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Conrad by Daylight

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.1 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 to take stock of a very different figure from the one they used to revere.

But before considering the problems this new Conrad causes us, I should immediately dispel the impression that Najder is a latecomer to the movement begun by Baines. The truth is that Najder was already making significant contributions to Conrad scholarship before Baines’s study was published. For at least two decades now he has been the most knowledgeable Conradian alive, and everyone interested in Conrad is indebted to his Conrad’s Polish Background of 1964. Twelve of the fifteen chapters in his present book, furthermore, were published before 1977, when a slightly different version appeared in Polish. Thus Najder is justified in his claim of precedence over Frederick Karl’s Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives (1979), which non-Polish readers might otherwise assume to be an earlier work than his.

Najder’s biography also takes priority in a wider sense: in its wealth of original research, its methodological rigor, and its comprehensiveness of perspective. These traits bear emphasizing because Najder, though testy toward some of his competitors’ claims, takes an unnecessarily modest line about the significance of his own work. His “too angular” mind, he says, is unsuited to reproducing the atmosphere of Conrad’s times; he merely aspires to give a month-by-month account of what happened to the Polish child Konrad Korzeniowski and his successor, the English author Joseph Conrad. But his book accomplishes a great deal more than that. Far from being a recitation of trivia, it is the richest and most persuasive portrait of Conrad we have had or will probably ever have, created by a man who is uniquely placed to understand Conrad’s divided cultural loyalties and who has devoted the greater part of his scholarly career to the task.2

Though Najder is by no means reluctant to generalize and speculate, his pursuit of facts for their own sake does compel admiration. No detail has been too small for him to check. Norman Sherry, for example, had proposed that the slowness of Conrad’s trek from Matadi to Kinshasa in July 1890 was the cause of his conflict with his superiors in the Société Anonyme Belge pour le Commerce du Haut-Congo, but Najder neutralizes the claim by showing that Conrad’s party bettered the standard time proposed in an official itinerary for caravans. More significantly, a report of scars on Conrad’s chest leads Najder to review their exact location and shape and to rule them out as evidence for the duel Conrad claimed to have fought in Marseilles in 1878. Thus he reinforces his own previous conclusion, drawn from surviving letters to Conrad from his uncle, that no such duel occurred; Conrad apparently invented it to cover a humiliating suicide attempt and then perpetuated the story in later years to enhance the image of a youthful bravado that would be tempered in due time by manly responsibility.

Nothing in Conrad’s memoirs, or in those of his well-intentioned but obtuse wife, Jessie, can be taken on faith. To gain a fair account, an inquirer must give less weight to reconstructions than to contemporary documents such as the ones Najder himself has collected in Conrad’s Polish Background and Conrad Under Familial Eyes. And even documents require circumspect interpretation. Najder not only distrusts such obviously legend-building works as The Shadow Line, A Personal Record, The Mirror of the Sea, and The Arrow of Gold; he also cautions against uncritical reliance on Conrad’s letters, which teem with discrepancies and tend to overrepresent his quite genuine states of exasperation, anxiety, and injured pride. And where independent records are skimpy one must rely on probabilities. This is where Najder truly shines: in wielding common sense against tempting but gratuitous assumptions that make Conrad appear more romantic, possessed, or mysterious—or sometimes simply more English—than he actually was.

Thus Najder reviews the several popular explanations for Conrad’s having left Poland for France and a nautical career at age seventeen: that he was fleeing from an unhappy love affair, or from Poland’s tragic past, or from gloomy Cracow, or from his late father’s revolutionism, or (Conrad’s own favorite version) that he was already determined to join the British merchant marine. What these hypotheses have in common is their proleptic slant; they interpret the Conrad of 1874 by reference to a self-representation he cultivated in later years.

Najder, by contrast, is able to address Conrad’s motives without anachronism. Not denying the romantic fascination of the sea or Conrad’s lifelong restlessness, he reminds us that in going abroad Conrad was being a typical Pole of the privileged class; that no renunciation of national values was implied by seeking one’s fortune elsewhere, especially in view of the scarcity of good prospects in the occupied homeland; that Conrad’s prudent uncle and guardian, Tadeusz Bobrowski, blessed his plans and expected them to produce commercial as well as character-building results; and that Marseilles was hardly the logical destination for someone intending to join the British merchant service.

Consider another key feature of the Conrad legend: his seemingly phenomenal rise from common sailor to captain in a foreign fleet. How can we not admire his grit, his linguistic aptitude, and his nautical skills, tested by such chilling adventures as those of the fledgling skipper in “The Secret Sharer”? But thanks to low wages in the depressed sea trade, many foreigners were able to work on English ships in the late 1870s and 1880s, and standards for officers’ examinations were lax. Even so, Conrad initially failed his qualifying tests for both first officer and captain, stumbling in navigation and mathematics. At several key moments in his career, furthermore, he advanced himself by making false avowals about his past service. His actual record was far from disgraceful, yet it included his being fired as second mate of one ship and having to resign as first mate of another after he had loaded the cargo so inexpertly as to cause hazardous rolling in heavy seas. And throughout his years as mariner Conrad exhibited the delicacy of constitution that, after he was devastated by dysentery, malaria, and a nervous collapse in 1890-1891, left him a valetudinarian for the last thirty-four years of his life.

Then there is Conrad’s famous decision, apparently made as if by the muses descending in a cart, to abandon sailing for writing. “It was as though all unknowing I had heard a whisper or seen something” (The Shadow Line). Yet beyond the artistic stirrings that impelled him to begin writing Almayer’s Folly in 1889, Conrad also knew that his sea career was heading nowhere. He had to find a new livelihood. Even so, he was still fruitlessly seeking officer’s work as late as 1894, when a 15,000-ruble inheritance from his uncle Tadeusz finally enabled him to begin affecting the life of a modest country squire. Apparently there was no prior moment when Conrad clearly forsook one profession for the other.

Most commentators have followed Conrad’s lead in treating that shift as a wondrous metamorphosis, scarcely within the realm of the explainable. But the wonder evaporates as soon as we inquire dispassionately whether the young Polish aristocrat’s heart had truly belonged to the sea and its traditions. Though Conrad gave nearly twenty years to his first career, Najder reminds us that he hated the tedium, inconvenience, and base social tone of nautical life. His lyricism about spars and yards did not oblige him to prefer sail power to steam when his own comfort was involved. He did not spend a day more at sea than his financial condition required. And, encouraged by his uncle, he was at least as hopeful of making profitable investments and trade arrangements abroad as he was of securing the major captaincies that never materialized.

According to the many witnesses cited by Najder, furthermore, Conrad was a most untypical officer—nervous, irritable, fastidious, and aloof, though abnormally considerate of his crews. Dressed like a lord, he would spend his many landlocked months reading Shakespeare, Maupassant, and Flaubert and seeking out the most cosmopolitan company available. He was, after all, the son of a noted author and political martyr. That he himself, having been praised for his elegant epistolary style in both Polish and French, should have eventually turned to authorship seems entirely natural.

  1. 1

    See Frederick R. Karl and Laurence Davies, eds., The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad: Volume I, 1861–1897 (Cambridge University Press, 1983), and Zdzislaw Najder, ed., Conrad Under Familial Eyes, translated by Halina Carroll-Najder (Cambridge University Press, February 1984).

  2. 2

    How regrettable, then, that this handsome book reached print still showing a good number of typos and Mrs. Najder’s lingering uncertainties with English tenses, punctuation, and diction: as for like, past for previous, ago for before, apart for for apart from, reticent for hesitant, etc.

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