz quite well: so well, in fact, I feared him.