It has taken me a long time to come round to Conrad. And if I begin with an account of his difficulty, it is because I have to be true to my experience of him. I would find it hard to be detached about Conrad. He was, I suppose, the first modern writer I was introduced to. It was through my father. My father was a self-taught man, picking his way through a cultural confusion of which he was perhaps hardly aware and which I have only recently begun to understand; and he wished himself to be a writer. He read less for pleasure than for clues, hints, and encouragement; and he introduced me to those writers he had come upon in his own search. Conrad was one of the earliest of these: Conrad the stylist, but more than that, Conrad the late starter, holding out hope to those who didn’t seem to be starting at all.
I believe I was ten when Conrad was first read to me. It sounds alarming; but the story was “The Lagoon”; and the reading was a success. “The Lagoon” is perhaps the only story of Conrad’s that can be read to a child. It is very short, about fifteen pages. A forest-lined tropical river at dusk. The white man in the boat says, “We’ll spend the night in Arsat’s clearing.” The boat swings into a creek; the creek opens out into a lagoon. A lonely house on the shore; inside, a woman is dying. And during the night Arsat, the young man who is her lover, will tell how they both came there. It is a story of illicit love in another place, an abduction, a chase, the death of a brother, abandoned to the pursuers. What Arsat has to say should take no more than fifteen minutes; but romance is romance, and when Arsat’s story ends the dawn comes up; the early morning breeze blows away the mist; the woman is dead. Arsat’s happiness, if it existed, has been flawed and brief; and now he will leave the lagoon and go back to his own place, to meet his fate. The white man too has to go. And the last picture is of Arsat, alone in his lagoon, looking “beyond the great light of a cloudless day into the darkness of a world of illusions.”
In time the story of “The Lagoon” became blurred. But the sense of night and solitude and doom stayed with me, grafted, in my fantasy, to the South Sea or tropical island setting of the Sabu and Jon Hall films. I have, unwillingly, looked at “The Lagoon” again. There is a lot of Conrad in it—passion and the abyss, solitude and futility and the world of illusions—and I am not sure now that it isn’t the purest piece of fiction Conrad wrote. The brisk narrative, the precise pictorial writing, the setting of river and hidden lagoon, the nameless white visitor, the story during the night of love and loss, the death at daybreak: everything comes beautifully together. And if I say it is a pure piece of fiction, it is because the story speaks for itself; the writer does not come between his story and the reader.
“The Lagoon” was parodied by Max Beerbohm in A Christmas Garland. Writers’ myths can depend on accidents like that. “The Lagoon,” as it happens, was the first short story Conrad wrote; and though later, when I read the parody, I was able to feel that I was in the know about Conrad, from my own point of view “The Lagoon” had been a cheat. Because I was never to find anything so strong and direct in Conrad again.
There is a story, “Karain,” written not long after “The Lagoon.” It has the same Malayan setting and, as Conrad acknowledged, a similar motif. Karain, inspired by sudden sexual jealousy, kills the friend whose love-quest he had promised to serve; and there-after Karain is haunted by the ghost of the man he has killed. One day he meets a wise old man, to whom he confesses. The old man exorcises the ghost; and Karain, with the old man as his counselor, becomes a warrior and a conqueror, a ruler. The old man dies; the ghost of the murdered friend returns to haunt Karain. He is immediately lost; his power and splendor are nothing; he swims out to the white men’s ship and asks them, unbelievers from another world, for help. They give him a charm: a Jubilee sixpence. The charm works; Karain becomes a man again.
The story is, on the surface, a yarn about native superstition. But to Conrad it is much more; it is profounder, and more wonderful, than “The Lagoon”; and he is determined that its whole meaning should be grasped. All the suggestions that were implicit in “The Lagoon” are now spelled out. The white men have names; they talk, and act as a kind of chorus. So we are asked to contemplate the juxtaposition of two cultures, one open and without belief, one closed and ruled by old magic; one, “on the edge of outer darkness,” exploring the world, one imprisoned in a small part of it. But illusions are illusions, mirage is mirage. Isn’t London itself, the life of its streets, a mirage? “I see it. It is there; it pants, it runs, it rolls; it is strong and alive; it would smash you if you didn’t look out; but I’ll be hanged if it is yet as real to me as the other thing.” So, romantically and somewhat puzzlingly, the story ends.
The simple yarn is made to carry a lot. It requires a more complex response than the plainer fiction of “The Lagoon.” Sensations—night and solitude and doom—are not enough; the writer wishes to involve us in more than his fantasy; we are required—the chorus or commentary requires us—to stand outside the facts of the story and contemplate the matter. The story has become a kind of parable. Nothing has been rigged, though, because nothing is being proved; only wonder is being awakened.
In a preface to a later collection of stories Conrad wrote: “The romantic feeling of reality was in me an inborn faculty.” He hadn’t deliberately sought out romantic subjects; they had offered themselves to him.
I have a natural right to [my subjects] because my past is very much my own. If their course lie out of the beaten path of organized social life, it is, perhaps, because I myself did in a sort break away from it early in obedience to an impulse which must have been very genuine since it has sustained me through all the dangers of disillusion. But that origin of my literary work was very far from giving a larger scope to my imagination. On the contrary, the mere fact of dealing with matters outside the general run of everyday experience laid me under the obligation of a more scrupulous fidelity to the truth of my own sensations. The problem was to make unfamiliar things credible. To do that I had to create for them, to reproduce for them, to envelop them in their proper atmosphere of actuality. This was the hardest task of all and the most important, in view of that conscientious rendering of truth in thought and fact which has been always my aim.
But the truths of that story, “Karain,” are difficult ones. The world of illusions, men as prisoners of their cultures, belief and unbelief: these are truths one has to be ready for, and perhaps half possess already, because the story does not carry them convincingly within itself. The suggestion that the life of London is as much a mirage as the timeless life of the Malayan archipelago is puzzling, because the two-page description of the London streets with which the story ends is too literal: blank faces, hansom cabs, omnibuses, girls “talking vivaciously,” “dirty men…discussing filthily,” a policeman. There isn’t anything in that catalogue that can persuade us that the life described is a mirage. Reality hasn’t fused with the writer’s fantasy. The concept of the mirage has to be applied: it is a matter of words, a disturbing caption to a fairly straight picture.
I have considered this simple story at some length because it illustrates, in little, the difficulties I was to have with the major works. I felt with Conrad I wasn’t getting the point. Stories, simple in themselves, always seemed at some stage to elude me. And there were the words, the words that issued out of the writer’s need to be faithful to the truth of his own sensations. The words got in the way; they obscured. The Nigger of the Narcissus and Typhoon, famous books, were impenetrable.
In 1896 the young H. G. Wells, in an otherwise kind review of An Outcast of the Islands, the book before The Nigger, wrote: “Mr. Conrad is wordy; his story is not so much told as seen intermittently through a haze of sentences. He has still to learn the great half of his art, the art of leaving things unwritten.” Conrad wrote a friendly letter to Wells; but on the same day—the story is in Jocelyn Baines’s biography—he wrote to Edward Garnett: “Something brings the impression off—makes its effect. What? It can be nothing but the expression—the arrangement of words, the style.” It is, for a novelist, an astonishing definition of style. Because style in the novel, and perhaps in all prose, is more than an “arrangement of words”: it is an arrangement, even an orchestration, of perceptions; it is a matter of knowing where to put what. But Conrad aimed at fidelity. Fidelity required him to be explicit.
It is this explicitness, this unwillingness to let the story speak for itself, this anxiety to draw all the mystery out of a straightforward situation, that leads to the mystification of Lord Jim. It isn’t always easy to know what is being explained. The story is usually held to be about honor. I feel myself that it is about the theme—much more delicate in 1900 than today—of the racial straggler. And, such is Conrad’s explicitness, both points of view can be supported by quotation. Lord Jim, however, is an imperialist book, and it may be that the two points of view are really one.
Whatever the mystery of Lord Jim, it wasn’t of the sort that could hold me. Fantasy, imagination, story if you like, had been refined away by explicitness. There was something unbalanced, even unfinished, about Conrad. He didn’t seem able to go beyond his first simple conception of a story; his invention seemed to fail so quickly. And even in his variety there was something tentative and uncertain.
There was The Secret Agent, a police thriller that seemed to end almost as soon as it began, with a touch of Arnold Bennett and Riceyman Steps in that Soho interior, and a Wellsian jokeyness about London street names and cabbies and broken-down horses—as though, when dealing with the known, the written-about, the gift of wonder left the writer and he had to depend on other writers’ visions. There was Under Western Eyes, which, with its cast of Russian revolutionaries and its theme of betrayal, promised to be Dostoevskyan but then dissolved away into analysis. There was the too set-up fiction of Victory: the pure, aloof man rescues a girl from a musical company touring the East and takes her to a remote island, where disaster, in the form of gangsters, will come to them. And there was Nostromo, about South America, a confusion of characters and themes, which I couldn’t get through at all.
A multiplicity of Conrads, and they all seemed to me to be flawed. The hero of Victory, holding himself aloof from the world, had “refined away everything except disgust”; and it seemed to me that in his fictions Conrad had refined away, as common-place, those qualities of imagination and fantasy and invention that I went to novels for. The Conrad novel was like a simple film with an elaborate commentary. A film: the characters and settings could be seen very clearly. But realism often required trivial incidental dialogue, the following of trivial actions; the melodramatic flurry at the end emphasized the slowness and bad proportions of what had gone before; and the commentary emphasized the fact that the characters were actors.
But we read at different times for different things. We take to novels our own ideas of what the novel should be; and those ideas are made by our needs, our education, our backgrounds or perhaps our ideas of our background. Because we read, really, to find out what we already know, we can take a writer’s virtues for granted. And his originality, the news he is offering us, can go over our heads.
It came to me that the great novelists wrote about highly organized societies. I had no such society; I couldn’t share the assumptions of the writers; I didn’t see my world reflected in theirs. My colonial world was more mixed and second-hand, and more restricted. The time came when I began to ponder the mystery—Conradian word—of my own back-ground: that island in the mouth of a great South American river, the Orinoco, one of the Conradian dark places of the earth, where my father had conceived literary ambitions for himself and then for me, but from which, in my mind, I had stripped all romance and perhaps even reality: preferring to set “The Lagoon,” when it was read to me, not on the island I knew, with its muddy rivers, mangrove and swamps, but somewhere far away.
It seemed to me that those of us who were born there were curiously naked, that we lived purely physically. It wasn’t an easy thing to explain, even to oneself. But in Conrad, in that very story of “Karain,” I was later to find my feelings about the land exactly caught.
And really, looking at that place, landlocked from the sea and shut off from the land by the precipitous slopes of mountains, it was difficult to believe in the existence of any neighbourhood. It was still, complete, unknown, and full of a life that went on stealthily with a troubling effect of solitude; of a life that seemed unaccountably empty of anything that would stir the thought, touch the heart, give a hint of the ominous sequence of days. It appeared to us a land without memories, regrets, and hopes; a land where nothing could survive the coming of the night, and where each sunrise, like a dazzling act of special creation, was disconnected from the eve and the morrow.
It is a passage that, earlier, I would have hurried through: the purple passage, the reflective caption. Now I see a precision in its romanticism, and a great effort of thought and sympathy. And the effort doesn’t stop with the aspect of the land. It extends to all men in these dark or remote places who, for whatever reason, are denied a clear vision of the world: Karain himself, in his world of phantoms; Wang, the self-exiled Chinese of Victory, self-contained within the “instinctive existence” of the Chinese peasant; the two Belgian empire-builders of “An Outpost of Progress,” helpless away from their fellows, living in the middle of Africa “like blind men in a large room, aware only of what came in contact with them, but unable to see the general aspect of things.”
“An Outpost of Progress” is now to me the finest thing Conrad wrote. It is the story of two commonplace Belgians, new to the new Belgian Congo, who find that they have unwittingly, through their Negro assistant, traded Africans for ivory, are then abandoned by the surrounding tribesmen, and go mad. But my first judgment of it had been only literary. It had seemed familiar; I had read other stories of lonely white men going mad in hot countries. And my rediscovery, or discovery, of Conrad really began with one small scene in Heart of Darkness.
The African background—“the demoralized land” of plunder and licensed cruelty—I took for granted. That is how we can be imprisoned by our assumptions. The background now seems to me to be the most effective part of the book; but then it was no more than what I expected. The story of Kurtz, the up-river ivory agent, who is led to primitives and lunacy by his unlimited power over primitive men, was lost on me. But there was a page which spoke directly to me, and not only of Africa.
The steamer is going up river to meet Kurtz; it is “like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world.” A hut is sighted on the bank. It is empty, but it contains one book, sixty years old, An Inquiry into Some Points of Seamanship, tattered, without covers, but “lovingly stitched afresh with white cotton thread.” And in the midst of nightmare, this old book, “dreary…with illustrative diagrams and repulsive tables of figures,” but with its “singleness of intention,” its “honest concern for the right way of going to work,” seems to the narrator to be “luminous with another than a professional light.”
This scene, perhaps because I have carried it for so long, or perhaps because I am more receptive to the rest of the story, now makes less of an impression. But I suppose that at the time it answered something of the political panic I was beginning to feel.
To be a colonial was to know a kind of security; it was to inhabit a fixed world. And I suppose that in my fantasy I had seen myself coming to England as to some purely literary region, where, untrammelled by the accidents of history or background, I could make a romantic career for myself as a writer. But in the new world I felt the ground move below me. The new politics, the curious reliance of men on institutions they were yet working to undermine, the simplicity of beliefs and the hideous simplicity of actions, the corruption of causes, half-made societies that seemed doomed to remain half-made: these were the things that began to preoccupy me. They were not things from which I could detach myself. And I found that Conrad—sixty years before, in the time of a great peace—had been everywhere before me. Not as a man with a cause, but a man offering, as in Nostromo, a vision of the world’s half-made societies as places which continuously made and unmade themselves, where there was no goal, and where always “something inherent in the necessities of successful action…carried with in the moral degradation of the idea.” Dismal, but deeply felt: a kind of truth and half a consolation.
To understand Conrad, then, it was necessary to begin to match his experience. It was also necessary to lose one’s preconceptions of what the novel should do and, above all, to rid oneself of the subtle corruptions of the novel or comedy of manners. When art copies life, and life in its turn mimics art, a writer’s originality can often be obscured. The Secret Agent seemed to be a thriller. But Inspector Heat, correct but oddly disturbing, was like no policeman before in fiction—though there have been many like him since. And, in spite of appearances, this grand lady, patroness of a celebrated anarchist, was not Lady Bracknell:
His views had nothing in them to shock or startle her, since she judged them from the standpoint of her lofty position. Indeed, her sympathies were easily accessible to a man of that sort. She was not an exploiting capitalist herself; she was, as it were, above the play of economic conditions. And she had a great pity for the more obvious forms of common human miseries, precisely because she was such a complete stranger to them that she had to translate her conception into terms of mental suffering before she could grasp the notion of their cruelty…. She had come to believe almost his theory of the future, since it was not repugnant to her prejudices. She disliked the new element of plutocracy in the social compound, and industrialism as a method of human development appeared to her singularly repulsive in its mechanical and unfeeling character. The humanitarian hopes of the mild Michaelis tended not towards utter destruction, but merely towards the economic ruin of the system. And she did not really see where was the moral harm of it. It would do away with all the multitude of the parvenus, whom she disliked and mistrusted, not because they had arrived anywhere (she denied that), but because of their profound unintelligence of the world, which was the primary cause of the crudity of their perceptions and the aridity of their hearts.
Not Lady Bracknell. Someone much more real, and still recognizable in more than one country. Younger today perhaps; but humanitarian concern still disguises a similar arrogance and simplicity, the conviction that wealth, a particular fortune, position or a particular name are the only possible causes of human self-esteem. And in how many countries today can we find the likeness of this man?
The all but moribund veteran of dynamite wars had been a great actor in his time…. The famous terrorist had never in his life raised personally so much as his little finger against the social edifice. He was no man of action…. With a more subtle intention, he took the part of an insolent and venomous evoker of sinister impulses which lurk in the blind envy and exasperated vanity of ignorance, in the suffering and misery of poverty, in all the hopeful and noble illusions of righteous anger, pity, and revolt. The shadow of his evil gift clung to him yet like the smell of a deadly drug in an old vial of poison, emptied now, useless, ready to be thrown away upon the rubbish-heap of things that had served their time.
This is Ossipon. And one might have dismissed him as a Soho grotesque in a London thriller with gaslight and hansom cabs. The phrase that had struck me there was “sinister impulses which lurk…in…noble illusions.” But now another phrase stands out: the “exasperated vanity of ignorance.” It is so with the best of Conrad. Words, which at one time we disregard, at another moment glitter.
But Ossipon in The Secret Agent is a grotesque, a physical caricature. So, for all Conrad’s penetration, are the others: anarchists, policemen, government minister. And that paragraph about Ossipon is better than the character himself. Ossipon is negroid in feature, a lecher robbing susceptible working women of their small savings. He is given some lines of dialogue; he is useful in the melodramatic flurry at the end. But there is nothing in his dramatic appearance, so to speak, that matches the profundity of that paragraph or hints at the quality of reflection out of which he was created.
My reservations about Conrad as a novelist remain. There is something flawed and unexercised about his creative imagination. He does not—except in Nostromo and some of the stories—involve me in his fantasy; and Lord Jim is still to me more acceptable as a narrative poem than as a novel. Conrad’s value to me is that he is someone who sixty to seventy years ago meditated on my world, a world I recognize today. I feel this about no other writer of the century. His achievement derives from the honesty which is part of his difficulty, that “scrupulous fidelity to the truth of my own sensations.”
Nothing is rigged in Conrad. He doesn’t remake countries. He chose, as we now know, incidents from real life; and he meditated on them. “Meditate” is his own, exact word. And what he says about his heroine in Nostromo can be applied to himself. “The wisdom of the heart having no concern with the erection or demolition of theories any more than with the defense of prejudices, has no random words at its command. The words it pronounces have the value of acts of integrity, tolerance, and compassion.”
Every great writer is produced by a series of special circumstances. With Conrad these circumstances are well known: his Polish youth, his twenty years of wandering, his settling down to write in his late thirties, experience more or less closed, in England, a foreign country. These circumstances have to be considered together; one cannot be stressed above any other. The fact of the late start cannot be separated from the background and the scattered experience. But the late start is important.
Most imaginative writers discover themselves, and their world, through their work. Conrad, when he settled down to write, was, as he wrote to the publisher William Blackwood, a man whose character had been formed. He knew his world, and had reflected on his experience. Solitariness, passion, the abyss: the themes are constant in Conrad. There is a unity in a writer’s work; but the Conrad who wrote Victory, though easier and more direct in style, was no more experienced and wise than the Conrad who, twenty years before, had written Almayer’s Folly. His uncertainties in the early days seem to have been mainly literary, a trying out of subjects and moods. In 1896, the year after the publication of Almayer’s Folly, he could break off from the romantic turgidities of The Rescue and write not only “The Lagoon” but also “An Outpost of Progress.” These stories, which stand at the opposite ends, as it were, of my comprehension of Conrad, one story so romantic, one so brisk and tough, were written almost at the same time.
And there are the aphorisms. They run right through Conrad’s work, and their tone never varies. It is the same wise man who seems to be speaking. “The fear of finality which lurks in every human breast and prevents so many heroisms and so many crimes”: that is from Almayer’s Folly, 1895. And this is from Nostromo, 1904: “a man to whom love comes late, not as the most splendid of illusions, but like an enlightening and priceless misfortune”—which is almost too startling in the context. From The Secret Agent, 1907, where it seems almost wasted: “Curiosity being one of the forms of self-revelation, a systematically incurious person remains always partly mysterious.” And, lastly, from Victory, 1915: “the fatal imperfection of all the gifts of life, which makes of them a delusion and a snare”—which might have been fitted into any of the earlier books.
To take an interest in a writer’s work is, for me, to take an interest in his life; one interest follows automatically on the other. And to me there is something peculiarly depressing about Conrad’s writing life. With a writer like Ibsen one can be as unsettled by the life as by the plays themselves. One wonders about the surrender of the life of the senses; one wonders about the short-lived satisfactions of the creative instinct, as unappeasable as the senses. But with Ibsen there is always the excitement of the work, developing, changing, enriched by these very doubts and conflicts. All Conrad’s subjects, and all his conclusions, seem to have existed in his head when he settled down to write. Nostromo could be suggested by a few lines in a book, The Secret Agent by a scrap of conversation and a book. But, really, experience was in the past; and the labor of the writing life lay in dredging up this experience, in “casting round”—Conradian words—for suitable subjects of meditation.
Conrad’s ideas about fiction seem to have shaped early during his writing career. And, whatever the uncertainties of his early practice, these ideas never changed. In 1895, when his first book was published, he wrote to a friend, who was also beginning to write:
All the charm, all the truth of [your story] are thrown away by the construction—by the mechanism (so to speak) of the story which makes it appear false…. You have much imagination: much more than I ever will have if I live to be a hundred years old. Well, that imagination (I wish I had it) should be used to create human souls: to disclose human hearts—and not to create events that are properly speaking accidents only. To accomplish it you must cultivate your poetic faculty…you must squeeze out of yourself every sensation, every thought, every image.
When he met Wells, Conrad said (the story is Wells’s): “My dear Wells, what is this Love and Mr. Lewisham about? What is all this about Jane Austen? What is it all about?” And later—all these quotations are from Jocelyn Baines’s biography—Conrad was to write: “The national English novelist seldom regards his work—the exercise of his Art—as an achievement of active life by which he will produce certain definite effects upon the emotions of his readers, but simply as an instinctive, often unreasoned, outpouring of his own emotions.”
Were these ideas of Conrad’s French and European? Conrad, after all, liked Balzac, most breathless of writers; and Balzac, through instinct and unreason, a man bewitched by his own society, had arrived at something very like that “romantic feeling of reality” which Conrad said was his own inborn faculty. It seems at least possible that, in his irritated rejection of the English novel of manners and the novel of “accidents,” Conrad was rationalizing what was at once his own imaginative deficiency as well as his philosophical need to stick as close as possible to the facts of every situation. In fiction he did not seek to discover; he sought only to explain; the discovery of every tale, as the narrator of Under Western Eyes says, is a moral one.
In the experience of most writers the imaginative realizing of a story constantly modifies the writer’s original concept of it. Out of experience, fantasy, and all kinds of impulses, a story suggests itself. But the story has to be tested by, and its various parts survive, the writer’s dramatic imagination. Things work or they don’t work; what is true feels true; what is false is false. And the writer, trying to make his fiction work, making accommodations with his imagination, can say more than he knows. With Conrad the story seems to be fixed; it is something given, like the prose “argument” stated at the beginning of a section of an old poem. Conrad knows exactly what he has to say. And sometimes, as in Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness, he says less than he intends.
Heart of Darkness breaks into two. There is the reportage about the Congo, totally accurate, as we now know: Conrad scholarship has been able to identify almost everyone in that story. And there is the fiction, which in the context is like fiction, about Kurtz, the ivory agent who allows himself to become a kind of savage African god. The idea of Kurtz, when it is stated, seems good: he will show “what particular region of the first ages a man’s untrammelled feet may take him into by way of solitude.” Beguiling words, but they are abstract; and the idea, deliberately worked out, remains an applied idea. Conrad’s attitude to fiction—not as something of itself, but as a varnish on fact—is revealed by his comment on the story. “It is experience pushed a little (and only very little) beyond the actual facts of the case for the perfectly legitimate, I believe, purpose of bringing it home to the minds and bosoms of the reader.”
Mystery—it is the Conradian word. But there is no mystery in the work itself, the things imagined; mystery remains a concept of the writer’s. The theme of passion and the abyss recurs in Conrad, but there is nothing in his work like the evening scene in Ghosts: the lamp being lit, the champagne being called for, light and champagne only underlining the blight of that house, a blight that at first seems external and arbitrary and is then seen to come from within. There is no scene like that, that takes us beyond what we witness and becomes a symbol for aspects of our own experience. There is nothing—still on the theme of blight—like “The Withered Arm,” Hardy’s story of rejection and revenge and the dereliction of the innocent, which goes beyond the country tale of magic on which it was based. Conrad is too particular and concrete a writer for that; he sticks too close to the facts; if he had meditated on those stories he might have turned them into case histories.
With writers like Ibsen and Hardy, fantasy answers impulses and needs they might not have been able to state. The truth of that fantasy we have to work out, or translate, for ourselves. With Conrad the process is reversed. We almost begin with the truths—portable truths, as it were, that can sometimes be rendered as aphorisms—and work through to their demonstration. The method was forced on him by the special circumstances that made him a writer. To understand the difficulties of this method, the extraordinary qualities of intelligence and sympathy it required, and the exercise of what he described as the “poetic faculty,” we should try to look at the problem from Conrad’s point of view. There is an early story which enables us to do just that.
The story is “The Return,” which was written at the same time as “Karain.” It is set in London and, interestingly, its two characters are English. Alvan Hervey is a City man. He is “tall, well set-up, good-looking and healthy; and his clear pale face had under its commonplace refinement that slight tinge of overbearing brutality which is given by the possession of only partly difficult accomplishments: by excelling in games, or in the art of making money; by the easy mastery over animals and over needy men.” And it is already clear that this is less a portrait than an aphorism and idea about the middle class.
We follow Hervey home one evening. We go up to his dressing room, gaslit, with a butterfly-shaped flame coming out of the mouth of a bronze dragon. The room is full of mirrors and it is suddenly satisfactorily full of middleclass Alvan Herveys. But there is a letter on his wife’s dressing table: she has left him. We follow Hervey then through every detail of his middle-class reaction: shock, nausea, humiliation, anger, sadness: paragraph after ordered paragraph, page after page. And, wonderfully, by his sheer analytical intelligence, Conrad holds us.
Someone is then heard to enter the house. It is Hervey’s wife: she has not, after all, had the courage to leave. What follows now is even more impressive. We move step by step with Hervey, from the feeling of relief and triumph and the wish to punish, to the conviction that the woman, a stranger after five years of marriage, “had in her hands an indispensable gift which nothing else on earth could give.” So Hervey arrives at the “irresistible belief in an enigma…the conviction that within his reach and passing away from him was the very secret of existence—its certitude, immaterial and precious.” He wants then to “compel the surrender of the gift.” He tells his wife he loves her; but the shoddy words only awaken her indignation, her contempt for the “materialism” of men, and her anger at her own self-deception. Up to this point the story works. Now it fades away. Hervey remembers that his wife has not had the courage to leave; he feels that she doesn’t have the “gift” which he now needs. And it is he who leaves and doesn’t return.
Mysterious words are repeated in this story—“enigma,” “the certitude immaterial and precious.” But there is no real narrative and no real mystery. Another writer might have charted a course of events. For Conrad, though, the drama and the truth lay not in events but in the analysis: identifying the stages of consciousness through which a passionless man might move to the recognition of the importance of passion. It was the most difficult way of handling the subject; and Conrad suffered during the writing of this eighty-page story. He wrote to Edward Garnett: “It has embittered five months of my life.” Such a labor; and yet, in spite of the intelligence and real perceptions, in spite of the cinematic details—the mirrors, the bronze dragon breathing fire—“The Return” remains less a story than an imaginative essay. A truth, as Conrad sees it, has been analyzed. But the people remain abstractions.
And that gives another clue. The vision of middle-class people as being all alike, all consciously passionless, delightful and materialist, so that even marriage is like a conspiracy, that is the satirical vision of the outsider. The year before, when he was suffering with The Rescue, Conrad had written to Garnett: “Other writers have some starting point. Something to catch hold of…. They lean on dialect—or on tradition—or on history—or on the prejudice or fad of the hour; they trade upon some tie or conviction of their time—or upon the absence of these things—which they can abuse or praise. But at any rate they know something to begin with—while I don’t. I have had some impressions, some sensations—in my time…. And it’s all faded.”
It is the complaint of a writer who is missing a society, and is beginning to understand that fantasy or imagination can move more freely within a closed and ordered world. Conrad’s experience was too scattered; he knew many societies by their externals, but he knew none in depth. His human comprehension was complete. But when he set The Return in London he was immediately circumscribed. He couldn’t risk much; he couldn’t exceed his knowledge. A writer’s disadvantages, when the work is done, can appear as advantages. The Return takes us behind the scenes early on, as it were, and gives us some idea of the necessary oddity of the work, and the prodigious labor that lay behind the novels which still stand as a meditation on our world.
It is interesting to reflect on writers’ myths. With Conrad there is the imperialist myth of the man of honor, the stylist of the sea. It misses the best of Conrad, but it at least reflects the work. The myths of great writers usually have to do with their work rather than their lives. More and more today, writers’ myths are about the writers themselves; the work has become less obtrusive. The great societies that produced the great novels of the past have cracked. Writing has become more private and more privately glamorous. The novel as a form no longer carries conviction. Experimentation, not aimed at the real difficulties, has corrupted response; and there is a great confusion in the minds of readers and writers about the purpose of the novel. The novelist, like the painter, no longer recognizes his interpretative function; he seeks to go beyond it; and his audience diminishes. And so the world we inhabit, which is always new, goes by unexamined, made ordinary by the camera, unmeditated on; and there is no one to awaken the sense of true wonder. That is perhaps a fair definition of the novelist’s purpose, in all ages.
Conrad died fifty years ago. In those fifty years his work has penetrated to many corners of the world which he saw as dark. It is a subject for Conradian meditation; it tells us something about our new world. Perhaps it doesn’t matter what we say about Conrad; it is enough that he is discussed. You will remember that for Marlow in Heart of Darkness “the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of those misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illuminations of moonshine.”
October 17, 1974