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

It is worth itemising the outward causes of distress. There is poverty and the galling need to be bargaining and manoeuvring day by day over little advances from publishers and editors and over broken deadlines, or to be borrowing five-pound notes off friends. There is ill-health: at one point Conrad goes down with gout, bronchitis and malaria almost simultaneously, and his wife Jessie is for much of the time a semi-invalid. There is guilt and a sense of personal unworthiness at exposing his family to hardship and risk, combined with frustration and rage at British philistinism. Then, subsuming all the rest, there is the horror of the days or weeks of stagnation and paralysis as a writer.

The letters offer various enjoyments: Conrad in the depths, Conrad on his dignity, Conrad acting the literary mentor, or Conrad philosophising on ‘the ghastly, jocular futility of life’ is always vivid, wonderfully all of a piece, and good for some glorious wild phrase. Nevertheless these letters (most scrupulously and informatively edited) make oppressive reading, and I think that, if one is not careful, one might let them lead one to some false conclusions. For one thing, for Conrad, the pain of discouragement may very well have been balanced, or over-balanced, by the pleasure and excitement when his writing went right. With writing like his, which depends so much on brilliant ‘effects’, successes would be particularly palpable. But further, as Ford Madox Ford conveys in innumerable anecdotes of him, Conrad had enormous zest and simply was not a mere limping and suffering victim. Though contented with a most modest way of life himself, what he really hankered after, at least according to Ford’s account, was to provide his family, not with security and comfort, but with aristocratic luxury. ‘He sat almost in rags and groaned with the fear that his pen would not be able to provide for his children and grandchildren great mansions to withstand the snow, elaborately ornamented sleighs, blood horses, innumerable retainers and halls opening out, the one into the other, beyond the eyesight.’ Ford has very pertinent things to say about Conrad’s letter-writing style. Conrad, he says, ‘just let himself go without precision of phrase as without arrière-pensée, pouring out supplications, abuse of third parties, eternal and unvarying complaints, so that in the end the impression is left of a weak, rather whining personality. But no impression could be more false.’ It was, says Ford, astonishing what small events could restore Conrad’s ‘underlying buoyancy’. The two writers had once been struggling over their joint novel Romance for many hours, and Conrad, ill and up to his ears in debt, had been in complete despair, launching the bitterest jibes at every suggestion made by Ford. Then Jessie Conrad came in and announced that their elderly mare, in whose capacities Conrad had peculiar faith, had trotted from Postling Vents to Sandling in five minutes (12 miles an hour!):

At once, there in the room was Conrad-Jack-ashore! The world was splendid; hope nodded from every rosebud that looked over the windowsill of the low room. We were going to get a car and go to Canterbury; the mare should have a brand new breeching strap. And in an incredibly short space of time – say, three hours – at least half a page of Romance got itself written.

Conrad, it seems plain, was an intensely volatile man, with a pronounced tendency towards hysteria, who had, however, put much of his genius into creating for himself an anti-self as a man of stoical discipline and uncomplaining endurance. It was an anti-self modelled, as he himself was well aware, on certain phlegmatic and taciturn British sea-captains and officials he had encountered in his sailing years, but also on the English language itself. ‘Well, yes, there was adoption,’ he wrote in A Personal Record: ‘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.’ It was thus that, whereas French was his language as an intellectual, English (for all of Ford’s would-be-Gallic complaints of its unsuitability for literature) was his chosen language as an artist. It need not surprise us, therefore, that the qualities which he embraced imaginatively, he did not exactly exhibit in his own everyday life. Intellectually and imaginatively he had, as he wrote in A Personal Record, ‘an instinctive horror of losing my sense of full self-possession’, and it was precisely for such letting-oneself-go that he disliked Dostoevsky and the Dostoevskian part of the Russian tradition. Nevertheless, as much evidence suggests (Jessie Conrad’s as much as Ford’s), he had a lavish capacity for letting himself go, at least over small matters; his biographer Najder speaks of ‘Conrad’s ability to mobilise all his psychological and physical resources in moments of real danger, combined with an almost hysterical excitability and touchiness in matters of everyday trifles.’ Heroism of a very fine kind he undoubtedly exhibited: but silent heroism, or uncomplaining Scottish-sea-captain stoicism, were not at all his forte.

It helps to understand Conrad if we realise that his heroism showed itself to its greatest advantage at the writing-desk. Let us examine the symptoms of his anxiety a little more closely. ‘I ask myself sometimes whether I am be witched, whether I am the victim of an evil eye? But there is no “jettatura” in England – is there?’ – so writes Conrad in his letter to Edward Garnett of 29 March 1898:

I seem to have lost all sense of style and yet I am haunted, mercilessly haunted by the necessity of style. And that story I can’t write weaves itself into all I see, into all I speak, into all I think, into the lines of every book I try to read. I haven’t read for days. You know how bad it is when one feels one’s liver, or lungs. Well I feel my brain. I am distinctly conscious of the contents of my head. My story is there in a fluid – an evading shape.

There is no question here of dryness or sterility. Conrad’s material is there in abundance and clamouring for release: but the birth is impeded by some bewitchment or inner betrayal, thereby plunging him into the acutest feelings of unrelatedness and unreality. ‘I am like a man who has lost his gods,’ he writes to Edward Garnett (16 September 1899). ‘My efforts seem unrelated to anything in heaven and everything under heaven is impalpable to the touch like shapes of mist ... Every image floats vaguely in a sea of doubt – and the doubt itself is lost in an unexpected universe of incertitudes.’

As we read these descriptions of stagnation, bewilderment and impotence, they begin to have a familiar resonance for us. We are, it dawns on us, in the Golfo Placido, the stagnant gulf which forms the central stage and testing-ground for heroism in Nostromo. ‘On crossing the imaginary line drawn from Punta Mala to Azuera the ships from Europe bound to Sulaco lose at once the strong breezes of the ocean. They become the prey of capricious airs that play with them for thirty hours at a stretch sometimes.’ We are also in the dead waters, barring the entrance to the Gulf of Siam, where the young narrator in The Shadow-Line, enjoying his first command, is so agonisingly becalmed, till he is left with a ship’s crew of so many fevered skeletons.

We have here, plainly, an experience or vision of the utmost importance to Conrad’s imagination. In both fictional versions there is involved the crossing of a line – the ‘shadowline’ in the story of that name being both a cartographical line and the line between youth and manhood. (By a typically Conradian invention, part of the testing of the hero lies in resisting the temptation to superstition about the line, which the half-crazed chief mate insists can never be crossed, being guarded by the malevolent shade of the ship’s previous captain.) The stagnant waters are frightening, partly, for their irrationality.

Not that the evil spell held us always motionless. Mysterious currents drifted us here and there, with a stealthy power made manifest by the changing vistas of the islands fringing the east shore of the Gulf. And there were winds too, fitful and deceitful. They raised hopes only to dash them into the bitterest disappointments, promises of advance ending in lost ground, expiring in sighs, dying into dumb stillness in which the currents had it all their own way – their own inimical way.

They are associated with other terrors, too – among them solitude. It is the solitude aboard his dinghy in the Golfo Placido that the Parisian boulevard philosopher Decoud cannot cope with and which drives him to shoot and drown himself. Also darkness, with its attendant sense of total disorientation: as in the great scene in Nostromo when Nostromo and Decoud, in their lighter filled with stolen silver, play hide-and-seek with the troop-ship in the pitch dark; or as in the extraordinary scene of total occultation in The Shadow-Line. (‘I moved forward too, outside the circle of the light, into the darkness that stood in front of me like a wall. In one stride I had penetrated it. Such must have been the darkness before creation.’) If a silly pun may be allowed, the description which follows could easily be read, indeed perhaps is half-meant to be read, as an account of the darkness before literary creation, and what is said there about the ‘sane box’ applies to the saving sanity of his art:

For myself, neither my soul was highly tempered, nor my imagination properly tinder control. There were moments when I felt, not only that I would go mad, but that I had gone mad already; so that I dared not open my lips for fear of betraying myself by some insane shriek. Luckily I had only orders to give, and an order has a steadying influence upon him who has to give it. Moreover, the seaman, the officer of the watch, in me was sufficiently sane. I was like a mad carpenter making a box. Were he ever so convinced that he was King of Jerusalem, the box he would make would be a sane box.

I need not go on, for readers of Nostromo and The Shadow-Line will know the extraordinary profusion of significances that Conrad extracts from this symbolism of dead water and a shadowy line-of-no-return. The point I want to make, rather, is that Conrad’s ‘writer’s block’ could almost as well be called his inspiration and the deepest source of his power. Thus I’m not sure that we need go along with Laurence Davies’s reference in his Introduction to these Letters to ‘the curse of a manic-depressive temperament’. For one gets the impression that Conrad needed his writer’s block: it was a necessary ritual of his psyche as a writer to re-experience over and over again this whole drama of stagnation and disorientation overcome by lonely heroism. One notices that he likes to put down artistic failure, or half-success, to lack of an ultimate ‘strength’ (he could never spell the word, which would come out as ‘strenght’). Thus he writes to W.H. Chesson (16 January 1898) of ‘those dark and inarticulate recesses of mind where so many thoughts die at the moment of birth, for want of personal strenght – or of moral rectitude – or of inspired expression’. At the risk of callousness, we can say that his writer’s block was in fact a strength to him, or related to his best strengths. Moreover one can even feel that it was a strength he was conscious of – to the degree that such things can ever, or should, come to consciousness. The fact that he could explore it so freely, in symbolic form, must surely suggest this. One detects a hint that this is so from the almost affectionate way in which he refers, in a letter to W.E. Henley (18 October 1898), to his ‘own private little hell’ as the place which (Orpheus-like) he would have to visit, if he were to produce genuine writing. ‘The affair’ – he is referring to his collaboration on Romance – ‘had a material rather than an artistic aspect for me. It would give – I reflected – more time for Hueffer for tinkering at his verses ... As for myself I meant to keep the right to descend into my own private little hell – whenever the spirit moved me to do that foolish thing – and produce alone from time to time – verbiage no doubt – my own – therefore very dear.’ On another occasion he remarks wryly, writing to his friend David Meldrum (7 January 1902), on how excellent his health is when he is producing inferior work.

The last has been a disastrous year for me. I have wasted – not idled – it away, tinkering here, tinkering there – a little on Rescue, more on that fatal Seraphina with only three stories (5000w) finished and two others begun lying in a drawer with no profit or pleasure to anybody.

On the other hand my health has been remarkably even and very tolerable – while when writing Lord Jim in ten months or less I had been feeling always on the brink of the grave.

One can never insist enough on the indirectness of the link between fiction and life – a truth well illustrated here, when we see how fruitful a theme for fiction Conrad could find in ‘writer’s block’ or the inability to write.

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