Bringing it home to Uncle Willie

Frank Kermode

  • Joseph Conrad: A Biography by Roger Tennant
    Sheldon Press, 276 pp, £12.50, January 1982, ISBN 0 85969 358 9
  • Edward Garnett: A Life in Literature by George Jefferson
    Cape, 350 pp, £12.50, April 1982, ISBN 0 224 01488 9
  • The Edwardian Novelists by John Batchelor
    Duckworth, 251 pp, £18.00, February 1982, ISBN 0 7156 1109 7
  • The Uses of Obscurity: The Fiction of Early Modernism by Allon White
    Routledge, 190 pp, £12.00, August 1981, ISBN 0 7100 0751 5

A biography of Conrad that makes no claim to add to the voluminous information already on record, but runs amiably and quite deftly over the course, may have its uses. Not everybody has the time or the desire to tackle the thousand pages of Karl’s Joseph Conrad, or the shelf of books – Jocelyn Baines, Norman Sherry, Zdzislaw Najder, Eloise Knapp Hay – that would provide a richer and more chaotic account of this mostly painful career; and not everybody will be put off by Mr Tennant’s not saying anything very interesting about the fictions, of which he thinks Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness are the best. A lot of quite decent lives of famous people are not strictly necessary, though they are often the ones that get read. A good life of Edward Garnett, on the other hand, might, since his is a known but hardly a famous name, fail to attract much attention. But everybody who has an interest in 20th-century English fiction should read Mr Jefferson’s book. It is sometimes a bit dull and occasionally ill-written, but it is probably the most important of the batch here under review.

Garnett belonged to that now extinct class of person called ‘bookmen’; his wife Constance was a bookwoman, and her translations from the Russian probably had as much influence on English fiction as her husband’s judgments, in his capacity as publisher’s reader and reviewer, of new indigenous writing. It would be hard to name an Edwardian literary foyer more central or more powerful than their house in Kent. We probably think first of Garnett as the friend of Conrad, or as the man who cut Sons and Lovers (for structural and commercial reasons, it seems, not to eliminate sexy passages – and Lawrence wholly approved). And it is true that he had an instinct for, and endless patience with, those who tend to be regarded as the better sort of novelist. He was the advocate of W.H. Hudson in the early years of the century, and, a generation later, counsellor to the 24-year-old Henry Green, who rewrote Blindness in accordance with Garnett’s advice, and many years later attributed to his adviser ‘almost any original idea’ he had gained about how to write novels.

Yet it would be misleading to think of Garnett as the natural champion of the avant-garde. He was, though always as an employee, very much a part of the commercial world of literature. Books had to be sold, and that consideration was never far from his mind as he wrote his rather stilted reports. As a novel-surgeon he was always ready to use the knife, and authors, especially beginners, were usually compliant. He certainly had a wonderful nose for talent, but he also valued the successful potboiler, and he seems to have thought of himself as having a duty to make the gifted, who were likely to depart most from conventional manners of writing, turn their thoughts to producing what might give them their share of what was still, before the first war, a bull market in fiction. Just as he pruned Lawrence, and later exasperated him by failing to see what new things were going on in The Rainbow, so he urged Conrad not to put too much distance between himself and the public, and to write more straightforwardly. It was this commercial instinct – the assumption that the novel still belonged where it had begun, to a bourgeois public as well as to a minority of extremely refined students of the form – that lost him Lawrence. He did wonders for Galsworthy, though he knew him to be an inferior artist. Of course he wasn’t infallible. He preferred The Country House to The Man of Property, which is very hard to explain; he turned down Wells’s The Time Machine, which is less difficult, for he liked ‘Hogarthian truthfulness’ better than fantasy; and he wrote a respectful but dismissive report on Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, saying it needed a lot of work. It was ‘too discursive, formless, unrestrained’, despite its, so to speak, Hogarthian truthfulness; and this is easiest of all to understand, for he sensed in Joyce something uncomfortably gifted, alien, not suited to a public which bought the satisfactions of fiction, as it had bought its liberty, for cash. I adapt the words of another alien, Conrad; they occur in Under Western Eyes, another novel that proved too much for Garnett.

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[*] The myth and the realities of Empire, as they are reflected in the fiction of Kipling and Conrad, are the subject of a well-written essay by John McClure (Kipling and Conrad: The Colonial Fiction, Harvard University Press, 182 pp., £11.55, November 1981, 0 674 50529 8). Mr McClure is sensitive to the local, temporary and personal aspects of the authors’ interest in colonialism, but also expressly committed to a more modern anti-colonialist politics.