Homage to Marginality

Tony Tanner

  • Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives by Frederick Karl
    Faber, 1008 pp, £12.50, May 1980, ISBN 0 571 11386 9

This book – which aims at monumentality and certainly achieves size – deserves to be examined with care. There has been no biography of Conrad since 1960, when Jocelyn Baines published the result of many years of painstaking research. But a considerable amount of biographical material has emerged since then: the indispensable Conrad’s Polish Background, edited and introduced by Zdzislaw Najder (to which I think Professor Karl is indebted for much of his Polish material); the minute and meticulous tracings of Conrad’s every movement by Norman Sherry, who not only told us when Conrad was in, say, Bangkok, but on which side of which streets he walked along; the more contentious but informative work of Jerry Allen; the Jungian account of Conrad by Gustav Morf; the psychoanalytic biography by Bernard Meyer; the impeccable edition of Conrad’s letters to Cunninghame Graham by C.T. Watts; certain key articles by Ian Watt – and this is not to mention the many critical works which incorporated biographical material, such as Eloise Knapp Hay’s The Political Novels of Joseph Conrad, and Edward Said’s Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography, nor to list the various collections of Conrad’s letters which have been published since Jean-Aubry’s Life and Letters. Professor Karl is aware of all this work and he has made extensive use of it – not always acknowledging the source of his information. He also draws heavily on Conrad’s A Personal Record, The Mirror of the Sea, and other pieces, often quoting at length. The result, for the most part, is a somewhat elephantine summary of the work of many scholars. One could fairly say that all the main known material is here, in one form or another, in one book, for the first time. But what, really, is new?

Professor Karl’s main justification for his biography is that, as editor of the proposed collection of Conrad’s letters, he has had access to some 1,500 letters, many hundreds of which have been unavailable to previous Conrad biographers. By his own account, ‘while these letters do not provide any sensational divulgations, they do allow documentation and continuity in many areas of Conrad’s life that had been shadowy or vague.’ In certain minor ways, this is a valid claim, but obviously the main interest would be in the new letters themselves, and here there is a problem. While Professor Karl scrupulously notes where the original of each letter he quotes from is, he seldom notes whether or not it has been published before. This can be misleading. One example – from many. In a letter to Marguerite Poradowska of October 1891, Conrad compares himself to a broken Punch: ‘Could I be a Punch? The Punch of my childhood you know – his spine broken in two, his legs and arms rigidly spread in that attitude of profound despair, so pathetically droll, of toys tossed in a corner … This evening I seem to be within a corner, spine cracked, nose in the dust.’ All one gathers from the notes is that it is in the Yale collection – not that it was published in full (the dots are Karl’s) in Letters of Joseph Conrad to Marguerite Poradowska 1890-1920 (1940), translated from the French.

I think there is a slight element of mystification in this procedure. Some letters do seem to be hitherto unpublished: for example, one in which Conrad reveals his high regard for Trollope, and a remarkable one to Mlle Briquel which concludes: ‘I’ve missed a number of meetings, people I have trusted committed colossal blunders, my ideas have been badly misunderstood – and now there are only explanations, recriminations, disgust, and desolation. I am being made to take on impossible commitments and forced to swallow fantastic stories. My hands are full and my head is crammed with figures, facts, theories, heavy truths, and light but poisonous lies.’ The date is 1 October 1895 – his marriage pending, the Congo adventure five years behind him, Heart of Darkness four years ahead. Here, and in some other places, Professor Karl does seem to have some valuable new material.

The book is divided into nine Parts (each prefaced by sibylline quotations – from Sophocles, Coleridge, Mallarmé, Wordsworth, Kafka, Goethe, Valéry, Mann, Gide, Joyce), and starts with a lengthy re-creation of ‘The Polish Years’. Karl brings together a good deal of useful historical background here, emphasising what we, indeed, knew, and Conrad was hardly likely to forget: that Poland was ruthlessly chopped up, and effectively destroyed as a nation, during the 19th century (though whether one would opt for Professor Karl’s similes – ‘Poland, like Jesus, had been sacrificed on the cross, a political sacrifice in a power ploy, a rook that served no further function’ – depends, I suppose, on how one feels about crucifixions – and chess). Karl stresses what has become the standard reading of Conrad’s childhood: the tensions between the example of his father Apollo, a wild, visionary, impractical revolutionary, and the admonitions from his maternal uncle, Bobrowski, pragmatic, empirical, emphasising the values of work, fidelity, group commitment, patient toil, a situational ethics (do what you can with what you have) which fed deeply into Conrad’s later life – and fiction; while the example of his father, his exile, the resultant early death of his Madonna-like wife (Ewa), his long decline into ruin, mourning and mysticism, all too probably left Conrad with a lifelong suspicion of all ideology, idolatry, ideologues, visionaries, idealists – and politics – though, of course, many of his protagonists tend to be susceptible to these phenomena. But I think he wants to make too much of all this.

He wants to see Conrad’s life as a reworking, if not a reliving, of his Polish past. Thus, in many of his key characters, ‘Conrad, in some subconscious cyclical way, was replaying Apollo’s old themes’; ‘Ewa turns up repeatedly in his son’s fiction’; ‘despite his literary modernism, much of Conrad’s thinking remained fixed in his early Polish years’; ‘even as it seemed to end, Conrad’s Polish life had just begun’ – by which Professor Karl indicates his belief that what happens when Conrad leaves Poland is ‘Conrad’s reduplication of his father’s life, only on a different scale and with different means’. Either that final concession all but invalidates the point (we all more or less reduplicate our fathers’ lives, except that we usually take different jobs, marry different women, make more, or less, money – simply a matter of different scale and means), or Karl is trying to make out a pattern of filial reduplication in Conrad’s life. Certainly the influence of Apollo, alive and dead, was enormous. But reduplication is something else, and I don’t see it.

There are some other things I don’t see which Professor Karl does. This is again in connection with Conrad and ‘the family’. Karl alludes to a letter in which Conrad mentions The Secret Agent and makes an ambiguous statement about how the father figure sacrifices the boy for political ends. For Karl, ‘the parallels here are not only striking – from a psychological point of view, they are sensationally revealing.’ Sensationally revealing, I gather from Karl’s subsequent comments on The Secret Agent, because what Conrad was envisaging in that novel – retrospectively? vengefully? – was ‘a perverse shattering of the family situation’. This leads to such extraordinary statements as: ‘The bomb which disintegrated Stevie may have been a wish-fulfilment for the entire clan.’ Professor Karl’s reading of the novel strikes me as almost grotesque.

In the Foreword, Karl depicts Conrad as someone who ‘found in marginality itself a way of life’, and having lighted on that word ‘marginal’ he uses it almost as a key to the unlocking of Conrad’s life. He deploys the word some thirty times, on one page three times, as though it had an almost talismanic value for him. There are other repetitions too (quotations used twice, for example): this is a long and unwieldy book, and some ruthless cutting would have been appropriate, yet Karl at times seems to go out of his way to bring in quite extraneous matter to swell his text. Thus there is quite a bit of Erik Erikson in it, with a ‘premature generativity crisis’ and conditions of ‘aggravated vulnerability’ and so forth, which I found neither helpful nor offensive. But why embark on a comparison of Conrad’s life with Erikson’s life of Ghandi? And what help is it to point out that ‘Conrad’s relationship with his father had been the obverse of John Stuart Mill’s with James Mill’?

It must in fairness be stated that Professor Karl moves thoroughly and carefully through the various periods in Conrad’s life: the Marseilles interlude, culminating in the ‘suicide’ attempt (Karl notes some fifteen suicides, or proto-suicides, in Conrad’s work); the twenty years at sea (of which about one half were spent on land between voyages); the gradual transition from seaman to writer; the Congo episode; the endless problems and agonies, financial and psychological, of the writing career; its peaks and its decline; the tortuous involvement with Ford Madox Ford; the family troubles and endless illnesses; the belated arrival of real fame just at a time when a younger generation of writers was about to pass Conrad by; the painful final years when it does seem as though Conrad’s imagination had all but deserted him while he was trying to work up his Napoleonic material into Suspense; Conrad’s ill-timed visit to Poland in 1914; his reactions to the First World War and his son Borys’s involvement in it; the late visit to America; the signs of premature senility and the sudden, perhaps welcome death. It is all here, and amplified in a way which was beyond the sources and documents of Jocelyn Baines. But – a problem in many literary biographies – there seems to persist an instinct, or compulsion, to find the specific source of the work in the life (despite avowed good intentions and honourable disclaimers). Karl says, for instance, that it is a ‘problem, on which we can only speculate … how closely Nathalie (or Natalia) Haldin is modeled on his dim memories of his mother, Ewa.’ It is a problem only if you regard such identifications as necessary, which, for an appreciation of Under Western Eyes, they are not. The danger is of leaving out the whole mysterious transforming power of the imagination – about which no biographies can be written.