Where did he get it?

P.N. Furbank

Yeats’s notion of the anti-self or Mask, his theory that creativity is a matter of constructing a dream-identity antithetical to the natural self and the natural world, seems to me very profound and helpful – in fact, just true. ‘A writer must die every day he lives, be reborn, as it is said in the Burial Service, an incorruptible self, that self opposite of all that he has named “himself”.’ The theory certainly most beautifully fits Conrad, that least stoical, most volatile and hypochondriacal of men, who nevertheless created imperishable images of phlegmatic endurance and unquestioning fidelity. ‘One admires what one lacks,’ he wrote with self-knowledge to his Polish ‘aunt’ Poradowska. ‘That is why I admire perseverance and fidelity and constancy.’

It is even more easy than usual, in the case of Conrad, to catch the Mask-making at work. The Mask or anti-self is, from one point of view, the English language. His own account to Hugh Walpole is striking, though we do not have altogether to believe it: ‘Well, yes, there was adoption; 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.’ That his character, as opposed to his persona, was still plastic, and indeed went on being so, we can well believe. To the question Quel nom fait battre votre coeur?, in one of those questionnaires of which the age was so fond, did he not answer: ‘Ready to beat for any name’? Still, no doubt, what is left out here is the dogged determination that English should provide him with a character. What he says about ‘idioms’, though, is much to the point. He never totally mastered English grammar, let alone English pronunciation. What he mastered – that is to say, established the right to make free with – was English idioms. One thinks, for instance, of the high value he attached to the idiomatic word ‘fellow’. There is a passage in Jessie Conrad’s Joseph Conrad as I knew him which, with its progression from tragic entreaty to Anglo-Saxon understatement, nicely epitomises Conrad’s halfway naturalisation. The Conrads were crossing the North Sea, in 1914, en route for Poland. Jessie lay in her bunk feeling dreadful, and every half-hour, when she opened her eyes, she would see Conrad bending over her.

What had come to me? Why had I given in like this? Such behaviour was enough to rob him of all confidence; it made him anxious. It was not the thing to spring on a fellow.

If you take Yeats’s doctrine seriously, though, very important consequences follow for the whole art of literary biography. If the life of writers turns on such a fundamental antithesis, what are we to make of the view, often put forward by literary biographers, that the life and the work illuminate each other? It could be true, but if so, only in a very uncomfortable sense: viz. that what we shall be looking for in a literary biography is, always, contradictions.

Broadly speaking, I think this is the right view; and it goes directly counter to a pronouncement such as that of Frederick Karl, in his Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives (1979), who says that Conrad’s work should be seen as ‘part of a curving seamless extension of self and creation’. The truth, on the contrary, is that the seams are all-important; or rather that one is concerned, not just with seams, but with relationships such as inside-out, back to front, polarities and metamorphoses of all kinds. The ‘curving seamless extension’ theory seems to me thoroughly demoralising. It is calculated to erode and soften the outlines of works of literature and, by corollary, to tempt the biographer to cut a dash, be intrusive, invent grandiose psychological fables – in a word, to enter into an irritable rivalry with his subject, especially if that subject be a novelist. Karl’s biography, though much good can be said of it, strikes me as far gone in this direction.

On the other hand, what are the alternatives? It seems that none of them are altogether satisfactory either. The life-without-the-works approach – the approach which assumes a knowledge of the works, and documents only those aspects of the writer’s life that are not evident from the works – tends to leave the writer looking rather depleted. It also invites misunderstanding. The biographer, thinking to illustrate the writer’s moral heroism and devoted labour upon his or her Mask, will liberally quote his or her self-criticisms – likely in a creative artist to be excessively severe – and the naive reader takes these criticisms for the simple truth. The author, plainly, was a very poor creature!

Equally, the ‘critical biography’ – such a biography, for instance, as Jocelyn Baines’s Joseph Conrad (1960), in which the biographer, having related at length the circumstances in which each major work was written, proceeds to provide a literary-critical essay on it – is generally agreed to be a bastard form, a matter of two quite different books finding themselves within the same pair of covers. Why this must be so is fairly easily seen. For one thing, there is the problem of authority. The writer of a lengthy and documented biography expects to be relied upon as an authority. It may be a work of beauty that he is creating, but that is not all that is required of it: there is also an implied contract with the reader that he shall inform truly, as there is with an architect that his building shall not fall down. Thus an awkward hitch or dislocation takes place when this figure, to whom we have granted authority, embarks on literary-critical discussion, to which a quite different contract or convention applies – that unauthoritarian one known as ‘the common pursuit of true judgment’.

What shall we say of Ian Watt’s remarkable Conrad in the 19th Century (1980)? Does it represent a whole further and new genre of literary biography, free from the objections so far mentioned? I shall want to come back to this and here shall merely quote his crucial declaration: that his book is not a ‘critical biography’ but a work of ‘biographical criticism’. It is a distinction we need to ponder.

Conrad is certainly not short of biographers, what with Baines’s book, Watt’s first volume, Norman Sherry’s Conrad’s Eastern World (1966) and Conrad’s Western World (1971), Jerry Allen’s The Sea Years of Joseph Conrad (1965), Karl’s vast and wrist-breaking thousand-page Life, and now Zdzislaw Najder’s Joseph Conrad: A Chronicle which weighs only an ounce or two less. Actually it has been rather an impressive co-operative effort – for the most part, at any rate. Najder, who began work 27 years ago and has already published much of his book in Polish, and some of it in English, over the intervening years, complains: ‘Though I co-operated with Professor Karl for several years on the edition of Conrad’s letters, I was completely unaware that he was engaged on a large-scale biography.’

Najder’s is certainly a fine and notable achievement, well worth half a lifetime’s effort. (He is also very lucky in his excellent translator, Halina Carroll-Najder.) Many of the important documents relating to Conrad’s Polish background were first unearthed and published by him, and in this respect Watt, Karl and Baines are all in his debt. (There is a further instalment of such documents, scrupulously and exhaustively edited, in Conrad under Familial Eyes, published as a companion to his biography.) It was Najder, again, who first published that (biographically speaking) crucially important letter from Conrad’s uncle Tadeusz Bobrowski which relates how, after a succession of disasters – disqualifying himself from service on French vessels, losing every penny in a shady contraband venture, borrowing 8000 francs and promptly losing it at the gaming-table – the 21-year-old Conrad made a suicide attempt.

In the Preface to his biography Najder gives a painstaking, rather attractively deprecatory, statement of his working principles. In general, he says, he is against the notion that knowledge of a writer’s life supplies ‘keys’ to, or an inside view of, his work. It just so happens that Conrad is an exception, and his work is ‘one that, to be adequately understood and appreciated, requires an inordinately large amount of background information’. For such a writer as Conrad, whose work ‘can be seen as located in the borderland of auto-translation’, the biographer steps in as an ‘exegete’ or ‘lexicographer’, to ‘explain certain cultural and intellectual categories to the English-speaking reader who, while understanding the language, is not always able to decipher the implicit meanings’, and likewise to the Poles, ‘who are apt to see in Conrad a Polish Romantic writer and forget about his later life, his original artistic aims, and his complex attitude towards his Polish background’. Oddly, a few paragraphs later, Najder seems rather to go back on this, when he says that his ‘chronicle of the writer’s life and thought’ only marginally touches his fiction, with which ‘sufficiently patient readers’ can cope themselves. Oddly again, he says that, when writing his biography, he, of course, ‘remembered the contents of Conrad’s works’, and many years spent in editing them and lecturing about them ‘must have influenced my thinking, even if unconsciously’. Why only unconsciously, I wonder. I approve the principle that one should not look to the life to illuminate the work, but it never occurred to me to doubt that the work would illuminate the life. Rather charmingly, Najder disclaims any natural bent towards biography, or any talent for ‘rendering the atmosphere of the time’. His project, he explains, arose, quite simply, from ‘a concrete scholarly demand’ – in other words, from having something to tell.

The truth about Conrad’s Polish boyhood and youth is, as Najder convincingly shows, exceedingly elusive – not from lack of evidence but because of the kind of evidence, shot through as it is with conflicting human motives. His father Apollo Korzeniowski, who died when Conrad was 11, was a mystical patriot, an ardent and gloomy Romantic, who sacrificed his own and his wife Ewa Bobrowska’s lives to the Polish cause. His uncle Tadeusz, critical and resentful of his brother-in-law Apollo, was a worldly-wise and mildly philanthropic landowner, politically an appeaser, a man of the 18th-century ‘Enlightenment’: a patriot, but one whose patriotism ‘consisted mainly of adherence to tradition and to the Polish language’. Conrad as a boy was adored by both his father and his uncle. Indeed his relations seem to have vied in extolling his virtues and character. ‘He is tender and good beyond words,’ his father wrote of him when he was 11. Thus, by the time he was old enough to look objectively on his boyhood memories and to sort out the truth from prejudice and suppression in his uncle Tadeusz’s Memoirs, he had acquired complicated motives of his own (connected with all the stresses of exile) for rewriting the past. So at least argues Najder, and he is persuasive in showing these motives still furiously at work during Conrad’s return visit to Poland in 1914. It was, he argues, imperative to Conrad to report his fellow Poles as despairing and cynical about the war, though in point of fact they seem to have been mildly optimistic.

Najder has several definite ‘lines’ to promote. He is not the first to explain Conrad in terms of szlachcic pride, but he insists more upon it and is at pains to argue how his English friends unwittingly wounded this pride by treating him as an impractical bohemian. He holds, again, that Conrad was a depressive in a cyclical and strictly clinical sense – which seems a supportable view. He is damning about Jessie Conrad (who was rather a sterling character, I can’t help feeling), finding her a fool and a mythomaniac and wondering what ‘a sensitive and cultured Pole of aristocratic manners and gentle birth saw in a typist of humble origin ... not well educated or particularly intelligent, or – by Conrad’s own account – especially attractive’. There are whiffs of Galsworthy and Ford Madox Ford in this sentence of Najder’s, especially the phrase about ‘humble origin’, and I suspect some misunderstanding. Conrad may have had plenty of social pride, but I don’t think he suffered from social fears – not at least in the Edwardian-English fashion.

All in all, Najder’s book is a design rationally conceived and most honourably and resourcefully carried out; nor (I guess) would he be offended to be told that in places it is laborious reading. On his chosen principle – straightforward chronological sequence combined with the fullest possible documentation – Conrad’s hundredth attack of gout or toothache or fit of nervous despair, or fiftieth quarrel and reconciliation with his agent Pinker, or devious manoeuvre over royalties or insurance policies, has to be chronicled in detail. They would each time have come to Conrad as a surprise, but they cannot do so to us. Honesty in documentation means sacrificing verisimilitude.

At this point something needs to be said on the subject of ‘sources’. We may begin with ‘literary’ sources, as opposed to ‘biographical’ ones; and these, one would think, should be relatively unproblematic. For the merely evidential question – did such-and-such a written text influence another written text – is a clear-cut one, on which good sense, and legal experience if we possess it, equip us to make a rational judgment. We may, for instance, conclude that the description of James Wait’s death in The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ is verbally so close to the death scene of Forestier in Maupassant’s Bel Ami that the latter must have influenced the former; and if others agree, then something definite (and not uninteresting) has been established, calling for explanation and interpretation. Literary source-hunting is an activity with rules.

Judging from the biographies of Conrad, however, even literary source-hunting has its problematic side. For instance, Baines and Karl inform us that in writing Nostromo Conrad drew on George Frederick Masterman’s Seven Eventful Years in Paraguay and Edward East wick’s Venezuela; also – a fact first announced by John Halverson and Ian Watt – that the ‘life story of an American seaman’ which Conrad claimed to have found on a second-hand bookstall and to have helped him to find his plot, was On Many Seas by Frederick Benton Williams. This latter identification is beyond doubt, since the ‘swarthy piratical-looking fellow’ who tells Williams how he stole a lighter full of silver explains, almost exactly in Nostromo’s own words: ‘I must git reesh slow, don’t you see?’ Nevertheless Najder does not mention Williams’s book, or those of Masterman and Eastwick. On the other hand, he does mention Conrad’s borrowings from Alexandre Dumas’s life of Garibaldi. There is a mild puzzle here about Najder’s attitude towards ‘literary’ sources.

As for Karl, his dealings with such ‘sources’ seem quite a muddle. At least, it seems a definite gaffe on his part to complain that Conrad, in the Preface to Nostromo, does not tell the truth about his sources: ‘Conrad was, of course, dissembling: his sources were far more to the point than he divulged. He actively deceived, saying that for the history of Costaguana he depended on the History of Fifty Years of Misrule by the late Don Jose Avellanos.’ Now, since Avellanos is a leading character in the novel, it needs no great sagacity to realise that the ‘History’ is mythical, and that Conrad’s tribute to its ‘eloquence’ and ‘impartiality’ is a joke – quite a nice little joke. Karl’s phrase ‘actively deceived’ seems way off target. Again, Karl finds it important – and a reflection on Conrad that he didn’t admit the fact – that he took the names of a lot of the leading characters in Nostromo from Masterman’s Seven Eventful Years. He calls these ‘major borrowings’; and one asks oneself, why ‘major’, and even, why ‘borrowings’? Are not names common property?

‘Biographical’ source-hunting, however, raises much more fundamental problems and doubts. Najder claims ‘it is not for the biographer to trace the origins of characters or plots.’ He rebukes Norman Sherry for ‘tracing presumed prototypes of characters and sources of plots’, and ‘the persistent search for analogies between the lives of actual people and those of the characters in Conrad’s works’. Nevertheless, a page or two later, we find Najder busily employed on something not so very unlike this: comparing, detail by detail, the known facts about Conrad’s appointment to the Otago in Bangkok with events in his stories ‘Falk’, ‘The End of the Tether’ and ‘The Shadow Line’. Perhaps he is doing so, we say to ourselves, in the hope that the stories, cunningly interpreted, will add to our store of biographical facts? But no, Najder’s phrasing betrays him: he is only interested in Conrad’s divergences from the ‘facts’, and, it would seem, has a faint bias in favour of the facts. In ‘The Shadow Line’, the sickness that affected the crew ‘was somewhat overplayed by Conrad.’ ‘The story about the former captain disposing of the entire stock of quinine is not very probable either: most likely all medicine had been used up ...’ ‘A glance at the crew list of the Otago reveals other facts that one could not even guess on the basis of “The Shadow Line”.’

Najder, we see, finds the ‘facts’ quite as revealing as Norman Sherry does, though in a different way; and if this strikes one as an error on his part, let us not think it a casual one. This question of ‘sources’, it seems to me, lies – more than is at once obvious – at the heart of the whole problem of literary biography. I asked earlier whether Ian Watt had created, in his Conrad in the 19th Century, a new and successful genre of ‘biographical criticism’; and what makes me want to answer ‘no’ is that, in this brilliant book, the level of sophistication sinks, just for a moment, precisely where source-hunting intrudes. ‘We know a great deal about the voyage and the crew of the Narcissus, both from Conrad’s later accounts and from independent documentary records,’ says Watt, ‘and seeing what was altered or omitted provides some understanding of how Conrad’s imagination operated on his memories ...’ Accordingly we are told how Conrad, who in 1884 served as second mate aboard an iron sailing-ship named the Narcissus, followed some facts and not others from this voyage in The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’: that he made the voyage end in London, not Dunkirk; that two different seamen may have been drawn on to create the ‘Nigger’; that almost certainly no mutiny occurred aboard the real-life Narcissus; and that Conrad invented the Finn Wamibo because he ‘presumably wanted a picturesquely primitive but inarticulate seaman who could illustrate the idea that intense loyalty to the ship and the crew could transcend the barriors of language.’ My impression is that if you challenged Watt – did he really think these things ‘provide some understanding of how Conrad’s imagination operated on his memories’? – he, being so subtle a critic, would have to unsay it. For where is the light that they throw on Conrad’s imagination? It seems to have functioned exactly as you might have expected. And further, ought we to be interested in his ‘imagination’, as distinct from his books?

All the dilemmas and weaknesses of literary biography (especially the biography of novelists) hinge on this question of ‘sources’; and I think that the trouble lies rather deep down. It is a matter, indeed, of a fundamentally wrong idea of what a novel is. Somewhere in the back of the critics’ minds there lurks, unexamined, the idea that a novel is ‘like’ life. Long ago, no doubt, they will have thrown away the vulg arer versions of this idea: for instance, that novels ‘reflect’ life, or can be mirror-like or camera-like, or that there is some quasi-mechanical fashion in which human life can be recorded. For all that, the idea of likeness infects their way of regarding the novel. This is curious, if one considers it. It would never occur to anyone to say of a poem that it is like, or unlike, the things it deals with. Nor does it really help to do so with a novel. Indeed the only reason why it was ever thought to seems to be that, by an old and vapid convention, novels have tended to be talked about in terms of ‘painting’ and the plastic arts. Evidently a painting (at all events a representational painting) is, in a crude but important sense, like life. A painting (and much more so a sculpture) could conceivably actually be mistaken for the thing it represents, whereas no one ever mistook a bound copy of Jane Eyre for Jane, Mr Rochester or Lowood School. The relationships between a novel and ‘life’ are fundamentally not different from those between a poem and ‘life’. They offer the spectacle of every kind of transformation, transposition, metonymy, synecdoche, Yeatsian antithesis and the like; and the utter unlikeness to ‘life’ of the medium – whether we define the medium as a bound book with numbered pages, or as a sequence of sentences, or as a participation in events which it is magically open to the reader at any instant to arrest – will also be crucial to the novel’s existence.

When a literary biographer pursues ‘likenesses’ between real-life people and events and ones in novels, and speculates upon possible ‘models’ (another painterly term), he is under the influence of the basic misconception I have described, and it is at such times that he sounds most shallow. The truth that he or she is ignoring is the one enshrined in those commonplaces of literary history: that Madame Bovary is Flaubert, that George Eliot found Mr Casaubon in her own breast, that Joyce is both Stephen Dedalus and Bloom. It is the truth that a novel, or anyway a good novel, has to be produced by introspection and impersonation: that what we are confronted with is not so much Lord Jim as Conrad-as-Lord-Jim. Proust stated the other side of the same truth when he wrote, in never-to-be-forgotten words: ‘In reality every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have perceived in himself.’

Proust’s remark has, plainly, an implication to do with human solidarity, and this puts us in mind of Conrad, who was so devoted to this concept. In his Preface to The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ Conrad writes: ‘Impressed by the aspect of the world the thinker plunges into ideas, the scientist into facts – whence, presently, emerging they make their appeal to those qualities of our being that fit us best for the hazardous enterprise of living ... It is otherwise with the artist ... Confronted by the same enigmatical spectacle the artist descends within himself, and in that lonely region of stress and strife, if he be deserving and fortunate, he finds the terms of his appeal.’ Ian Watt seems a shade nervous of this, hastening to remark, ‘The artist does not, however, descend into the self to make that his main study,’ and reminding us of Conrad’s earlier remark about art as ‘a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe’. The thought that actually follows on in Conrad’s Preface is, however, a different one: it is that by ‘descending within himself’, the artist is appealing to human solidarity – ‘the subtle but invisible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts’. If one regards the novel in this way, as Proust and Conrad persuade me to do (and of course not only them – it was also Tolstoy’s view), a preoccupation with a novelist’s ‘sources’ is bound to look just quaint and doomed to disappointment, like ancient medical science or haruspication.