Where did he get it?

P.N. Furbank

Yeats’s notion of the anti-self or Mask, his theory that creativity is a matter of constructing a dream-identity antithetical to the natural self and the natural world, seems to me very profound and helpful – in fact, just true. ‘A writer must die every day he lives, be reborn, as it is said in the Burial Service, an incorruptible self, that self opposite of all that he has named “himself”.’ The theory certainly most beautifully fits Conrad, that least stoical, most volatile and hypochondriacal of men, who nevertheless created imperishable images of phlegmatic endurance and unquestioning fidelity. ‘One admires what one lacks,’ he wrote with self-knowledge to his Polish ‘aunt’ Poradowska. ‘That is why I admire perseverance and fidelity and constancy.’

It is even more easy than usual, in the case of Conrad, to catch the Mask-making at work. The Mask or anti-self is, from one point of view, the English language. His own account to Hugh Walpole is striking, though we do not have altogether to believe it: ‘Well, yes, there was adoption; but it was I who was adopted by the genius of the language, which directly as I came out of the stammering stage made me its own so completely that its very idioms I truly believe had a direct action on my temperament and fashioned my still plastic character.’ That his character, as opposed to his persona, was still plastic, and indeed went on being so, we can well believe. To the question Quel nom fait battre votre coeur?, in one of those questionnaires of which the age was so fond, did he not answer: ‘Ready to beat for any name’? Still, no doubt, what is left out here is the dogged determination that English should provide him with a character. What he says about ‘idioms’, though, is much to the point. He never totally mastered English grammar, let alone English pronunciation. What he mastered – that is to say, established the right to make free with – was English idioms. One thinks, for instance, of the high value he attached to the idiomatic word ‘fellow’. There is a passage in Jessie Conrad’s Joseph Conrad as I knew him which, with its progression from tragic entreaty to Anglo-Saxon understatement, nicely epitomises Conrad’s halfway naturalisation. The Conrads were crossing the North Sea, in 1914, en route for Poland. Jessie lay in her bunk feeling dreadful, and every half-hour, when she opened her eyes, she would see Conrad bending over her.

What had come to me? Why had I given in like this? Such behaviour was enough to rob him of all confidence; it made him anxious. It was not the thing to spring on a fellow.

If you take Yeats’s doctrine seriously, though, very important consequences follow for the whole art of literary biography. If the life of writers turns on such a fundamental antithesis, what are we to make of the view, often put forward by literary biographers, that the life and the work illuminate each other? It could be true, but if so, only in a very uncomfortable sense: viz. that what we shall be looking for in a literary biography is, always, contradictions.

Broadly speaking, I think this is the right view; and it goes directly counter to a pronouncement such as that of Frederick Karl, in his Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives (1979), who says that Conrad’s work should be seen as ‘part of a curving seamless extension of self and creation’. The truth, on the contrary, is that the seams are all-important; or rather that one is concerned, not just with seams, but with relationships such as inside-out, back to front, polarities and metamorphoses of all kinds. The ‘curving seamless extension’ theory seems to me thoroughly demoralising. It is calculated to erode and soften the outlines of works of literature and, by corollary, to tempt the biographer to cut a dash, be intrusive, invent grandiose psychological fables – in a word, to enter into an irritable rivalry with his subject, especially if that subject be a novelist. Karl’s biography, though much good can be said of it, strikes me as far gone in this direction.

On the other hand, what are the alternatives? It seems that none of them are altogether satisfactory either. The life-without-the-works approach – the approach which assumes a knowledge of the works, and documents only those aspects of the writer’s life that are not evident from the works – tends to leave the writer looking rather depleted. It also invites misunderstanding. The biographer, thinking to illustrate the writer’s moral heroism and devoted labour upon his or her Mask, will liberally quote his or her self-criticisms – likely in a creative artist to be excessively severe – and the naive reader takes these criticisms for the simple truth. The author, plainly, was a very poor creature!

Equally, the ‘critical biography’ – such a biography, for instance, as Jocelyn Baines’s Joseph Conrad (1960), in which the biographer, having related at length the circumstances in which each major work was written, proceeds to provide a literary-critical essay on it – is generally agreed to be a bastard form, a matter of two quite different books finding themselves within the same pair of covers. Why this must be so is fairly easily seen. For one thing, there is the problem of authority. The writer of a lengthy and documented biography expects to be relied upon as an authority. It may be a work of beauty that he is creating, but that is not all that is required of it: there is also an implied contract with the reader that he shall inform truly, as there is with an architect that his building shall not fall down. Thus an awkward hitch or dislocation takes place when this figure, to whom we have granted authority, embarks on literary-critical discussion, to which a quite different contract or convention applies – that unauthoritarian one known as ‘the common pursuit of true judgment’.

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