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.
Consider, finally, Conrad’s allegedly supreme mastery of English, a language he scarcely knew at age twenty. In this one matter, at least, must we not bow to the mystery of sheer genius? “I have a strange and overpowering feeling,” he wrote in A Personal Record, “that [English] had always been an inherent part of myself.” But once again Najder brings the hero back to earth. Though Conrad often denied it, he had thought of launching his literary persona in French, a language that caused him fewer difficulties. Accidents of circumstance, not some prior Anglicism of soul, pressed Conrad into the ranks of British authors. For the previous eleven years he had had to conduct his affairs in English, and he knew that the experiences he had accumulated would be of paramount interest to English readers.
Yet Conrad’s spoken English, we now know, was barely decipherable and riddled with pronoun errors. And his stories and novels, even after correction by editors and friends, continued to show unidiomatic touches that were pounced on by chauvinistic London reviewers. Conrad in print was a formidable English stylist, but Najder reminds us that his originality derived partly from a residual overlay of Polish, which urged his sentences toward greater length, richer modification, and a more “rhetorical” air than the English norm. Not even in his syntax was Conrad the captain of his fate.
The adjustments of biographical perspective necessitated by Najder and other recent scholars can hardly be considered a threat to Conrad’s reputation as a writer. Nor does his revised character look remotely scandalous in its own right. There is nothing in the record to compare with, say, Lawrance Thompson’s revelations about the egomania and vindictiveness of that beloved bard, Robert Frost. But once all this has been said, let us admit that the moment is a delicate one. Do we find ourselves somewhat disappointed with the new Conrad? Once stripped of his legend, is he not a rather small-looking figure—shifty, hypochondriacal, forlorn, afraid of his shadow?
That is precisely the wretch already familiar to us from Jessie Conrad’s querulous memoirs, Joseph Conrad As I Knew Him and Joseph Conrad and His Circle. And it is, mutatis mutandis, the neurotic dissected in Bernard C. Meyer’s Joseph Conrad: A Psychoanalytic Biography (1967)—a man who was not merely excitable, evasive, peremptory, and petulant, but also allegedly impotent, fetishistic, oral-aggressive, masochistic, exhibitionistic, Oedipally fixated on his dead parents, and pathologically afraid of women.
I was once impressed by Meyer’s study, which, in my own Freudian phase, struck me as a welcome corrective to the flourishing Conradolatry of the Sixties. But there is really no need to choose between Meyer’s Conrad and the sea-dreamer, for both versions are untrustworthy. If the one feeds on cultivated illusions, the other springs from an investigative method at once too dogmatic and too undisciplined to be considered reliable. Not only did Meyer fail to discriminate adequately between facts and gossip; he presumed, like other armchair analysts, that he could plunder Conrad’s fiction for direct revelations of that repressed unconscious whose features prove so predictably alike from one posthumous patient to another.
Even if the entire Freudian conception of mind were better established than it is, that strategy would be illegitimate. For, as we can substantiate from Ian Watt’s painstaking Conrad in the Nineteenth Century (1979), Conrad was a tradition-steeped artist whose writings were affected by a number of literary and intellectual currents, from naturalism, symbolism, and popular romance to Social Darwinism and fin-de-siècle pessimism. Common prudence forbids us to read the fiction symptomatically without first asking, as Meyer never did, whether its motifs may be more readily accounted for.
But this is not to say that a psychiatric understanding of a dead author must be wrong in principle. Najder himself, as it happens, has an important diagnostic thesis to propound: that throughout his publishing years Conrad was a severe and chronic depressive. No previous biographer, including the clinician Meyer, has embraced that idea, yet the evidence for it appears overwhelming. We know that Conrad was disabled by two full-scale breakdowns—not to mention his apparent suicide attempt—and that he was frequently laid up with possibly psychogenic attacks of gout. But more tellingly, he often manifested combinations of the classic depressive symptoms, which Najder sums up as follows:
Sadness; a feeling of incapacity; fatigue; heaviness of limbs; anxiety coupled with listlessness; aversion to any mental or physical activity; continuous self-reproach; thoughts of guilt and punishment; inability to concentrate, sometimes to the extent of stupor; a slowing down of the capacity for work, especially when it is beyond the ordinary routine; frequent and exaggerated symptoms of physical ailments, particularly of the digestive tract; sense of loneliness; fear of madness and the disintegration of personality;…suicidal tendencies; seeing the bad side of everything; delusions of calamities and disaster; shrinkage of psychological space; loss of vivid imagination; seeing [one’s] world in gray and dark colors, and feeling it is unreal and chaotic.
Now, the difference between calling Conrad a depressive, as that term is medically understood today, and calling him a neurotic in the Freudian sense may seem negligible at first. Actually, it is critical to Najder’s entire task of reconstructing the historical Conrad in coherent terms. The Freudian neurotic, whether the identified complaint is depression or some other syndrome, is inevitably assumed to have a damaged ego which is relatively helpless against up-wellings of “the repressed.” He is at best a perpetual juggler, coping more or less ingeniously with irruptions which, because they emanate from momentous childhood trauma, are implicitly awarded a deeper ontological status than the “compromise formations” of his quotidian nervous behavior. The unthinkable is the real, and it rules the mind. Meyer’s biography exemplifies this downgrading of the neurotic subject’s mental integrity. By contrast, an enlightened contemporary view of depression requires no such condescending imputation. Since the most likely source of the malady is currently thought to be biochemical, no stigma is entailed. One can be—Conrad surely was—both a depressive and a person of strong identity and principle.
Those of us who are not chronically depressed can have at most a glimmering, I think, of the depressive’s daily struggle to avoid surrender to torpor and self-contempt. Apart from money woes, that struggle is the chief and perennial topic of Conrad’s intimate correspondence. As he confided to Edward Sanderson, a friend who helped to run a boys’ school,
Try to imagine yourself trying your hardest to save the School…from downfall, annihilation, and disaster: and the thing going on and on endlessly. That’s exactly how I am situated: and the worst is that the menace…does not seem to come from outside but from within…in myself alone…. I fear! I fear!
In the light of such suffering, Conrad’s sheer output—twenty-four books within twenty-nine years—suggests an objective correlative for his ideal of fidelity. Perhaps we are looking at a hero after all, though of a different sort than we have hitherto suspected.
In a wicked sally E. M. Forster taught many of us to believe that Conrad “is misty in the middle as well as at the edges, that the secret casket of his genius contains a vapour rather than a jewel….” The observation stuck because it exposed a real tendency on Conrad’s part to philosophize melodramatically, invoking a sense of profundity without having earned it through represented action or cogent reasoning. Insofar as his philosophizing had a definite content, moreover—near nihilism combined with a paradoxical insistence on virtues of character—it has proved troublesome to would-be admirers. Virtue has been out of style among literary people for longer than anyone can remember; and though nihilism has not, Conrad’s brand of it looks too easy, as if it were a kind of euphemism or escape from unexpressed concerns. D. H. Lawrence spoke for many readers when he complained in a letter, “Conrad…makes me furious—and the stories are so good. But why this giving in before you start…. I can’t forgive Conrad for being so sad and for giving in.”
It cannot be denied that pessimism and resignation were part of Conrad’s approach to reality. Yet Najder’s biography goes far toward showing us why this had to be the case. Though Najder’s Conrad remains elusive in certain respects, he is neither the butterfly mounted in E. M. Forster’s scrapbook nor the mere merchant of gloom scorned by Lawrence. His politics and ethics were much clearer-headed, less sentimental, and more richly informed by history and personal trial than Forster’s or Lawrence’s own, and his comprehension of Europe’s drift toward dictatorship and cataclysm—as notably analyzed in his great essay of 1905, “Autocracy and War”—deserves to be called prophetic. Indeed, the power cultist Lawrence might have spared himself a good deal of silly bluster if he had been able to grasp the basis of Conrad’s “sadness.”
Though Conrad was the most deracinated and internally tormented of authors, and though he had to practice a delicate diplomacy every day of his life on English soil, we can now understand that he remained profoundly Polish in his sense of self. This is not to say that he felt welcome when he revisited Poland in 1914. As Najder shows more fully in Conrad Under Familial Eyes, by then he was an object of suspicion to activists who had remained at home; and he in turn was annoyed by their advice that he devote himself explicitly to Polish themes and causes, as if that were a way of feasibly supporting his family in England. All the same, Conrad never ceased addressing the world privately, if not always publicly, as a member of the Polish intelligentsia and the szlachta—the noble class that controlled cultural and political life before the country was partitioned and subjugated to three neighboring powers in 1795. Najder shows us that if we appreciate what that self-image entailed, and if we then picture Conrad’s plight as a financially vulnerable, suspiciously regarded foreigner in Victorian and Edwardian England, much that looks furtive, insensitive, or contradictory in his pronouncements commands our sympathy.
For Conrad, to be a szlachcic meant first of all to know oneself a gentleman in all surroundings, hardships, and embarrassments and to insist on being recognized as one. Hence, for example, his evident attempt to pass off the failed suicide as a duel, which would have been more in keeping with his station; his standoffishness as a seaman; his refusal either to live in an attic, as he put it, or to prostitute his art to common taste; his touchiness with creditors and rudely impatient publishers; and his recklessness with money, a substance whose scarcity he seemed almost to regard as a flaw in nature implanted to disrupt his concentration on more important things. Hence too, perhaps, his refusal to accept the honorary degrees and the knighthood that were eventually proffered. In his own eyes Conrad had been a nobleman all along.
When Conrad has not been patronized as an old salt—“They want to banish me to the middle of the ocean,” he once complained of his reviewers—he has sometimes been patronized as a Slav—that is, as someone thought to be hereditarily disposed toward impulsiveness, mysticism, and a taste for conspiracies. No label evoked more contempt from this first-hand victim of Russian imperialism. The so-called Slavonic spirit, he wrote, is utterly foreign “to the Polish temperament with its tradition of self-government, its chivalrous view of moral restraints and exaggerated respect for individual rights: not to mention the important fact that the whole Polish mentality, Western in complexion, had received its training from Italy and France and, historically, had always remained, even in religious matters, in sympathy with the most liberal currents of European thought.”
Too often Conrad has been considered a reactionary on both cultural and political issues. On the contrary, he was a freethinker who rejoiced in Voltaire and Anatole France and who counted among his cherished later friends André Gide and Bertrand Russell. His bête noire was his fellow “Slav” Dostoevsky, who in Conrad’s judgment had made a craven, unforgivable peace with autocracy and Christianity. And his closest friend of all was a militant socialist, R. B. Cunninghame Graham, who shared his loathing for oppressors, his antimaterialism, and his scorn for British jingoism.
To be sure, Conrad himself was a moral traditionalist, a nationalist, and a skeptic toward all egalitarian movements. But those were the stands not of a feudalist but of a patriot who had seen his own country’s traditions kicked aside by the czars, who had spent much of his boyhood in a harsh Russian exile, and who lived under the threat of Russian military conscription throughout his long struggle to become a British subject. Like many modern Poles—indeed, like Najder himself, who now works in Munich for Radio Free Europe and who has been sentenced to death by the latest Russian surrogates in Warsaw—Conrad had little patience with the rhetoric of international class brotherhood, mouthed for the most part by people who could not trouble themselves over the fates of captive nations.
As for Conrad’s evasiveness, the circumstances of his upbringing and adult life go far toward making it under-standable as a survival strategy. We can now see, for example, how he was torn between the extremism of his martyred father, whose banishment to Russia all but deprived Conrad of a childhood, and the accommodationism of that Polish Polonius, Uncle Tadeusz; the result was a fury of inaction, a fatalism laced with self-reproach. And we can appreciate how little freedom Conrad felt to be as candid about British imperialism as he was about the Belgian and Russian varieties. If he sometimes sounds over-wrought and barely coherent in his panegyrics on solidarity, fidelity, and the singular merits of the English sailor, the reason can be found not in any naiveté but in the constraints under which he wrote—constraints including the discretion of the grateful guest, the prudence of the closely watched alien, and the pride of the aristocrat who would never disclose the slights he had suffered in England and on English ships because of his “queer” foreign voice and manners.
The legend that Najder and others have laid to rest required us to imagine a supremely romantic figure, the master of two remarkable destinies. Today we see that, on the contrary, Conrad’s life from an early age was a series of adaptations to odd circumstances, both of temperament and of history, that kept him perpetually off balance. Even after he had acquired the outward features of a normal existence, his self-awareness—as a Pole and European, as a displaced person, as a melancholic, and as a Flaubertian artist in the land of Kipling—spared him from the smug and stuffy conformism of imperial England and threw him upon his inner resources. Conrad’s discomposure, we can gather, was his passport to distinction.
March 1, 1984
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). ↩
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. ↩