What will you do to keep the ship from foundering?

John Bayley

  • Joseph Conrad: A Biography by Jeffrey Meyers
    Murray, 320 pp, £20.00, July 1991, ISBN 0 7195 4910 8
  • Joseph Conrad and the Modern Temper by Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan
    Oxford, 218 pp, £30.00, August 1991, ISBN 0 19 811785 X

In one of George Eliot’s Scenes from Clerical Life a lady addicted to reading tracts skims rapidly over references to Zion or the River of Life, but has her attention immediately caught by any mention of ‘pony’ or ‘boots and shoes’. A reader of modern biographies can see why. The best things in them are usually the facts, the objects, the unexplained and inexplicable things that cluttered up the lives of the august and famous, as they do everybody else’s, and now find a place in the story. The greasy trilby hat Ford Madox Ford put to dry in Jessie Conrad’s oven, provoking the only outburst of wrath ever seen on the part of that placid lady; the ‘good sandwiches’ which the soon-to-be-cast-off Hadley Hemingway promised to make for her husband’s outing to the races at Longchamps; ‘black-eyed Susan’, the New Mexican cow beloved by D.H. Lawrence: these are the things that stay in the mind when diagnoses and depreciations are forgotten.

Jeffrey Meyers, who has done solid biographies of Lawrence and Hemingway and has now done one for Conrad, is particularly good on – as it were – the boots and the shoes. It makes his biographies not only readable but in their own way memorable, for their subjects appear in a satisfyingly crude state, touchingly touchy and vulnerable, enmeshed in contingency. This is in some ways preferable to elegant analyses or magisterial summings-up. Meyers’s robust but sympathetic treatment worked well with Lawrence and is equally effective for Conrad: the reader can supply the fine tuning and the critical speculation for himself; perhaps on the basis of such alarming questions as Conrad had to answer when he was examined for his certificates as chief mate and as master. ‘You are totally dismasted and consequently quite unmanageable: what will you do to keep the ship from foundering by the sea striking her astern or amidships?’

That was one of the easier ones. When Captain Thompson – ‘motionless, remote and enigmatical’ – piled on the agony with fog, a lee-shore and a lost anchor cable, Conrad explained that he would ‘back the bow anchor and tail the heaviest hawser on board on the end of the chain before letting go, and if she parted from that, which is quite likely, I would just do nothing. She would have to go.’ This reply struck a chord with Captain Thompson, and Conrad got through the ordeal in record time. Fatalism had not only paid off but had impressed the practical no-nonsense seaman, and Conrad left the interview with the same ineffable sense of achievement felt by the youthful mate Powell in Chance. As Meyers points out, Conrad’s real knowledge – as opposed to the sort of thing that Kipling picked up and made use of – comes out at moments like the abandonment of the Patna in Lord Jim, when the officers in the boat see her lights vanish in the squall, and conclude she must be safely sunk. In fact, she is so far down by the head that she swings head to wind ‘as sharply as if she had been at anchor’, and the change of position cuts off the sight of her lights from the dinghy to leeward.

Meyers rather spoils his point, however, by observing that one of the questions – ‘How is the lacing rove on the lower part of the luff of a spanker?’ – might have been associated by the examinee ‘with sex rather than with seamanship’. Well, hardly. Conrad’s nautical English was – had to be – perfect to the point of instinctiveness; his mastery of the language was clearly much more complete than he himself sometimes liked to pretend. He used his foreignness as a cover in several ways: to explain the agonising slowness with which he composed his first novels, and to preserve the aura of the outlandish and the exotic which both intrigued the inquisitive and kept them at bay. As he became more famous, he cultivated his mode of speech for the same reason: friends commented that his accent grew worse, not better. But the was always proud to have been accepted so completely in his chosen métier, even if he had been known as ‘Polish Joe’ before the mast, and sometimes later on as ‘the Russian count’ by fellow officers behind his back. Apprentices remembered him with great affection. As he himself put it, he ‘had proved to the English that a gentleman from the Ukraine could be as good a sailor as they.’

It was this kind of thorough expertise that lay behind the famous wish ‘to make you see’; and there is even more than that to Conrad’s compelling accuracy of thing and detail. It does the deep work for him, making supererogatory many of his more explicitly intellectual démarches. Or should one rather say he would not have such authority as a writer if he had not been a first-class seaman, of a quite unique sort? Writers about ‘the human condition’ who were deeply influenced by him – Gide, Malraux, Camus, Graham Greene – are notably lacking in this sort of homely and instinctive expertise; they are ‘writers’ pure and simple. Conrad was certainly a born writer in one sense, and yet he might easily never have become one had he not invested his skill and training in the dying craft of sailing ships. Long after he had taken his certificate and been acting captain of the Otago – an experience he wrote of later in The Shadow Line – he was still trying for humbler and already dwindling jobs of junior mate in sail, and taking them when he could.

For a psychologist, the striking thing is the magnificently determined way he spent twenty years of his life mastering a craft that then turned out to be obsolete, while at the same time remaining in many ways helplessly dependent, irresponsibly juvenile. An orphan from early years, he might easily not have survived at all without the paternal affection and anxiety of his uncle Tadeusz, who, as he confessed in later life, ‘cared for me as if I were a little child’. Conrad not only borrowed without shame but when he was in particularly low water, took refuge on the distant estate of his relative, where he was clucked over and cosseted. Uncle Tadeusz, who took enormous pride in his nephew’s achievement in the English merchant marine, died before Conrad made his name as a writer. Another relative by marriage, Marguerite Poradowska, a Frenchwoman married in Brussels to a Polish refugee, had had two tasteful but insipid romances published in the Revue des Deux Mondes. Conrad wrote to her archly as his ‘dear teacher’, and proposed they should collaborate on a translation of Almayer’s Folly, still unaccepted by any English publisher, for the same magazine. Marguerite was nine years older but still a beauty – ‘the most beautiful woman I ever saw,’ Jessie Conrad was later to observe wistfully. The mayor of Brussels was a suitor in her widowhood, and Conrad himself may have proposed and been turned down, although they continued to be on very affectionate terms, and Conrad seems to have expected his wife to wait on Marguerite when she came to visit them in later life. He always had an eye for a grande dame, but Jessie was the permanent nurse and mother figure he needed and depended upon; and though he ungallantly told his friends that his ‘intended’ was extremely plain, from her pre-wedding photo she looks in her quiet dark way decidedly attractive – rather as one imagines Winnie Verloc. By an odd coincidence Marguerite was the niece of Dr Paul Gachet, who had looked after Van Gogh in the months before his suicide. Himself a highly disturbed personality, Gachet had a flat full of paintings which Conrad – no admirer of modern art – compared to the lunatic asylum at Charenton.

It is arguable that Conrad’s peerless sense of fact is the most vital ingredient in his genius, as it was the most original. All his most successful fictions – yarns one could be quite properly inclined to call them – radiate from some central object, and Conrad’s intense perception of it: the fire in the hold in Youth; the quinine in The Shadow Line, horribly changed from a healing substance ‘light as feathers’ to a heavy sludge, the incarnate malignancy of the dead captain who has substituted it. In Lord Jim some nameless obstacle, lurking beneath the calm surface of the sea, rips out the Patna’s keel, and with it Jim’s image of himself. Often Conrad’s perception of the object takes the form of a confrontation, sometimes speechless or in slow motion. In the bravura passage at the end of Youth the men of the East confront the sleeping castaways; Razumov meets his fate in his own room in the figure of the sleeping terrorist Haldin; and again, in the office of the bureaucrat Mikulin, when he asks ‘to go right away’ and receives in reply a gentle ‘Where to?’ The climactic moment in Heart of Darkness is not the melodramatic business of finding and bringing out Kurtz, but the ‘extraordinarily profound and familiar look’ directed at Marlowe by the mortally wounded black steersman, and his blood in the wheelhouse filling Marlowe’s shoes and socks. The desire to change these becomes his single fixation, but at the same time the African’s blood and the look in his eyes has fixed the pair for ever in a terrible intimacy.

Sometimes this slow-motion narrative has a mesmeric drollness, as in the perfect comedy of ‘The Secret Sharer’. Conrad, who used on occasion to vie with his friend and agent Edward Garnett in yarn-spinning, told him that his tale ‘between you and me, is it ... every word fits and there’s not a single uncertain note. Luck my boy. Pure luck.’ The sense of fitness was what most impressed D.H. Lawrence, who observed of one of the last novels, The Rover, that it still showed that unique ‘momentum’: ‘Magnificent. He could write in his sleep.’ The Rover has indeed something of that verbal satisfaction which attended Henry James’s style, and grew on it and with it to the point where idea and intention became superfluous. ‘I’m never sure what it is I’m affirming,’ Conrad said despondently at this late time to a young French writer: but ‘affirmation’, in the sense that French writers and intellectuals understood it, had never been his thing. If he had opted for the French language, as could have happened if he had married Marguerite Poradowska and settled on the Continent, he might have gained a different sort of fame and reputation: more likely he would never have been heard of, or only in some Gallic charmed circle.

The primacy of things is still strong in The Rover, ruling over the old smuggler Peyrol’s elaborate plan to immolate himself in order to deceive and disinform the British captain. It rules in the great flake of rust which springs off the straining bulkhead, and convinces Jim that the Patna is about to sink; in the revolver which secures Falk’s cannibalistic preeminence over his shipmates, and in the carving-knife which Winnie Verloc snatches from beside the cold mutton to impale her trusting spouse; even in the cupboard and bed at ‘The Inn of the Two Witches’, a far more haunting version – slight as it may be – of the prototype tales in Poe and Wilkie Collins. On the other hand, too ponderous a reliance on the procession of the factual can be a nemesis for Conrad’s method, as it is in the leaden apotheosis of Nostromo, the fatalistic adventure-epic of Patusan in Lord Jim, and the excessively slow-motion charade of Victory. The reader gets a nose, too, for the moments when Conrad is deliberately vague over the facts, or lines them up too economically to point in a desired direction. There is a famous moment in Heart of Darkness when Marlowe, on his way out to the Congo, sees a French cruiser apparently shelling the empty bush: a symbol of the evil fatuity of colonial penetration. In fact, as Conrad knew quite well, the ship was taking its important allotted role in the conquest of the powerful local fortress town of Dahomey, key to the French empire of West Africa. However wicked, the aggression was far from futile. But symbols do have a tendency to stray too far from their base; and Conrad is always at his best when they do not, as it were, become separated and fully formed. Nothing like that occurs in The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’, whose centre point is the scarlet thread running from the mouth of James Waite, the dead Negro seaman. Conrad had seen the man dying of consumption on board the real Narcissus and ‘known’ the whole thing by immediate instinct.

This is very different from what his admirers soon began to take for granted as a fine performance on the Conrad. Indeed so much for granted that nobody noticed for years and years the misprint at the end of the first paragraph of Heart of Darkness, the full oddity of which was pointed out by Frank Kermode. ‘Gleams of vanished spirits’ – no doubt the souls of all the sailormen haunting the Thames since the savage early days of Roman conquest – seemed acceptable Conradian language, in keeping with the tale’s general atmosphere, except that what Conrad actually wrote was ‘gleams of varnished sprits’: a reference to the big oblique spar supporting the red mainsail of Thames barges. (Some later editions print an even more bizarre ‘varnished spirits’.) Clearly the word was strange to the printer, who substituted a more familiar one, and the adjective to go with it. The assumption behind the readings makes a neat little summation of what E.M Forster called the ‘misty’ side of Conrad and the writer who was a practical seaman. Of course the combination made his genius what it was, but none the less there remains a distinct gap between the two Conrads: the writer and the ‘intellectual’.

It is naturally enough the latter in whom academic theses are chiefly interested; and Joseph Conrad and the Modern Temper is in its own way a brilliant study of the ways in which Conrad has been perceived as exemplifying the post-Nietzschean world outlook. Both its author and Meyers quote the relevant letters to Cunninghame Graham in which he expatiates on the ‘no God, no morality, no truth’ theme: probably laying it on for the benefit of his melodramatic but not wildly intelligent correspondent. ‘Nothing. Neither thought, nor sound, nor soul. Nothing.’ And having got that out of the way we can go back to the business of living, and writing. Art can only deal in ‘comfortable untruths’, including the Nietzschean one: but all the more reason for devoting oneself to it.

That at least is the suggestion which Joseph Conrad and the Modern Temper follows through. Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan makes good use of Hans Vaihinger’s The Philosophy of As If, a post-Nietzschean follow-up in the first years of the 20th century to which thinkers and philosophers have not since paid much attention, but whose implications for the state of the art in fiction can now be seen to be of some importance. The climate of assumption it helped to produce in Conrad’s milieu – he was certainly familiar with it – is as evident as it is later on in the work of Kipling, Hemingway or Joyce: all take for granted in their different styles a total absence, filled with ‘good work’, with the burden of what must be done, with the heroic pattern fulfilling itself like fiction in the lives of those for whom, whether they know it or not, ‘truth is no more immortal than any other delusion.’ It seems to me highly significant that all four writers clung to fact, making almost a fetish of it in Bloom’s breakfast kidney, Kipling’s immaculate screws and engines and Hemingway’s food and drink and weapons, as well as in those significant objects which dominate Conrad’s best fiction. It is also important that, though fiction immortalises fact, its powers of doing so appear to be on the wane. The words that despise it and have replaced it in modern fiction reduce it to conscious literariness and care for it no more than they do for other kinds of truth. Facts used to be the determinants of a work of fiction, ensuring that its plot became its destiny. But perhaps Conrad did not really believe in plot, or in character? For the modern temper his special interest is that he was one of the first novelists not so much to recognise as to exhibit that artifice creates ‘reality’, which can only exist in fictional versions.

For me there seems to be a hiatus in his work, for this reason, between fact – the rock that nearly sinks the Patna – and fiction: Jim’s fiction about himself, the French lieutenant’s myth of honour, and the tale that Conrad afterwards makes up about Jim’s exploits and death in Patusan. The hiatus illustrates both art and the failure of art, and is deeply and characteristically Conradian. Following to some extent Gerald Graff and the other modern critics, Dr Erdinast-Vulcan sees things rather differently: but her clear and thorough analysis of Conrad in relation to contemporary critical thought makes her study the most stimulating yet on this subject, particularly as it is independent of critical jargon. She sees Conrad’s later characters as becoming ‘uncomfortably conscious of their own fictionality’, and this is surely true. When the man who wrote to the New York Times in 1901 that ‘truth was no more immortal than any other delusion’ was trying twenty years later to persuade both his characters and his public that the books they read or had a part in were visionary and profound, the public responded by finding them as comfortable as any other popular romance. They bought them by the thousand and made their author a rich man. Romancers, then, had to believe in their romance. The modern novelist turns this ‘fictionality’ of his characters to good account, making it both conscious and comfortable: but for Conrad the game was up.