Moralist of Exile

Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives

by Frederick R. Karl
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1,008 pp., $25.00

Joseph Conrad
Joseph Conrad; drawing by David Levine

To the eminent father-figures—Galsworthy, Edward Garnett, Wells—who were in fact uncle-figures, as we shall see, and who nursed and praised him through the years when the great public ignored him, Joseph Conrad had the magnetism of a shaman risen from the ocean. In London literary circles he passed as the mysterious Romantic Slav—all the go at that time—a typical misrepresentation; there was nothing of the Russian exalté and deplorable Dostoevsky about him, as he firmly pointed out. Surely the British had realized that the Poles despised “the Russian soul” and were Westerners to a man. Flatteringly he had gone through the British mill and become a British master mariner, had even read Marryat when he was a boy; it had been noticed that he was a shade standoffish on the decks of clippers and avoided the crew when ashore. In a very thick and explosive accent, he would talk about Pater and Flaubert to the rare officer who had literary tastes.

These mischievous Edwardian impressions have their charm; once the ironic disparagement of Bloomsbury and Cambridge had passed by in the Thirties, later generations have understood that Conrad’s genius was not only descriptive; he was one of the great moralists of exile. And exile is not emigration, expatriation, etc., etc., but an imposing Destiny. He was marginal, even a drifter “with prospects,” until well into his thirties. In the course of an exhaustive psychological study of Conrad’s three distinctive lives as a Pole, a British seaman, and a novelist, Professor Karl says:

Conrad found in marginality itself a way of life, a form of existence, and a philosophy that added up to more than survival and well-being. In probing exile, dislocation of time and place, language disorientation, and shifting loyalties, he extended our view of the shadows of existence. Indeed, he suggested that the shadows were to be the main area of existence in the twentieth century.

So long as we do not take this to mean that Conrad was an early Existentialist or Outsider Professor Karl’s words are acceptable. Marginality has its own tradition: Conrad thought of himself as a kind of Ulysses, when he was young. When one or two Polish critics accused Conrad of “betraying” his country by leaving it to write in a foreign tongue—“for money” one of them ludicrously said—they were as foolish as those who attack Henry James, T.S. Eliot, Joyce, Beckett, and Auden for expatriation. The “ground” to which the exile naturally belongs is bilingual, trilingual, language—not simply as syntax but as image, metaphor, and even conceit. A certain passivity and perhaps circulatory in-turnings of imagination may be the interesting price.

The last substantial biography of Conrad was done by Jocelyn Baines in 1961 and was discerning in a formal chronological way. Baines had a good deal to say about Conrad’s Polish background; since that time a large number of unknown letters…

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