The other day I read an interview with Joan Didion (Paris Review #176, 2006) in which she mentioned that her favourite book in the world and one she re-reads every time she intends to begin writing a new work of fiction, is Joseph Conrad's Victory. Then added that sometimes she just re-reads it anyway. Why? the interviewer asked. The story is told thirdhand, Didion replies. It's not a story the narrator even heard from someone who experienced it. The narrator seems to have heard it from people he runs around with in the Malacca Strait. So there's this fantastic distancing of the narrative, except when you're in the middle of it, it remains very immediate. It's incredibly skillful ... perfectly told. Well I went straight to my shelves and pulled down my copy, which is a volume from the Collected Edition published by J. M. Dent & Sons in 1947, just after World War Two had ended. It's a small blue hardback with nice big type and an easy feel both in the hand and on the eye. I remember buying this and the other two volumes I own from the same set in a small second hand bookshop that was downstairs underneath a sex shop in George Street near Railway Square. I had helped a friend move some things - which friend? what things? - and she had, over my protests, insisted on giving me a small amount of money. With this I bought the three books (the other two are his first novel Almayer's Folly plus Tales of Unrest; and two non-fiction works under one cover, The Mirror of the Sea and A Personal Record). Now I wish I'd bought more, for I seem to remember that, while there was not a complete set in the shop, there were certainly more volumes ... never mind. Anyway, Conrad ... I opened the book and was immediately entranced. A deep feeling of complete relaxation to be in the hands of a raconteur who I know will not let me down, not even once and who will, inter alia, make me smile to myself at least once a page if not more often. Whose story is as engrossing in a re-read as it was the first time; indeed, each time is the first time - again. Who takes me into a world that I know is true and real and, although vanished, still existent. Whose tone is wise and far-reaching and generous and sane; who never insists, never prescribes and never attempts to banish the ebony darkness against which his characters move and his action unfolds. Victory was completed in mid-1914 and first published the following year, while war raged. Its hero is a Swede, its heroine an Englishwoman and their antagonist, a German. There is a fascinating preface about its relationship to the Great War and another in which Conrad discusses the originals of his unforgettable characters. He says it is based upon obscure promptings of that pagan residuum of awe and wonder which lurks still at the bottom of our old humanity. Once again I have the sense of a world that has gone and yet remains, that is vanished and inexistent both. Once again I hear a voice coming out of some fragrant, silent, intensely evocative darkness ... I'm so deeply into it already that I have not yet stopped to think how it is done, why Didion says that it opens up the possibilities of a novel and makes it seem worth doing one again. Beyond this, courtesy of an immemorial mystery: to read is to hear.