Conrad’s Complaint

Frank Kermode

  • The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad. Vol. I: 1861-1897 edited by Frederick Karl and Laurence Davies
    Cambridge, 446 pp, £19.50, September 1983, ISBN 0 521 24216 9

A great many Conrad letters have already been published, notably in Jean-Aubry’s Life and Letters, but also in smaller collections containing his correspondence with one or more persons – for example, Edward Garnett, William Blackwood and Cunninghame Graham. Early letters to Polish friends and relations have been translated, and a series of about a hundred to Marguerite Poradowska appeared in the original French. However, it seems that ‘more than a third of Conrad’s extant correspondence – close to 1500 letters – has not yet been made available.’ Since Professor Karl, who makes this statement, elsewhere speaks of 3500 known letters, the mathematics seems a bit hazy, though in his biography, published four years ago, he says there are nearly 4000. However, there are certainly lots of unpublished letters, including a hundred-odd to Galsworthy, the same quantity to Ford Madox Ford, ‘several dozen’ to Thomas Wise, an unspecified but obviously vast number to the agent Pinker, and so on.

Moreover, the core collection of Jean-Aubry is unreliable, because of ‘unprofessional editing and omissions’, the latter caused by an understandable desire not to give offence (as when Conrad describes his future bride as ‘plain’), but also by inexplicable meddling and wanton excision. Sometimes the originals have been lost since Jean-Aubry used them, and the new editors are then compelled to use his manifestly careless transcriptions. Wherever possible they go back to the holograph or to a photocopy. Since this is a professional edition they will include ‘every letter, telegram, postcard, note or brief written message’ of Conrad’s that has survived. There will be eight volumes, but even so, alas, the edition cannot be called complete. Some owners refuse permission, letters to Gide are ‘inaccessible’, correspondence with Malinowski, Shaw, Gissing and others is missing. And in these hard times it proved an impracticable luxury to include letters written to Conrad: since he usually threw them away, however, there can’t be many of them.

This first volume, which has a sprightly introduction by Laurence Davies, opens with a letter written to his father when Conrad was three, his hand guided by his mother, and ends four hundred pages later when the author was 40 and very pleased with the recently published Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’. The early years are represented largely by the long series of letters to Poradowska, a kinswoman and a novelist: in fact, they take up twice as much space as they ought, since each is followed by an English translation. Conrad’s French would not trouble a decent A-level candidate, but clearly someone has decided that for the sake of the general reader, to whom these highly professional editors make an awkward bow, or perhaps for the sake of supposedly monoglot Americans, translations ought to be provided. These letters are of biographical importance, and Karl of course used them in his biography. They have been available in the original French since 1966, and Jocelyn Baynes seems to have known them when he wrote his biography (1960).

The second most important correspondent in this volume is Edward Garnett, who himself published most of his letters from Conrad in 1928. At this stage Conrad had no agent, and many of these letters relate to his own negotiations with publishers, especially T. Fisher Unwin, known sardonically as the Enlightened Patron of Letters, on matters of copyright, royalties, serial rights. Historians of publishing may well find this material useful, but it is impossible not to agree with Mr Davies in lamenting the want of livelier mail from the more stirring years, when Conrad was wandering about the world, gun-running, or even attempting suicide. Becoming a writer instead of a sailor was undoubtedly an adventurous thing to do, but the hazards were less spectacular: poverty and writer’s block. Conrad’s third novel, as he hoped, was to be The Rescuer, which pops up all over this volume as a work in progress that is not progressing; it must be the most blocked novel in literary history, and did not appear (under the name of The Rescue) until more than twenty years later.

As the editors suggest, part of the interest of the early letters is that Conrad, consciously or not, is engaged in preliminary writing exercises. Here is the young Korzeniowski fitting his aristocratic scorn of the mob into English idioms; he is saying that the failure of the Tories to achieve a majority at the General Election of 1885 was a consequence of Joseph Chamberlain’s Third Reform Bill.

The newly enfranchised idiots have satisfied the yearnings of Mr Chamberlain’s herd [‘heart’, perhaps? Jean-Aubry again] by cooking the national goose according to his recipe. The new culinary operation will be a pretty kettle of fish of an international character. Joy reigns in St Petersburg, no doubt, and profound disgust in Berlin ... every disreputable ragamuffin in Europe feels that the day of universal brother-hood, despoliation and disorder is coming apace, and nurses day-dreams of well-plenished pockets among the ruin of all that is respectable, venerable and holy. The great British Empire went over the edge ...

Conrad was serious about such things, but cannot yet sound serious.

The letters to Poradowska contain another sort of rhetoric, and one that occasionally leaves traces on his later style: ‘La vie roule en flots amers, comme l’ocean sombre et brutal sous un ciel couvert des tristes nuages, et il y a des jours ou il semble au pauvres âmes embarquées le désésperant voyage que jamais un rayon de soleil n’a pu penétrer ce voile douloureux’ (Conrad’s accents and concords). There is quite a lot of this kind of thing; in a way, it was romantic to be ‘a Polish nobleman, cased in a British tar’. Pride of rank did not desert Conrad in the squalid Congo, where his boss was ‘une éspèce de boutiquier africaine’, and where he longed for salt water and the ‘tourbillon d’ecume blanche fouettée par le vent sous le ciel sombre de Decembre’.

Many of the letters are gloomy, though there is undoubtedly worse to come. They complain of the inexplicable cruelty of the Invisible, ask whether cruel Fate continues its pursuit of the victim beyond the tomb, argue the utter insignificance of the individual in the mechanism of the universe, proclaim the death of hope. Yet ‘man must drag the ball and chain of his individuality to the very end.’ The recipient of most such observations is Poradowska, before whom Conrad evidently felt he need not suppress his desire to strike poses. He is thought to have been a little in love with her, but the psychoanalysts appear to have decided that Conrad could never have really wanted anyone so talented, rich and noble as she was: he settled for the homely Jessie.

Poradowska drops out in 1895, but Edward Garnett was already in place and ready to become chief correspondent. This friendship was of quite incalculable importance to Conrad, who was well aware of his debt to Garnett, and never ceased to express his gratitude. He was not yet all writer, and in this year we find him speculating in South African gold and sailing small boats, ‘with the wind’s melancholy song in the rigging rising above the accompaniment of the immense and monotonous voice of huge billows ceaselessly breaking in an infinity of grey skies, green water and dazzling foam’. He was 38 and clearly needed to learn his new trade, and to pilot himself through the reefs of London publishing waters. Garnett was the very man to help, and to listen to complaints (‘one’s own personality is only a ridiculous and aimless masquerade of something hopelessly unknown’).

For no writer has ever written so tirelessly about the agonies of writing: ‘I feel like a man who can’t move, in a dream. To move is vital – it’s salvation – and I can’t!’ he writes, impressively, to Garnett. And a month later he tells Stephen Crane he’d rather be a stone-breaker. There’s no doubt about breaking stone. But there’s doubt, fear – a black horror, in every page one writes.’ The Rescuer crawls a page forward, its author so depressed that in a lunatic asylum he would be called mad. Yet occasionally he could turn an easier trick, as in the story called ‘The Lagoon’: ‘the usual forests-stars-wind sunrise, and so on, and lots of secondhand Conradese ...’ In 1896 he can announce that he is ‘getting more sophisticated every day’: an aspect of this development was, no doubt, the growing power to distinguish Conrad from Conradese.

Of all his work to date The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’, published at the end of 1897, pleased him best – he called it his ‘beloved Nigger’. It was much liked by judges he respected, and might even appeal to the common reader. Throughout his career Conrad was to rage against this necessary person, regretting but never forgetting that he needed to be pleased. When Henry James sent him a copy of The Spoils of Poynton he told Garnett he imagined ‘with pain the man in the street trying to read it’; ‘the delicacy and tenuity of the thing are amazing,’ but how could it hope to sell? Jessie pretended to admire it, but he was sure she did so ‘only for the purpose of giving me pleasure’. James, in his turn, described The Nigger as ‘the very finest and strongest picture of the sea and sea-life that our language possesses’, and was partly responsible, in 1902, for a Royal Literary Fund grant of £300 to Conrad, who did not make his fortune with The Nigger.

This volume, unlike most of Conrad’s works, ends fairly happily, for the early response to his book confirmed his own opinion of it. He liked to say The Nigger was vécu – it was also written. To look at it is to be struck by the contrast between the letters and an extraordinary achievement in prose; and by the obviousness of the fact that Conrad did his thinking in stories. For there is little or nothing in the letters to suggest that they were written by a great author – though of course if they weren’t nobody would be so conscientiously collecting them.