I have always been a huge fan of Joseph Conrad; I even wrote my undergraduate honors thesis on Lord Jim. But it’s difficult for me to read him today because of the powerful sway (and negative effect) he has on my writing. Graham Greene felt the same way. “The heavy hypnotic style,” he called it.
Conrad has affected many writers that way. The Polish-born genius wrote his first novel at the age of 36, in English, after twenty years working as a merchant seaman in the Far East, Africa and South America. He not only became one of the great storytellers of his time, but also a remarkable stylist who expanded what fiction could do. In other words, he is the quintessential writer’s writer.
My college thesis concentrated on Conrad’s construction of character in Lord Jim, but in order to do that I had to read widely and intensively, both Conrad and the critics.
That wonderful excuse allowed me to trace the development of Conrad’s first-person narrative technique, in the guise of Charles Marlow, first in “Youth” and Heart of Darkness, then in Lord Jim, and later in Chance. I got to see how that technique added layers of perspective and irony to his tales, and how it was fundamental to the exploration of themes that preoccupied him. This literary innovation* became the model for some of the next century’s great novels, including Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.
Reading Conrad’s Nostromo that year, I got to experience one of the most harrowing existential episodes in modern literature, when the journalist Dacoud rows out to sea on the blackest of nights and sinks into the deepest of despairs.
I got to watch time stop and then explode in one of the most sophisticated political novels ever written, The Secret Agent.
I got to read Conrad’s remarkable prefaces, where he carefully distilled his aesthetic aims. His famous preface to The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ not only defined his mission as a writer, but became the creed for those who followed in his wake:
“My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything.”
If you have ever read The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’, then you have come as close as you can, while sitting in an armchair, to experiencing the wrath of the sea.
That year I also read the academics who championed and critiqued Conrad: F.R. Leavis, who included a chapter on Conrad and Henry James in his hallmark of literary criticism, The Great Tradition; Dorothy Van Ghent, and her Harvard colleague, Albert J. Guerard, who wrote a fine book-length study, Conrad the Novelist; also Freudian critics, Marxist critics and others of uncertain pedigree.
What I didn’t know was that one of the foremost living Conrad scholars, Ian Watt, was busy writing his own book, Conrad in the Nineteenth Century, which appeared a few years later, in 1979. Watt planned to write a second work on Conrad’s 20th Century output, but this never came to fruition. Instead, shortly after his death, Cambridge University Press published Essays on Conrad (2000). In this collection you can see Watt building the base for the larger work, always with meticulous research and a deep-seated knowledge of his subject.
In the first essay, Watt elaborates Conrad’s core themes of alienation and commitment. Suspicious of Progress and Civilization, and all too aware of the animal within man, Conrad set his best stories in hostile environments and scrutinized his characters’ actions under duress. The ones that do right, the ones that survive, are rarely the progressive or the dreamer or the sophisticated or the bookish.
In Typhoon, for example, which Watt considers a comic masterpiece, Captain McWhirr’s ponderous approach to duty brings his ship safely through the storm. And at the moment of crisis for the ‘Narcissus’, the old sailor Singleton, by staying at the helm, steadies a mutinous crew. In these unimaginative, unlearned men, whose first duty is to their ships’ passengers and crew, Watt sees two Conradian moral imperatives: tenacity and solidarity in the face of “coercive circumstance.” That phrase is actually the one Watt used to describe his own situation as a prisoner of war on the River Kwai (see my previous post), where Colonel Toosey’s tenacity and sense of solidarity ensured his men’s survival, but it applies equally to the unwanted situations Conrad depicts in his fiction.
Conrad has ridden several waves of criticism since his death in 1924. His reputation crested after the Second World War, when his modernism and influence on next-generation writers, his psychological insights and existential themes were highlighted and hailed.
The trough may have occurred during the surge of multiculturalism in the late seventies, when the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe branded Conrad “a bloody racist,” citing his stereotyping and lack of compassion for the Congolese victims in Heart of Darkness. Watt argues otherwise, although he does not entirely succeed in dismissing Achebe’s criticism.
Conrad was certainly not a racist in any active, conscious sense. But he was a staunch patriot of his adopted country, and he did hold some of the prevailing biases that bolstered the British Empire. (It’s telling that Conrad refused to write an affidavit in support of his old acquaintance from the Congo, the anti-imperialist Irish nationalist Roger Casement, when he was accused of treason.) But Conrad also understood that an individual’s tenacity and sense of solidarity must embrace all of humanity—all of us in the boat, so to speak—or those two positive attributes risk becoming their flip-side negatives: selfishness and exclusion. That’s the lesson Jim learns when, for his own survival, he jumps from the listing ‘Patna’, leaving the passengers, Mecca-bound pilgrims, to fend for themselves.
Several critics have argued that Conrad’s fiction declined in his later years. Watt is not one of them. He finds masterpieces in all phases of Conrad’s output, and moments of stylistic brilliance in even the weakest works. Virginia Woolf famously wrote of Conrad: “He could not write badly, one feels, to save his life.”
For me, Conrad’s success depended on his subject matter. I would argue he could not write about women to save his life. His female characters, with the possible exception of Winnie Verloc in The Secret Agent, are helpless, two-dimensional creatures of romantic stereotype. Whenever Conrad ventured away from the heart of darkness and into the heart of romance, as he did more frequently in his later years, the result—no matter how well written—was diminished.
Conrad wanted popular and financial success, and he believed that by following the course set by Henry James he might achieve it. But Conrad was a skeptical realist, not a dramatist of social mores and subtle gender wars; he was a former sea captain with little affinity for the feminine mind. Far more than some dubious racism (a word which, Watt points out, did not exist in his day), this was his greatest weakness as a writer.
But when he stuck to isolated men in exotic locales or men isolated by their political ideals, when he stuck to sailors and steamships, and most of all when he stuck to the sea—then, Conrad always makes you see. And it is everything.
* Conrad was not alone in the development of this first-person story-within-a-story technique. His good friend and neighbor Henry James used a similar narrative device in The Turn of the Screw, published the same year (1898) as Conrad’s story “Youth,” which introduced Marlow. But with Marlow we have a narrator-observer’s haunted reflections on the events told, not simply a narrator who serves as a go-between for another’s story, as in James’ ghost story. One produces a subjective sense of witness, the other a protective layer of ambiguity.