Joseph Conrad: A Writer's Writer

Biographical study sees turn-of-century novelist in accord with the modern era. BOOKS

TURGID in style, profoundly pessimistic in stance, Joseph Conrad's writings did not attain a high degree of popular success until relatively late in his career. His convoluted narrative techniques, his long, awkwardly constructed sentences (one critic remarked that Conrad wrote paragraphs rather than sentences), and the odd sense of distance one feels between his words on the page and the people and events he is trying to describe - all were a considerable bar to his hope of reaching a wide readership. Reexamining his prose - whether in a classic work like his "Nigger of the Narcissus" or a lesser effort like his autobiographical reminiscence of his life as a sailor, The Mirror of the Sea (recently reissued by the Marlboro Press) - one understands very well the response of an early book reviewer, who concluded that "only greatness" could make books of such "copiously bad" workmanship "so well worth reading."

During his lifetime, Conrad's work won him the respect, and often the friendship, of his contemporaries: from John Galsworthy, one of the first English writers to discover his talent, and Ford Madox Ford, who collaborated with Conrad on some early books, to figures as diverse as Henry James, Stephen Crane, Bertrand Russell, and Andre Gide. But what may well have been the single most important factor in securing his place on classroom reading lists was the critic F. R. Leavis's judgment, nearly two decad es after Conrad's death in 1924, placing his works in the Leavisian "Great Tradition" of the novel. "As Conrad's ideas were justified by the events of the 20th century," observes Jeffrey Meyers, his latest biographer, "he came to be admired ... for beliefs that seemed more in accord with our time than with his own." Certainly, Conrad's vision of a "Heart of Darkness" beneath the veneer of civilization came to seem more prophetic of 20th-century history than the uplifting imperialist sentiments of his near-c ontemporary Rudyard Kipling, whose work also featured exotic colonial settings. The flawed, self-doubting "Lord Jim" seemed more at home in the Age of Anxiety than Kipling's enterprising "Kim." Furthermore, by the time Conrad's works were received into the canon of "modern classics," his own literary flaws - obscurity and difficulty - were readily perceived as artistic virtues.

In "Joseph Conrad: A Biography," Meyers links Conrad's pessimism to his heritage as the son of a Polish patriot, Apollo Korzeniowski. As a small boy, Conrad accompanied both his parents into exile in Russia's frozen north. His mother died when he was seven, his father five years later. Conrad inherited a deep suspicion of all things Russian, which found its way into two of his most powerful novels, "The Secret Agent" and "Under Western Eyes." In Conrad's eyes, Russia was the evil empire: oppressive, dis honest, backward, and barbaric, whether under its czars or under the revolutionaries who took their place.

Conrad's experience commanding a riverboat in the then-Belgian Congo in 1890 further reinforced his pessimism about human nature. Meyers argues that Conrad was a strongly anti-imperialist voice, denouncing the greed and cruelty of white men whose behavior, unrestrained by the normal bonds of civilization, was far more savage than any cannibal's.

As Meyers presents his story, Conrad's view of the futility of "progress" was first formed by the sad history of Poland, then by his lonely childhood, and finally by his difficult life, first as a seaman, then as a struggling writer.

It seems likely that some of Conrad's awkwardness as a stylist can be attributed to the fact that English was not his native language. Born in the Ukraine in 1857, he made his way to France while still in his teens, learning the French language and acquiring his first experiences as a sailor. By the age of 20, he was determined to become a British citizen, which he did, nine years later, having risen through the ranks of the merchant marine.

In spite of a strong Polish accent that made him difficult to understand, Conrad distinguished himself as a sailor, mastering the difficult technical knowledge and maintaining an exemplary record of sobriety, rare in his profession. By the time that he began writing his first novels in English, he said, he had been thinking in English and giving and receiving orders in that language for years.

With all his skill and experience at sea, Conrad had a hard time finding work. Nor was the sea a financially rewarding vocation. The bulk of Conrad's income came not from his sailor's pay, but from his generous uncle Tadeusz, who owned a sugar beet farm in Poland. Turning from the sea to literature, Conrad went from one "impecunious" lifestyle to another, as Meyers aptly notes.

Meyers provides a lively, readable account of Conrad's bleak childhood, his hard life at sea, his marriage to a stolid, lower-middle-class Englishwoman, and his slow but steady progress as a writer. His life, while eventful and often adventurous, was far from glamorous, and Meyers shows good judgment in pacing the story, allowing us to follow the main events without getting bogged down in details.

Meyers' faults - more as a literary critic than as a biographer - arise from a tendency toward glibness, which leads to statements like "Proust's technique was similar to Conrad's - recovery of the past through memory." (Proust's, Conrad's, and almost everyone else's!) The featured attraction, so to speak, of this biography is the research Meyers has done about an American journalist, Jane Anderson, who may have been Conrad's lover. Although Meyers categorically asserts that Anderson was Conrad's mistre ss in the summer of 1916, the evidence which he adduces, while persuasive, is still circumstantial.

Certainly, it is easier to gain an overview of Conrad's life from Meyers's cogent biography than from Conrad's own autobiography, "A Personal Record" (1912), or his nautical memoir, "The Mirror of the Sea." In it, Conrad deplores the journalistic phrase "to cast anchor" with its connotation of throwing something carelessly overboard. The seaman's technical vocabulary, he explains, contains no such phrase:

"An anchor is a forged piece of iron, admirably adapted to its end, and technical language is an instrument wrought to perfection by ages of experience. ... Look at the anchors hanging from the cat-heads of a big ship!. ... Were they made of gold they would look like trinkets ... no bigger in proportion [to the ship] than a jeweled drop in a woman's ear. And yet upon them will depend, more than once, the very life of the ship. ... This honest, rough piece of iron has more parts than the human body has limbs.... [But] all this, according to the journalist, is 'cast' .... whereas the anchor ready for its work is already overboard, and is not thrown over, but simply allowed to fall."

The awkward style, the touch of pedantry, the imaginative ability to see the hulking anchor as a golden trinket, the insight about the similarity between a well-wrought tool and finely honed technical language: This blend of graceful perception and heavy-handed expression is pure Conrad.

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