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Sep 8, 2010



By Zdzislaw Najder
(Translated by Halina Najder)
(Boydell & Brewer 745pp)
By John Stape
(William Heinemann 378pp)

IF EXILE AND alienation are the defining characteristics of twentieth-century literature, Joseph Conrad is the quintessential twentieth-century writer. From Roman poets to modern playwrights, many have written well in places and languages other than their own, but Conrad was more deracinated than most. The man who has been called the best French novelist in English (a  compliment also paid to Henry James and Ford Madox Ford) was a Pole from what is now the Ukraine, stripped by circumstance of his culture, his class, his family, his language, his country, and even his name. But against these blows of fate Conrad  fought back in original ways. Born in the landlocked backlands of Central Europe, he made a living for nearly twenty years working tramp steamers for the British merchant navy. Schooled in a rough and ready way of life, he changed tack at thirty-seven, started writing in English and published his first novel at thirty-eight. Remaining single until he was thirty-nine, he married a workingclass girl from London and became a family man, ending his life as a rich and respected member of the Establishment with a mansion in Kent which looks not unlike a Polish manor-house. Quite a journey.

As usual with Conrad, this story – poor refugee unexpectedly makes good – is not quite what it seems. Konrad Korzeniowski had small private means and some connections to help him make his way in the world, not the normal lot of a working man in the late nineteenth century. He was the son of upper-middle-class parents from the radical intelligentsia, so it could be argued that the ordinary seaman who became a serious, politically aware novelist with a country estate was not rising in the world but returning to his proper milieu: socially and intellectually his friend H G Wells made a far greater leap, from the lower middle class to the elite. The same consistency of purpose applies to his private life. Given his background, Conrad’s marriage might look like a solecism but, despite a botched proposal, it seems to have been a result of the realism

which coloured almost everything he did in maturity. His wife later complained of his disorganisation in domestic matters, and he was inclined to fretfulness and hypochondria, but in the important affairs of life Conrad chose wisely. His decision to write in English rather than Polish or even French, sometimes supposed to be a more natural medium for émigré Poles, reflects inter alia practical good sense. Like any good sailor, Conrad had a feeling for prevailing weather.

Britain was the only superpower in the second half of the nineteenth century. Its language and literature reached round the world like no  other. Were Conrad alive today, he might well choose to become an American for similar reasons. Nevertheless, Conrad’s exotic background, his experience at sea (so far removed from the solitude and safety of a writer’s desk), the curious trajectory of his career,  and the faint but persistent air of foreign-ness which hangs about him and his work, can together make him seem at times as mysterious and unfathomable as figures in his own fiction. Unfriendly critics put this mystery down to  nothing more than Conrad’s opulent – they would say portentous, unidiomatic and opaque – prose style, so neatly skewered in  Beerbohm’s Christmas Garland parody. Biographers naturally focus instead on their subject’s personal elusiveness; and it is  true that contemporaries as diverse as James, Stevenson, Maugham, Bennett, Wells, Kipling, Galsworthy, Woolf, Joyce, Ford and  Lawrence have for us now the sharp edges of caricature compared with Conrad’s misty outline, the sense he gives, despite several published memoirs and many biographies, of unrevealed depths and unspoken knowledge as wor rying as Kurtz’s unnameable horror in Heart of Darkness.

Perhaps such elusiveness should not surprise. Circumspection is what we might expect from someone with Conrad’s difficult past. His troubles started early. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that his parents died for their beliefs: Joseph was barely out of infancy when they were imprisoned and exiled for participation in a Polish uprising against the Russians. They soon declined into ill health and died. Well might their orphaned offspring – eight when his mother died, twelve when his father followed her – have the oppressive sense we find in his novels that life is complex, delusive, difficult, unjust and precarious, hope turning easily to defeat, enterprise to tragedy. He may also have taken from the example of his parents the supremely ambiguous lesson that without principles there is no life worth living; with them, possibly no life at all. Despite fluctuations in popularity and  critical esteem,  Conrad has been the subject of many serious studies since his own time. Most have been English or American, which is perhaps why Zdzislaw Najder’s biography made such an impact when it first appeared in 1983. Here was someone looking at Conrad from the inside.

Professor Najder hails from the sort of Polish intelligentsia that Conrad’s parents might have recognised. Having experienced persecution and exile at the hands of a Russian autocrat, he understands tyranny and the moral obliquity it entails at every level, how it enters into the souls of victims and tyrants alike, shaping their vision of themselves, their sense of history and their understanding of necessity. In this respect he identifies with his subject and the identification is fruitful. Though Najder specifically forswears literary criticism, the way his account of Conrad bears on the novels is clear enough. English by adoption, French by inclination, in Najder’s portrait Conrad remains to the end not just a Pole but a child of the tragic 1860s. We are invited to read the novels in the light of that time and the acute sense their author took away from it of the chaos which lies just below the surface of things.

Aware, perhaps, that in the wake of critics such as Leavis and Zaubel, Anglophone readers think of Conrad primarily as moralist and intellectual, Najder is at pains to emphasise other qualities, quoting the novelist’s grandmother at the beginning and end of his book to the effect that the boy would grow up to be ‘a man of great heart’. The framing of the text with these words is apposite, ‘heart’ here signifying not only feeling but breadth of character. This biography is not so much a ‘Life and Works’ as the portrait of a remarkable human being in his native milieu and the story of how he adapted to a very different environment. Najder’s Conrad is a man of deep emotions under a mask of circumspection – a mask which the adopted manners of a cool English gentleman supplied to perfection. In fact, as friends noted, Conrad was sometimes far from cool, relapsing in private into the manner Englishmen associate with excitable foreigners, even waving his arms and jabbering. But the mask was essential. Like the sea’s surface and its depths, mask and reality coexisted in a dynamic tensile relationship which bore The Conrads: poles apart fruit in the novels.

Where Najder concentrates on building up a detailed portrait of Conrad using every scrap of available information, the new biography by John Stape is a much slighter affair. At only a third of the length of Najder’s, his book abjures thoroughness in favour of brisk narrative. That said, what he loses in scope and detail he gains in accessibility. The Mittel-Europa seriousness of Najder gives way in Stape to a lighter touch which allows him to cover the inevitable longueurs of a writer’s life more fleetly than Najder, though it diminishes Conrad’s stature by making us feel that, after all, he was just another novelist with the usual worries about sales and houses and fallow periods and troublesome children. Najder’s Conrad is a grander figure altogether: he looms, as James might have said. Stape’s is more recognisably the workaday man of letters. Both have their truth. Najder’s book has been extensively revised since its original appearance to accommodate new research, but only Conrad specialists are likely to notice the differences. Anyone wanting a good brief introduction will be happy with Stape’s life. Both biographers have avoided commentary on the novels, so for detailed critical discussion you
will have to look elsewhere.

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