On board the ‘Fiona’

Edward Said

  • In Search of Conrad by Gavin Young
    Hutchinson, 304 pp, £17.99, October 1991, ISBN 0 09 173524 6

Conrad enthusiasts subdivide into two categories. Both are convinced that so peculiar and haunting are his life and work, so utterly without precedents or successful emulators, that only an all-out, full-scale, total exertion – no gracefully written or tasteful essays here – can even begin to get hold of his astonishing oeuvre. Category one believes that the exertion should be to nail down all the known details of Conrad’s travels and readings, thereby tying the fiction to real places and personages, and, whenever possible, actual books and ideas, that help explain the mysterious novels and stories. Norman Sherry famously does this in Conrad’s Eastern World and Conrad’s Western World, remarkable works of sleuthing rediscovery that respectively cover Conrad’s Indian and Pacific Ocean voyages, and his wanderings in Africa, Europe and Latin America. But so also do Zdislaw Najder, with his emphasis on Conrad’s Polish perspective, and Ian Watt, whose exhaustive survey of the 19th-century background provides a wide array of sources for Conrad’s stranger ideas.

Category two is what could be called RAFT, or the school of believers in a Relentlessly Argued Fundamental Thesis. Gustave Morf, a Swiss psychologist, was the pioneer: all of Conrad’s works, he argued in 1950, concern a personal betrayal whose best-known example is Jim’s ‘standing jump’ – i.e. Conrad’s defection from Poland to England. Most of the subsequent entries in this category have tended to be either orthodox or eclectically psychoanalytic: Conrad as foot-and-hair fetishist, Conrad as misogynist, Conrad as sexually flawed, Conrad as sufferer from existential terror, and so on. But there have been political RAFTs (Conrad as conservative thinker, Conrad as imperialist) as well as aesthetic ones (Conrad as Jamesian or Flaubertian artist).

The point about both categories is that neither in the end fully explains his seductive appeal or his truly mysterious elusiveness. Conrad is, I believe, the first of the great modern escapees and delinquents in European literature, a writer always between cultures, languages and situations, never fully at ease, routinely beset with immense doubt and guilt, implicated in shady goings-on, unable to resolve himself into one role or one set course of action. No writer so profoundly committed to narrative has been as uncomfortable with its mechanics: yet no one has exploited them for their gaps, their strangely unforeseen overlappings, their failures, as doggedly as Conrad. There is a great deal of Conrad in Beckett’s fiction, but also in Malraux and of course Naipaul, Graham Greene, and the remarkable Sudanese novelist el-Tayib Salih. You cannot read Conrad simply or securely. He exists, it seems, to prod and bother the reader from one uncertainty to another. The great thing, though, is that despite the withering anxiety and worry radiated by his life and work, everything about his fiction suggests issues of tremendous importance, an importance that can neither be named nor remain unaffected by irony. ‘Droll thing life is – that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose,’ Marlow says, typically, in Heart of Darkness.

A distinguished journalist, and one of the finest travel writers around, Gavin Young has now made his contribution to Conradiana by following the man’s footsteps in the South China, Java and Banda Seas. Young visits Bangkok, Singapore and Jakarta, but especially winds his way around Sumatra, Java, Bali, Borneo and the Celebes, In Search of Conrad is the record of two meandering voyages taken in 1977 and 1989 over essentially the territory and water covered by Conrad the sailor, then revisited by him in such novels and tales as Lord Jim, An Outcast of the Islands, Almayer’s Folly, Youth, ‘The End of the Tether’, Victory, ‘The Secret Sharer’, ‘Falk’ and ‘Freya of the Seven Isles’. What Young gives us is an ingeniously affectionate overlay of yet another trajectory, his own, as it weaves in and out of Conrad’s fiction and autobiography, themselves interwoven with travellers’ lore, hearsay, ships’ records, newspapers and legend.

The relaxed and leisurely texture of Young’s book allows him not only to note changes between Conrad’s and his own time in places like Makassar, Mantok and Berau – the names alone resonate with a fantastic exoticism – but also to evoke memories of Lord Jim and Youth. It is a supremely difficult thing to do, this kind of meandering contrapuntal writing; the risks of massacring Conrad’s work, or of trivialising the mysterious inner trajectory of his travels, are very great. I was astonished at how well Young knows Conrad and, practised travel writer that he is, at how consistently he keeps your attention as he visits sailor’s houses, old hotels, newspaper offices, shipping companies. There is, for example, a whole complex tale in his search for Augustine Padmore Williams, Conrad’s model for Lord Jim, as Gavin Young delves into the man’s life and finally visits his grave in Singapore’s Bridadar Cemetery: ‘Malays wearing headbands and wielding besoms patrolled the paths, sweeping leaves. The cemetery had a number of the beautiful trees Malays call tem-bush, with tiny Post-Impressionist leaves, a good many rain trees and some trees I did not know, whose leaves were dark and shiny. Small white butterflies danced about one of the grandest tombs: a stone canopy sheltering someone named Cornelius Lozanne who had died in 1912.’

A particularly fine episode concerns Schomberg, the rascally innkeeper in Victory, and the devilish Jones, whose traces Young discovers in Pulan Laut in 1977. Along with Young on that trip there is also Wilfred Thesiger, the celebrated traveller who spent years among the desert Arabs; he seems withdrawn and strangely out of place on the yacht Fiona, as it prowls the Makassar strait among the Bugis tribespeople, who have a particular fascination for Gavin Young. In Surabaya, with its inevitable but unlikely Brechtian associations, he finds Olmeijer’s grave, and indeed, many other Olmeijers buried there. Emmerson’s Tiffin Rooms in Singapore turn up recollections of old Captain Whalley in ‘The End of the Tether’, but also of Lingard, and Conrad himself, who in his eternal loneliness frequented the place with some regularity.

By the end of the book, a certain weary melancholy sets in as Young returns to his and Lord Jim’s native Cornwall, and then finally to Canterbury, where Conrad is buried in the cemetery of St Thomas’s Roman Catholic Church. ‘Conrad’s grave had no cross. It was unexpectedly and unusually beautiful – a thrusting, heavy, wedge-shaped, irregular slab of white rock. It stood as though immovable in the sunshine and something in the texture of the rock made it sparkle, so that it seemed immeasurably strong and alive.’

What is so strikingly original about In Search of Conrad is that it is an essay in sustained affection and understanding, in which Conrad remains ‘immeasurably strong and alive’ throughout. It does not seek to nail Conrad down, either as RAFTs would have it, or as Sherry (whom Young acknowledges) and Najder have so ably done as his rather more conventional biographers. What we get instead is a sort of prolongation of Conrad, often dizzying in its piled-up memories, visits, citations, scenic details: but Young is always just and refined, as if he were Conrad’s younger companion rather than his exegetical competitor. It is a very rare sort of book, quite unlike several recent ‘in the steps of’ works, because Young himself is a confident and tactful enough writer to admit Conrad into his prose, without reductiveness or patronising summary. Most of all, however, Young’s retracing of Conrad’s Eastern novels and voyages is the rediscovery of a lost imperial world, replaced now not only by personal memory and leisurely, perhaps at times slightly unfocused narration, but by an acute awareness of how no Conrad could possibly exist today. There could be no Conrad without the British and Dutch colonial systems, without outcasts and riffraff like Jim, Almayer and Lingard, whose standards and sense of failure derived from an empire they accepted almost as a fact of nature.