Joseph Conrad: A Chronicle
by Zdzislaw Najder, translated by Halina Carroll-Najder
Rutgers University Press, 647 pp., $14.95 (paper)
The moment when a definitive biography appears would seem to be especially risky for the fortunes of any writer. Take, for instance, the Nobel prizewinner Sinclair Lewis, whose already waning reputation can scarcely be said to have survived Mark Schorer’s comprehensive Sinclair Lewis: An American Life of 1961. In that case the biographer himself fell to wondering publicly why he had lavished a decade on such an unimposing figure, and most readers who struggled through his bulky tome must have felt as though they were watching a once-brilliant rocket tumbling awkwardly and irrevocably to earth. Both Schorer and his audience had learned too much. Why bother oneself further with a man who was so contemptibly understandable as a product of his callow and bumptious age?
Joseph Conrad, who never did receive a Nobel prize, is an incomparably larger figure than Lewis ever was, yet he might be considered even more vulnerable to an onslaught of mundane details and deflating explanations. For Conrad, desperately seeking recognition from the xenophobic Pollyannas who dictated British taste, had gradually created for himself a seductive autobiographical legend compounded of small and large misrepresentations. The legend, personally foisted upon his earliest biographers, Richard Curle and Gérard Jean-Aubry, spoke of a hapless orphan and “sea dreamer” from the borderlands of Europe who ran off to illegal and romantic adventures in France and Spain, rose through sheer daring and willpower to the rank of captain in a foreign merchant marine, and then was summoned to a still greater vocation by the sonorities of England’s literary language. In the public mind if not among biographical scholars, that dashing figure still is Conrad—our modern Sidney, equally at home in the worlds of action and of letters.
The scholars have known for some time, however, that the legend is doomed. It began crumbling with Jocelyn Baines’s Joseph Conrad: A Critical Biography in 1960, a book that questioned whether we should rest inferences about Conrad’s life on unverified impressions gleaned from his memoirs and his autobiographical fiction. Baines could not free himself altogether from Conrad’s spell, but others—notably Zdzislaw Najder, Norman Sherry, René Rapin, William Blackburn, Cedric Watts, Hans van Marle, and Ian Watt—have gradually shown us a Conrad emerging from his times instead of from the mists of self-dramatization.
If we needed reminding that this movement from myth toward history is irreversible, two new books of documents would serve the purpose: Frederick Karl and Laurence Davies’s first installment of Conrad’s eight-volume Collected Letters and Zdzislaw Najder’s Conrad Under Familial Eyes, which gives English-speaking readers a wider basis for exploring Conrad’s roots and enduring connections with his homeland. Nor need we wait for the new evidence to be properly weighed. With the appearance of Najder’s exhaustive and relentlessly objective biography, Joseph Conrad: A Chronicle, the process of demythification has surely reached its most decisive moment. Before long, all but the most casual of Conrad’s admirers will have …