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 have come to light and in the course of editing these Professor Karl has put together a richer Life that aims to get as close as possible to the complex interweaving of the novelist’s real life and temperament as they were drawn into his work. Karl’s ideal biography is George D. Painter’s life of Proust, chiefly because he sees Proust and Conrad preoccupied with the imaginative retrieval of memory. He has sought to fit Conrad into Henry James’s half-mocking sense of human experience. As James put it,

Experience is never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider’s web of the silken threads suspended in the chambers of consciousness and catching every airborne particle in its tissue. It is the very atmosphere of the mind.

In consequence Professor Karl is a circuitous narrator, following Conrad’s psychological threads back and forth. The reader may be maddened but must be patient as he treads and retreads old paths. For example: Conrad’s so-called “duel,” which was really an attempt at suicide in Marseilles when he was twenty, is re-examined three times in sixty-two pages, but only in the last account does Professor Karl tell us what almost certainly happened and why, pointing out that there is an inordinate number of suicides in the works. Such a circling about incident is of course very Conradian; how long we have to wait when we read Lord Jim before we are allowed to know what the trial of Tuan Jim is about. So Lord Jim is to be thought of as almost completely an intrigue of memory—but in a double sense. The ostensible trouble we recognize at once:

Based on an actual event, the entire novel is structured on various commentators recalling what occurred, or trying to make sense out of what has become for them part of a distant now dim past.

The other “memory” spreads into guessing: Lord Jim and its ship the Patna are not simply a paradigm of Conrad’s feelings about Poland “but the expressions of material lying deep within him.”


The very country into which Conrad was born created divisiveness and was based as much on memory as on contemporary life…. It was not only the country into which he was born that required constant artifice, it was the family also. Conrad’s immediate family was itself split between idealistic and practical elements, with personal tragedy at its base and gloom, morbidity, and self-destructive obsessions as its routine experience.

The argument is interesting, though Professor Karl’s prose does run into uneven patches. He hangs some heavy platitudinous quotations from other scholars on Henry James’s slender spider’s web. Since I have nothing but admiration for Professor Karl’s command of the living detail necessary for an exhaustive biography of 1,000 pages, I hate to see him making solemn and obsequious gestures to the academy. Writing of Conrad’s life as a seaman he drags in some words of Erik Erikson:

Those twenty years at sea were not at all a waste but fell into what Erik Erikson, in a somewhat different context [i.e., writing of Gandhi], was to call the epigenetic principle. As he explains it, it is a principle derived from the uterine growth of an organism, although Erikson’s use of it indicates that “anything that grows has a ground plan, and that out of this ground plan the parts arise, each part having its time of special ascendancy, until all parts have arisen to form a functioning whole.”

Bully for the estimable Erikson. But we do not need Erikson or Gandhi to remind us that, in the case of Conrad,

the sea years conditioned [him] to the disproportion of sea and land, to differing perspectives of time and space and to the kind of tedious staring that becomes inertness and passivity in his work.

Conrad was doubly an exile, even before he left Poland at the age of seventeen: his country did not belong to him; it was not independent. It was divided between Russian and Austrian rule. Conrad’s father, Apollo Korzeniowski, was of the gentry, a wildly improvident, gifted young man and a natural Don Quixote and plotter. The mother’s family, the Bobrowskis, belonged to the stern Catholic aristocracy with large estates who had their rebellious past, but out of aristocratic self-interest had become accommodating to Russian rule and confined themselves to keeping what they held.

Both families had a deep contempt for commerce, though Conrad’s uncle on his mother’s side was a rationalist conservative who said that commerce at least had a moderating influence on Utopian ignorance of economic reality. Not so Apollo; two years after the Polish insurrection of 1861 he was still plotting. He was arrested and sent into exile with his wife and child. Their health was destroyed: the mother’s sufferings brought her to an early death when the child was seven; the father was overcome with grief and remorse, turned mystical, and died when the boy was eleven. We see the child following his father’s coffin through the streets of Cracow at a funeral that became an unforgettable political demonstration.

The romantic cause of Polish freedom had decimated both sides of Conrad’s family: he had become dramatically orphaned. He had lost not only his parents but the influence of the ideology they represented. He was stranded in a spiritual wilderness. Some biographers have drawn a pitiable portrait of an ailing little boy who was thought to be epileptic and liable to become consumptive, sitting in silent misery with an extravagantly solitary and religious father, and stunned by the experience. Professor Karl rejects this view. In the first place the boy responded to his father’s gifts as a distinguished poet, playwright, and translator: he was drawn to Shakespeare, Dickens, and, above all, Hugo’s Travailleurs de la Mer, a book that must have had a powerful influence on Conrad’s desire to travel or to go to sea.

In these influences Apollo was a really rewarding father, but in his political disaster and his Quixotism he represented the failure of faith, the loss of belief in solid ground. It was noted that the parentless boy would tend to run wild, to resemble his headstrong father and dream of escape and adventure; and that he would use his bad health and neurasthenia as weapons for getting his way. Far from being pitiable, the child became formidably difficult, recalcitrant in learning, obstinately determined to get out of his impossible, futureless country. He did get away—but as Professor Karl shows he took the dilemma of his relations with his loved and yet deplored father with him. It is Professor Karl’s habit to shoot forward to the novels that twenty years ahead would still show Conrad struggling with the dilemma his father had left him in. In Victory we see the exploration of


the most intimate of father-son relationships in [Conrad’s] work; in the interplay between Axel and the older Heyst…he noted the ironic ambiguities of the relationship: portraying the father as if he were Apollo after his fall [i.e., after the insurrection], who, having finally seen the futility of all action, cautions silence, cunning, and withdrawal…. By turning the relation into an ironic and a paradoxical one, Conrad relived the situation.

A surrogate father was, in fact, Conrad’s salvation—up to a point: his mother’s brother, Uncle Tadeusz Bobrowski, a wealthy and lonely widower who became the boy’s guardian. Tadeusz was everything Apollo had not been: he became almost as much a mother as a father to the boy whose inherited recklessness was to plague him for years.

Tadeusz Bobrowski was himself a man of many sides…. As well as being a somewhat narrow moralist and positivist, he was a person of considerable intelligence and insight. He has unjustly been described as a right-wing conservative, even a reactionary force, thrusting upon Conrad a rationalistic, legalistic approach to life and its goals. Although some of this is correct—and should not be denied—Tadeusz deeply resented the Naleçz [i.e., Apollo] strain of foolhardiness and self-destruction…. He represented elements of balance and sanity.

In the correspondence with his nephew, which went on until Conrad’s thirties, Tadeusz is a harassed and sometimes deceived Polonius advising the careless Laertes. He leaned toward the new scientific ideas but without much faith in the technological mind and certainly without optimism. (That would be a bond with his nephew, as was also his enormous reading in many languages.) It is an important point that Conrad’s often reactionary views on politics and society did not outgrow his uncle’s and those of his uncle’s class: he certainly stuck to his uncle’s hatred of revolution:

We can assume that part of Conrad’s withdrawal from the full political implications of his novels, or his caution in dealing with such matters, derives from lessons learned from Bobrowski: that the individual who joins movements, thinks politically, or tries rapid reform throws himself under the wheels of the juggernaut. Evolution, not revolution, [Mr. Karl leaps forward to Under Western Eyes] Razumov warns. Gradualism, for Bobrowski, was the sole hope, but even that modicum of optimism would not be acceptable to Conrad the writer.

Conrad came to believe that “the individual intensifies his essential being and rides it to his doom,” pitting himself against an absolute and implacable destiny. We recall, Karl says, Stein’s injunction in Lord Jim: “to immerse oneself in the destructive element”—an Apollo-like utterance, except that Stein adds, as Uncle Tadeusz may have done—“and by the exertions of your hands and feet in the water, make the deep sea keep you up.”

The sea! We come back to the youth who, having read Les Travailleurs de la Mer, nags his uncle to let him become a seaman. One of the refractory devices becomes commoner: a skillful, perhaps hysterical use of bad health which eventually marked the whole of his life. (It is true that gout, rheumatism, and arthritis caught many seamen sooner or later.) But bad health gives freedom—freedom to read immensely, to avoid education and discipline. A large number of young men all over Europe who hated commercial society opted for the sea, travel, and adventure. The ports were crowded with them; there was a slump in shipping. For Conrad the sea would be a beneficent wilderness, above all for one who found he preferred the staring loneliness of the watch and the undoubted appeal of the beauties and terrors of fatalism. (Conrad also uttered some of his rhetorical words about the sea being a mother, delightful to Freudians, but a thoroughly second-rate generality, in an artist: I fear Mr. Karl thinks it mythically “significant.”)

Conrad was better when he spoke of the sea as a mirror. He had been staring at maps, longing to be tested by a new country. So Uncle Tadeusz gave in and let him go to France, the second home of gifted Polish émigrés, and, on a pleasant allowance, the young gentleman hung around in the port of Marseilles—a period he would late in life romanticize in The Arrow of Gold. One has the impression of Conrad being very much a dandy and poseur in his youth, perhaps inclined to play the aristocrat and man of honor, reckless with his money, sending home for more, and very Apollo-ish as a young wit and intellectual, playing at being Ulysses. Then comes the mysterious crisis: there are few berths on French ships, a lot of hanging about, angry letters from uncle, an urgent debt, and then, inviting the man who was his uncle’s watchdog to tea, Conrad shoots himself, fortunately missing his heart: he will always overact. The French dream is over, a possible French novelist is done for—perhaps for the simple reason that the British merchant service had overwhelming prestige; more likely that the British were slack and unscrupulous and did not ask many questions; perhaps because he wanted to enter the new wilderness of a speech which he did not know, but whose literature he knew very well.

Professor Karl would like to think that Conrad had picked up some knowledge of the Symbolists in Marseilles. An attractive idea, but there is, he agrees, no evidence. The conjecture is pleasant and would be fitting. Really, Shakespeare and Dickens were more important, for they also brought with them a way of accepting the literary enthusiasms of a father whose political and philosophical life he rejected. To write in Polish would have meant the duplication of his father’s disaster. His choice of the English language and métier amounted to a divorce. English also got him out of the landlocked Mediterranean and out to the East, to the casualties of colonial competition and exploitation, to the monstrous scandal of the Congo and the greed in Nostromo. It is strange and moving to see Conrad struggling with his own restlessness, submitting to discipline, trying to escape it, always secretive, not quite certain of what he is hoarding but hoarding because as a visionary artist he will need an immense amount of vivid detail to draw on.

Professor Karl is excellent on Conrad’s strange marriage to a stoical but vocal girl of humble London family who had to struggle for a living, and though she was out of her depth intellectually, Conrad was devoted to her. Perhaps there are glances at her depressing background in The Secret Agent: Galsworthy admired her and she certainly stood up to Ford Madox Ford.

During twenty years at sea Conrad had been a misogynist with a sailor’s deep mistrust of women: the captain who takes his wife to sea is done for. The crew can’t bear it. The only woman who seems to have matched Conrad intellectually was his novel-writing “Aunt” in Brussels, but he eventually drifted away from all attachments once he had got what he wanted—which was not sex but moral support. The femmes fatales of his novels are the standard fantasies of the Romantic Decadents. Once he had settled in England as a storyteller his life was a hell of toil, muddle, the instant recognition of his talent by a few, his total rejection by the great public. They preferred the gaudier Kipling or Haggard to the morbid and elegant Pole, who thought of art as the transcendent reconciling illusion—like the sea, a mirror.

From his letters and from his conversation one would gather that Conrad was one of the most tormented of novelists whose agonies, blockages, and misfortunes can only be compared with Dostoevsky’s. His health was wrecked by the time he reached his fifties; the contretemps of family life appeared to him as apocalyptic disasters. He was extravagant and was always in money difficulties which paralyzed him. He became strangely commercial with collectors of his manuscripts.

It is odd that a novelist who had his enormous, vivid experience to draw on should have been stuck so often with nothing to say. Edward Garnett used to say that he lacked invention. Memory, unless it is involuntary, is indeed static. As an expatriate Conrad was unable to draw on a body of experience common to his prospective readers. It is interesting to know that so much of his background material and so many of the episodes in his novels were suggested by reading, but, of course, the great novelists often owe their decisive power to their ability to turn their incapacities into qualities. If invention flagged, Conrad intensified his static scenes. When the realistic advancing of character beat him, he invented the garrulous and rather too clubbable Marlow as a narrator who could jump ahead; if a character did not move, Conrad used great ingenuity in laboring the character’s moral uniqueness.

His people are morally and physically stamped like medallions, and he himself referred to his desire for an effect of sculpture. At his greatest he indeed achieved a sort of condensing and dramatic authority in vibrant and living stone; his seascapes are more alive than many of his people. He is careful to take his characters out of time into an isolated world very much in the manner of the dramatist—the ship, the small obsessional enclaves of conspiracy, the unget-at-able port in Nostromo, the captain’s cabin in The Secret Sharer—so that the utmost can be got out of the closed moral dilemma. He was not among the great creators of character. He was an establisher of fates and situations. He wrote:

I have been called a writer of the sea, of the tropics, a descriptive writer, a romantic writer—and also a realist. But as a matter of fact all my concern has been with the “ideal” value of things, events, and people. That and nothing else.

The world of ideal values becomes, so often, the exile’s island in a world which has become doomed because he has no country. The connivance of Conrad’s sense of these values with his own sense of isolation and catastrophe made him one of the most searching psychologists of moral conflict in the European novel. The intricate relation between the life and the work is remarkably unraveled in Professor Karl’s ingenious and convincing work.

This Issue

February 22, 1979