Joseph Conrad’s Flight from Poland

Frank Kermode

  • Conrad in the 19th Century by Ian Watt
    Chatto, 375 pp, £10.50, April 1980, ISBN 0 7011 2431 8

Ian Watt began work on this book in 1955, and the intervening years have seen a boom in Conrad studies: but the thought that there might be nothing left for him to say quite rightly didn’t enter his head. What’s more, he has only just got under way: for all that it contains close on 200,000 words, this book is merely an antechapel to the main building. It considers the career of Conrad from Almayer’s Folly to Lord Jim, and it does so at its own majestic pace. The section on Heart of Darkness is much longer than the novella itself, and those on The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ and Lord Jim are on a scale only a little less generous. No space could be found for extended treatment of the other early works, except Almayer’s Folly. One can’t help wondering how Watt expects to get the rest of Conrad – which includes what most people regard as his greatest work – into one volume, given that he proposes to proceed with the same deliberateness, to have his fully matured say on everything he regards as relevant, and to dismiss with due consideration all that isn’t.

We can be confident, however, that the next instalment will be, like this one, patient, alert and, within certain temperamental limits, wise. What we have so far is a portrait of Conrad as artist (with enough biographical material, freshly and succinctly presented) by a writer who is himself clearly delineated in his work – measured, critical, unidolatrously in love with his subject. It’s a very sane book, and Conrad might well have picked Watt as something close to an ideal reader.

For example, Watt has at the outset to pronounce on the accusation, often made in Poland but not only there, that Conrad’s departure to the West was a betrayal, and that the guilt attached to it haunted the novelist and his work. The very name ‘Konrad’ has, for Poles, connotations of hostility to Russians, and if Conrad had stayed in Poland he would have been liable to 25 years’ service in the ranks of the Russian Army. So he had a good reason for getting out, though of course he might still feel badly about doing so. Watt decides that the proper word is not ‘guilt’ but ‘pain’, remembering Conrad’s unabated love for his country, and reminding us, in a Conradian sentence, of that ‘intimate alliance of contradictions in human nature which make love itself wear at times the desperate shape of betrayal’. The same tolerance of complexity characterises Watt’s account of Conrad’s attempted suicide as a young man, later converted into a duel. ‘Surely not many people, especially when young, have got into a spectacular mess and then told the whole truth about it to anyone: it is much easier to confess folly in the abstract than to spell it out in all its foolish details.’ This sort of refined quasi-Johnsonian moralising is extremely rare in modern criticism, and it takes nerve, which Watt has plenty of. ‘Looking back on our lives,’ he muses, ‘it seems inconceivable that they should have been determined by accident or momentary convenience; and yet such is often, perhaps usually, the case.’

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