This is somewhat elongated portrayal & study of Conrad’s writing, publish on Guardian Unlimited . Nevertheless its so amazing that have copied the entire article rather then providing just the link.. Pl care to read on
What he wants us to see is: the lot. Not one side or another, but the whole shooting match A Polish immigrant, cabin boy and gunrunner, Joseph Conrad wrote action-packed adventure stories, which were also modernist classics. Giles Foden celebrates an enduring master on the 150th anniversary of his birth
Giles Foden – December 1, 2007 -Guardian
“I have never learned to trust it. I can’t trust it to this day … A dreadful doubt hangs over the whole achievement of literature.” Thus wrote Joseph Conrad, in an essay published in the Manchester Guardian Weekly on December 4 1922. Long before Auden was telling us poetry makes nothing happen, or Adorno was saying there could be no poetry after Auschwitz, Conrad was questioning – fundamentally – the political and moral utility of writing. Yet this was a writer who drew the approbation of FR Leavis, the pre-eminent British supporter of the view that literature could play a role in the maintenance of civilisation. In 1941, Leavis described Conrad as being “among the very greatest novelists in the language – or any language”.
Maybe the dichotomy is not so marked as it first appears. Leavis prized “essential organisation” in a novel, and this was something that appealed to Conrad, too. It is evident in his Guardian piece. Under the headline “Notices to Mariners”, he asserted the futility of literary effort in contrast to the informational precision of reports of the comings and goings of ships, then commonly printed in newspapers. I would also contend that Conrad prized moral intensity and perspicacity as much as Leavis, even if he did not believe in abstract moral principles. That the marine register’s “ideal of perfect accuracy” cannot be achieved by literature does not mean literature must be empty of ideals. For Conrad, there was a middle way, one in which moral values emerged from relative positions, from the “essential organisation” of the literary work itself, rather than anything beyond it.
Literature was not the only thing about which Conrad was doubtful. A decade or so before “Notices to Mariners”, he was entertaining similar doubts about identity: “Both at sea and on land my point of view is English, from which the conclusions should not be drawn that I have become an Englishman. That is not the case. Homo duplex has in my case more than one meaning.” He wrote The Secret Agent, one of the great novels of modernism, a few years later. The depiction of Verloc, the agent provocateur and double man of the title, whose diplomatic employers insist he must rouse his anarchist friends to a terrorist outrage in London, would be one of the great feats of world literature were it not outshone by the portrayal of Verloc’s wife, Winnie, whose quietist attitude to her husband and life in general is overturned by the plot. She stabs him with a carving knife.
Part of the genius of The Secret Agent is the way it shows the unknowability of people. A cold eye is cast on character – the very idea of character – in all Conrad’s novels. In his doomy worldview, as in TS Eliot’s, subjectivity cannot be pinned down with accuracy. As Marlow says of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, it is a chimera. “He was just a word for me … it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence … its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream – alone.
For Conrad, none of the big stories, from Christianity to communism to psychoanalysis (he met a disciple of Freud’s in 1921 and was extremely scornful of the books lent to him), provided adequate explanations of selfhood. He had seen the decline and fall of too many men who put their certitude in equality or justice or liberty tout court. His fundamental position is revealed in a letter to his friend, the socialist Robert Cunninghame Graham:
Life knows us not and we do not know life – we don’t even know our own thoughts. Half the words we use have no meaning whatever and of the other half each man understands each word after the fashion of his own folly and conceit. Faith is a myth, and beliefs shift like mists on the shore; thoughts vanish; words, once pronounced, die; and the memory of yesterday is as shadowy as the hope of tomorrow.
But behind the modernist sentiments and fabulous sentence-making, there is something else going on: an idea of moral and cultural dialectic, a sense of virtue as relative rather than fixed and static. By its nature, such a conception of virtue is likely to appear in negative form. As Conrad put it in his 1905 essay “Books”: “To be hopeful in an artistic sense it is not necessary to think that the world is good. It is enough to believe that there is no impossibility of it being made so.”
This shouldn’t be taken as the defensive, hollowed-out position it appears to be. Positively, usefully, a sense of relativism-as-virtue was what Conrad was all about. It was what he valued. On the 150th anniversary of his birth and the centenary of the publication of The Secret Agent, such a value seems worth exploring again. In a networked global culture, in which the differences between moral beliefs are constantly thrown into sharp relief, it seems more necessary than ever.
Yet Conrad is not a popular writer these days. Partly this is exactly to do with the sceptical, unsentimental line he tends to take, but it is also a question of the density of his writing. Coming to him for the first time, many readers find him difficult. Sometimes it is said that this is because English was his second language (actually it was his third – he learned and wrote French before he knew English, adopting Flaubert as one of his literary masters). Whatever the reason, “opaque” is a word often used to describe his style. Or an appropriately maritime metaphor is employed: “I couldn’t make headway.” Or: “A bit long-winded.”
Even supporters such as Leavis complained of language whose effect “is not to magnify but rather to muffle”. The objection was best put by HG Wells: reviewing An Outcast of the Islands (1896), he described Conrad’s style as being “like river-mist; for a space things are seen clearly, and then comes a great grey bank of printed matter, page upon page, creeping round the reader, swallowing him up”. Seeing Conrad clearly can indeed be tricky. But that is the point: his books are epistemological journeys, parables of knowing. He is a writer whom one has to get to know. The reader has to become familiar with a narrative manner, a tone, a way of proceeding. It helps to have a grasp of his biography, too, because his life story informs the slipperiness of subjectivity in his work.
Joseph Conrad was born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski on December 3 1857 in Polish Ukraine. At a time when much of Poland was under Russian control, his father, Apollo Korzeniowski, was a Polish nationalist revolutionary with artistic sensibilities. A poet and dramatist with a “terrible gift for irony”, as Conrad put it, he translated Shakespeare and Dickens (two authors who had a crucial influence on his son). When Józef was four, Apollo was arrested by Poland’s tsarist authorities for underground activity. After six months’ imprisonment in the Warsaw Citadel, the family was sent into exile in the Russian province of Vologda, a place Apollo described as “a huge quagmire” where the two most important aspects of society were “police and thieves”.
In 1863, the family was allowed to move to Kiev, where Conrad’s mother died. When Apollo himself fell ill, they were permitted to relocate to Galicia back in Poland, then to Cracow, where his father died in 1869.
These events, together with an unsuccessful teenage love affair, led Conrad to make a decision that he would dramatise again and again in his fiction. At the age of 17, in October 1874, he left Poland, travelling by train to Marseille, making what he later described as a “standing jump out of his racial surroundings and association”. This idea of the “jump” – the radical existentialist step – is central to Lord Jim and many of Conrad’s other novels and short stories. In Lord Jim, the hero leaps from a ship full of Muslim pilgrims, which he believes to be sinking. The act dogs him for ever, but the question of whether he is a coward is not simply answered. It relates to the whole book and other books, too – the idealistic Coral Island-style yarns that made Jim take ship in the first place.
Conrad’s own step into another life was taken gingerly. For a month or so, he lived in a lodging house in the Old Port in Marseille, before boarding a three-masted wooden barque called the Mont-Blanc bound for Martinique and Haiti. He made the return trip, then joined the ship again, this time as a cabin boy. Further travels followed as a steward on another ship, the Saint-Antoine, with a range of Caribbean ports on the itinerary. Friendship with two of the crew, the brothers César and Dominique Cervoni, led him during 1877-78 to become involved in gunrunning along the Spanish coast for the Carlist cause. The episode is fictionalised in the late novel The Arrow of Gold (1919), in which Dominique Cervoni appears, complete with a thick black moustache, under his own name. Cervoni was also the model for the eponymous protagonist of Nostromo (1904), probably the most difficult to read of all Conrad’s novels. Set in an imaginary South American country called Costaguana, it portrays the effects of the San Tomé silver mine on a wide range of characters. Cervoni figures in The Rover (1923) and Suspense (published posthumously in 1925), too. It is as if he is Conrad’s idea of the perfect hero, always chancing his arm but never losing his self-possession.
For all that, Dominique Cervoni didn’t bring Conrad much luck in life. The gun-running ship was scuttled to avoid capture and Conrad ran into financial difficulties. In late February or early March 1878, after a gambling jag in Monte Carlo, he attempted suicide by shooting himself in the chest with a revolver.
He avoided serious injury and was rescued by his uncle, Tadeusz Bobrowksi, who settled his debts. The story was hushed up and didn’t emerge fully until the 1950s. But the clues were always there in the fiction. The idea of suicide is important in the novels, several of which defend it as a legitimate act in the face of an absurd world. They do so rather in the terms of French existentialism – there are links between Conrad and Camus – as a form of conviction when all other forms seem worthless.
It was decided with Tadeusz that Conrad should sign up for the British merchant navy. Joining the Skimmer of the Sea at Lowestoft on July 11 1878, he began his career as a proper seaman, which would last until he signed off as second mate on the Adowa on January 17 1894, at the age of 36. In between came many adventures, in ships sound and unsound, and destinations that included Australia, Thailand, India and Malaya, as well as, in 1890-91, the gruelling journey up the Congo that gave rise to Heart of Darkness
The trips abroad were interspersed with periods in London where Conrad, like Dickens a keen walker, absorbed the alienating, sinister cityscape – from the docks to the slums of Islington – that would provide the backdrop to The Secret Agent. His first shore-leave was spent in London, in digs in Finsbury Park, in 1878. He afterwards moved to Stoke Newington, then to Pimlico, where in 1889 he began his first novel, Almayer’s Folly (1895), a suspense-subverting critique of adventurism.
After its acceptance by the publisher Unwins, Conrad began to familiarise himself with literary London as well as the city’s shadowlands of crime and poverty. He also got married, having proposed to Jessie George on the steps of the National Gallery. Just before the wedding, Conrad described her as “a small, not at all striking person (to tell the truth alas – rather plain!) who nevertheless is very dear to me”. It might not seem the most secure foundation for a successful marriage.
Conrad’s friend Edward Garnett (senior reader at Unwins) introduced him to the luminaries of the day, often at a French restaurant in Gerrard Street. Like his first ship, it was called the Mont-Blanc, but the atmosphere could hardly have been more different. He would convene there with the likes of Chesterton, Belloc and Edward Thomas, as well as with the fellow novelist to whom he would become closest, Ford Madox Ford.
Later in life, Conrad met Henry James and HG Wells, the literary titans of the day. He had close but tense relationships with both of them. They recognised his genius with a condescending prickliness; he was always conscious of their greater earnings and renown. Money was a serious problem in the Conrad household until the 1920s, when he began to secure substantial serial deals and sell in large numbers.
Married life was problematic, too, but he and Jessie rubbed along, puzzling friends and acquaintances. Garnett worried that Conrad’s “ultra-nervous organisation appeared to make matrimony extremely hazardous”. Ottoline Morrell described Jessie as “a good and reposeful mattress for this hypersensitive, nerve-wracked man, who did not ask from his wife high intelligence, but only an assuagement of life’s vibrations”.
Jessie understood more than they knew, writing to Garnett after Conrad’s death from a heart attack in 1924 at the age of 66: “I may not be capable – as you say – of appreciating or even understanding his genius, but you may remember one point I make … which is to live in this world one talented partner is enough, the other must be more commonplace and ordinary. I have claimed that distinction for myself.” There is something of her passivity in the portrayal of Winnie in The Secret Agent, whose husband is provoked to say: “Oh yes! I know your deaf and dumb trick.” But Jessie Conrad was not so colourless as she has sometimes been thought, claiming for herself both the right to sell her husband’s manuscripts to support a gambling habit and (via mediums) a channel to him after his death.
Writer’s block was the biggest factor in Conrad’s professional life. Commonly, in his letters and articles as well as his fiction, incertitude of will is pitched against the physical immediacy of action. Action, that is, in the sense of both the boys’ adventure book style that his own novels ironise and the act of writing itself. The moving pen is set, retrospectively and somewhat nostalgically, alongside the roaming life of the sailor. For pure activity, the pen will always lose the battle with the belaying pin, but the task of writing must be faced up to, just as maritime tasks were. Often, however, very often, Conrad was not up to it. “My dear Pinker,” he wrote to his agent in 1907, “I feel that this is almost too much for me.” At the time he was writing a longish tale called “The Duel” and working on his bestseller, Chance (1913), as well as The Secret Agent
Greater experience and increased renown did not help much. The delivery of books and journalistic copy became, as the narrator of The Shadow-Line (1917) has it, an “ordeal … [for] maturing and tempering my character”. Oscillating between mental torpor and highly productive bursts, Conrad turned achievement anxiety into a personal moral sounding board.
Appropriately, the line between action and inaction is the ground of many of the novels. In Conrad’s writing generally, the grandiloquent Edwardian temper shades into something hesitantly modern, as the forthrightness of imperialist subject matter is undercut by the obliquities of narrative form. All this leaves his works unclassifiable, spilling “out of high literature into light reading and romance”, as the critic Frederic Jameson has put it, “floating uncertainly between Proust and Robert Louis Stevenson”.
Uncertainty is itself thematically unstable in Conrad’s work. Although some of the maritime novels promote the need to act decisively (“command means self-command”, as it is put in The Shadow-Line), in others uncertainty is the positive ground the novel discovers: a place where the world’s multidimensional difficulties can, if just for a moment, be squared. Conrad was following in famous footsteps here: it has been argued – by the excellent Conrad critic John Stape – that the imprint of Shakespeare on his works amounts to “a full-scale dialogue with the playwright’s ideas”.
There is much evidence for the significance of Conrad’s Shakespearian encounter. Although Victory (1915) is often seen as a rewriting of The Tempest, some early reviewers called Heyst, its withdrawn and hesitating hero, a “Hamlet of the South Seas”. The scholar Eloise Knapp Hay wrote an article entitled “Lord Jim and le Hamletisme”, and the novel is indeed full of passing allusion to the play.
From Shakespeare, Conrad took not only doubt and scepticism, but also cultural multiplicity – the idea that there is never a single right position in human affairs. Other masters gave different lessons. From Dickens came a sense of the particularity of character, but also direction as to how different characters’ viewpoints might usefully be distributed across space and time. This was particularly important in the management of the disparate narratives in The Secret Agent and in the novel’s depiction of London: “that wonder city”, as Conrad put it, “the growth of which bears no sign of intelligent design, but many traces of freakishly sombre fantasy the Great Master knew so well to bring out”. From Flaubert, meanwhile, came the belief in the novel as being founded on impersonality, and further lessons in handling of point of view: that most difficult part of the novelist’s art.
Typically, Conradian narrative has a frame supplied by a narrator figure or set of narrator figures, named or anonymous: most famously, perhaps, Marlow in Lord Jim. Henry James – Conrad’s sometime supporter, but more often tricky competitor – identified the key to Conrad’s narration as being “a prolonged hovering flight of the subjective over the outstretched ground of the case exposed”. A century or so later, one can see it differently, with the subjective in Conrad being largely derived from the “essential organisation” of the outstretched ground itself. For one such as Conrad who is sceptical about abstract ideas, for the modernist who cannot believe in human essence, context supplies character value. Humanity is not something hovering “up there”, nor something hidden kernel-like “in here” (in the soul, genes, etc): it is forged in exactly such complex perspectival interconnections as Conrad’s writing so splendidly affords.
As his first great biographer Jocelyn Baines wrote: “The essence of his art lies in the construction of a setting where a complex state of mind can be presented with the fullest emotional and dramatic effect.” In Lord Jim, for example, switches between sympathetic and negative responses to a character create depth by constant realignment and play of emotion. It is, to my mind, the nearest thing in fiction to the substance of one’s real encounters with people.
As well as defining character, the “outstretched ground” of context provides a map of Conrad’s moral vision. Oblique narrative techniques – the intersecting frames or narrative “lenses” for which he is famous – have the effect of lifting the subject matter from the boys’ books with which Conrad’s novels share an affinity. These frames transform plain action stories into inquiries about what it means to act in the world, what it means to be a moral agent.
The reader is part of that transformation. Rather than the continuity of linear narrative, with the coherent subject which that implies, Conrad offers something closer to sets of pictures that the reader must make sense of in collaboration with the writer. This is one of the reasons for the alleged opacity. You have to do the work yourself.
As well as taking place over the span of an individual novel or story, this process of inclusion happens paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, through a process the critic Ian Watt has described as “delayed decoding”. It is a means of deferring the reader’s decipherment of the text in the same way that a consciousness takes fuller stock of its environment over time. The classic instance of this is Marlow’s belated understanding of the arrows hitting the boat in Heart of Darkness
Critics have connected delayed decoding to impressionism and phenomenology, and Conrad himself described his literary task as “to make you hear, to make you feel … before all, to make you see”. And what he wants to make us see is: the lot. Not one side or another, not my point of view or yours, but the whole shooting match. As he put it in a letter to his friend Richard Curle: “my ‘art’ … is fluid, depending on grouping (sequence) which shifts, and on changing lights giving varied effects of perspective”.
Everything in his work, in particular the manipulation of time and perspective, is directed to the aim of varying understanding across the widest possible context. He wants to give us the “ideal” or universal value of things, and fluid alteration of perspective may be the only way to do this if you do not believe in God or universally applicable abstract ideas. Playing all sides is partly the explanation for the extreme pains of composition that Conrad suffered.
Yet the attempt to be not just “homo duplex”, but homo complex (or homo multiplex, even) is liberating rather than imprisoning. It is exactly why he remains such an important writer. Far from the “bloody racist” Chinua Achebe once accused him of being (in a lecture in 1975, with respect to Heart of Darkness), he is consistently inclusive. Conrad is the perennial immigrant. As his friend John Galsworthy put it: “Prisoners in the cells of our own nationality, we never see ourselves; it is reserved for one outside looking through the tell-tale peep-hole to get a proper view of us.”
In today’s era of globalisation and environmentalism, which demand holistic approaches, we can appreciate Conrad’s attempt to dramatise the human condition in its widest possible ideation. Only when the other is recognised, geographically and historically, is the true moral value of a given situation revealed. So far as such value is calculable, it always involves differentials between positions rather than measuring up to any external “sovereign power enthroned in a fixed standard of conduct” (Lord Jim
For opacity, then, read capacity. Conrad’s genius lies in his constant migration to the outside edge, to a place on the periphery from where value is generated inwardly, by a constantly recessive unveiling or unwrapping. In his greatest work, Heart of Darkness, the mode of storytelling itself is determined in this way. We never know what “it” is, we never know what “the horror” is. The unknown? The subconscious? The “unspeakable potentialities of the human soul” (Leavis)?
The deconstructionist critic J Hillis Miller has analysed Heart of Darkness in terms of two metaphors that help us to understand what is going on. To him the process of reading the novella is like the cracking of a nut that has no kernel, or a series of misty haloes, which he connects to the German word for parable, Gleichnis. These metaphors actually emerge from the text of the novella itself, as a frame narrator introduces Marlow’s “inconclusive experiences”:
The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical … and to him 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 haloes that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.
In other words, the meaning is defined by context rather than something internal. This very modern way of looking at things is one of the reasons for Conrad’s endurance. What he did was turn this approach into a functioning aesthetic.
By dramatising multiple points of view, and constantly shifting the coordinates, he was able to project a truly democratic, multi-cultural worldview, one appropriate for his own fractured identity. For any practising writer, it is a relief to learn that renown finally came to him. In 1923 he visited the United States to great acclaim, and the following year declined a knighthood. His influence on subsequent authors has been so pervasive that Graham Greene, for one, wrote of having to stop reading Conrad for fear of becoming completely enslaved to his style.
One couldn’t describe EM Forster as having been influenced by Conrad, exactly, but he probably had it right when he said of him that “the secret casket of his genius contains a vapour rather than a jewel”.
Ah, that mist again. The explanation of what the vapour enshrouds is best left to Conrad’s finest statement about the fundamental truth of fiction, published in the New York Times Saturday Review on August 2 1901:
Fiction, at the point of development at which it has arrived, demands from the writer a spirit of scrupulous abnegation. The only legitimate basis of creative work lies in the courageous recognition of all the irreconcilable antagonisms that make our life so enigmatic, so burdensome, so fascinating, so dangerous – so full of hope.
·Giles Foden Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007