In the Golfo Placido

P.N. Furbank

  • The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad. Vol. II: 1898-1902 edited by Frederick Karl and Laurence Davies
    Cambridge, 483 pp, £27.50, August 1986, ISBN 0 521 25748 4

We perhaps do not look with enough curiosity at the dramas and rituals which attend the actual act of ‘writing’, the moments when an author is confronting blank sheets of paper waiting to be filled. A vast assortment of conflicts, including some notable heroisms, lie concealed in the unaccommodating phrase ‘writer’s block’. Reading the anguished letters of Joseph Conrad, who was frequently ‘blocked’ during the fruitful years which produced Youth, Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, you ask yourself why he did not shoot himself, or rather begin to wonder, nervously, whether he may not try to. The laments about a writer’s life, which are the dominating theme of his letters, are quite agonising. To Cunninghame Graham he writes, 16 February 1898: ‘Cher ami, I did not write because I was beastly seedy – nerve trouble – a taste of hell.’ To William Blackwood, 12 April 1900: ‘A dog’s life! this writing out, this endlessness of effort and this endless discontent; with remorse, thrown in, for the massacre of so many good intentions.’ To Edward Garnett, 29 March 1898: ‘I assure you – speaking soberly and on my word of honour – that sometimes it takes all my resolution and power of self control to refrain from butting my head against the wall. I want to howl and foam at the mouth but I daren’t do it for fear of waking that baby and alarming my wife.’

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