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.’

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