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THE COMPLETE NOVELS AND NOVELLAS
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Table of Contents
Joseph Conrad — An Extensive Biography
An Outcast of the Islands
The Nigger of the Narcissus
Heart of Darkness
The End of the Tether
The Secret Agent
The Nature of a Crime
Under Western Eyes
Victory: An Island Tale
The Shadow Line
The Arrow of Gold
by Richard Curle
Chapter 1 — Conrad, His Critics and His Contemporaries
Chapter 2 — Conrad’s Biography and Autobiographical Books
Chapter 3 — Conrad’s Novels and Stories
Chapter 4 — Conrad’s Atmosphere
Chapter 5 — Conrad as Psychologist
Chapter 6 — Conrad’s Men
Chapter 7 — Conrad’s Women
Chapter 8 — Conrad’s Irony and Sardonic Humour
Chapter 9 — Conrad’s Prose
Chapter 10 — Conrad as Artist
Chapter 11 — Conrad’s Position in Literature
I havelong wished to say something about Conrad which could not be said in the space of a single article. Since I first began to read his books I have been drawn to them to a very unusual extent. And that must be my chief excuse for doing what it is generally ridiculous to do, writing a book about a living author. In fact, to write books at ail about authors is rather stupid. People form their opinions for themselves. Moreover, time settles all questions of merit with a pretty accurate hand. Yes, it is so, and for my final justification I must fall back on a profound conviction. And my conviction is this — that Conrad’s work actually does mark a new epoch.
I know that it is easy, and not in the least convincing, to make such statements, and that the only proof of the pudding is in the eating. And therefore I would urge every reader of this book to study Conrad for himself. For criticism, unlike creation, has few magic words at its service. There is a kind of intuitive accord that seems to defy expression, a kind of close and familiar appreciation that seems to illumine the mind and to paralyse the tongue. The business of criticism is to surmount this impasse between conviction and the power to convince. And I believe that it can be done. No doubt the magic word would clothe the voiceless perception in a way that logic alone could not, for it would be the creative element in criticism and would possess the illusive qualities of the thing criticised, but, failing that, the same result can be attained, at last, by absolute sincerity and sympathy. In the long run these do achieve their purpose, they do present a real picture, they do surmount the fearful obstacle of which all critics are so acutely aware. And that is what I would like to claim for this monograph. I have studied Conrad’s works very closely and I have come to some definite conclusions. It is these that I present here as well as I can.
Of course, Conrad is an exceptionally difficult writer to discuss. He is one of these men whose extraordinarily vivid personality pervades everything he writes to such an extent that a good many people do find him impossible to read. One must differentiate all this from mere mannerism, the mannerism that spoils such writers as Meredith and Hugo. It is not mannerism in the case of men like Conrad, that is to say, it is not the mannerism of eccentricity, it is the positive strength of their personality. Flaubert, for instance, an indubitably great artist, arouses this antipathy to a marked degree. He could efface himself in one sense, but in another he was visible in every line of his work, and not only visible, because, of course, everyone who is anyone is that, but visible in a singular and almost menacing fashion. He sets up in certain minds a temperamental antagonism. Nor is he unique in that. Other commanding writers do the same, such writers as Dostoyevsky and Walt Whitman, for instance. And now, as far as I can judge, we have to add Conrad to this list. Some people of intelligence are quite hostile to Conrad. I think it must be that he seems to envelop things with his own sombre and poetic imagination rather than show them to us in their actual light. Take, for example, his story “Youth” and contrast it with Hudson’s The Purple Land. Essentially they are both concerned with the same idea — the glamour and romance of youth; but I can quite understand people asserting that Hudson’s story does give the feeling of youth, whereas Conrad’s story gives only a philosophic dream of what youth ought to be. Even if that were true, which I doubt, I do not think it matters (it is the difference between a self-conscious and an unselfconscious artist); but I see why the supposition might arise, and, in seeing that, I grasp what it is about Conrad that is antipathetic to some. It is his passionately romantic, melancholy, and ironic mind.
But, of course, there is also a much simpler reason. To read Conrad calls for exertion, and nowadays that is enough to damn anyone. The exertion arises from the fact that he is imaginative, and requires, in his readers, a corresponding and increasing effort of the imagination. Reading him, as a friend of mine says, is “like a leap of the mind.” And, furthermore, he is a visualiser. To follow him we have to form very definite images. He actually excites the optic nerve. Unless the reader is prepared for this effort he will lose half the effect. And, again, although he is romantic and a visualiser yet he is emphatically a man of hard edges. In a few words he can create a sharp outline. This is an almost unique gift, and combined as it is with his romantic manner, is quite sufficient to arouse our lurking and natural antagonism for the unexpected.
And Conrad’s reputation suffers from another and a much more insidious cause. It appears to me that he is positively misunderstood by many of the people who admire him most. I do not know how I can put it better than by saying that he is regarded as the author of Lord Jim rather than as the author of Nostromo. Anyone who really understands Conrad will follow me. For Lord Jim, powerful as it is, is representative, on the whole, of the more ordinary and didactic side of Conrad, whereas the neglected Nostromo is representative of a much subtler, more moving, and more truly creative side. Indeed, Nostromo has an imaginative maturity quite beyond the scope of Lord Jim. That one instance gives us the key to a widespread misconception about Conrad — a misconception none the less complete and all the more difficult to refute from the fact that it is half-hidden under the guise of judicial wisdom. I don’t want to be misapprehended. I only take the question of Lord Jim and Nostromo as a sort of symbol to explain something I find it hard to explain. It seems to me that the really poetical and thrilling things in Conrad are largely ignored and that they are ignored because most of the critics are upon the wrong tack. Most, not all. Moreover, there is a kind of Conrad “tradition” in the air — a thing as deadly to a man as a spider’s web to a fly. For a tradition enwraps an artist’s endeavour in a mist of delicate falsehood. How many careers have been ruined by an epigram? And though Conrad is obviously too striking a writer to be summarised in a phrase, still the critics have begun to expect from him work of a certain kind. Not only is he pre-judged, which at the best is a stultifying process, but he is pre-judged along bad lines. These “traditions” about authors are always dangerous, and when they are positively wrong then the whole critical ground slips from under the feet. Year by year Conrad is emerging into recognition, a Conrad famous, respected, but a Conrad more or less “placed.” And “placing” is a compliment which is meant to round you off for good and all.
These charges are vague, indeed, and hard to substantiate. There has been little set criticism of Conrad and the ordinary book review is notoriously untrustworthy. Of course, I do not mean to say there has not been some good criticism. The most penetrating I have read was that by Ford Madox Hueffer in The English Review for December 1911. Unfortunately it is very slight. But, indeed, it is to Edward Garnett that readers of Conrad owe the greatest debt. For he was the first to “discover” him — if I must use such an offensive expression. That his earliest work should have fallen into the hands of this eclectic and un-insular critic is something to be thankful for. For Conrad has told me, himself, that if Almayer’s Folly had been rejected he would never have written another book. But, except for such rare and shining exceptions, we can put all the criticisms aside. If I had to prove my point from them alone it would be easy enough. Denser ineptitudes never gave heartier praise to an original genius. I include my own past writings. But in saying that discerning critics miss the best in Conrad I am not talking so much of the written word. The wisest remarks about modern authors are nearly always those spoken, and it is in conversation, mainly, that one feels the pulse of current opinion. And though I have heard some very wise and piercing things said about Conrad the general pulse is beating in a groove and beating in vain. And in all this, let me emphasise, I am not referring to his enemies but to his admirers. For it is they who have leavened public taste in regard to Conrad.
In making the general statement that Conrad is not properly understood I do not want to run my head against a wall. I know I put my case roughly. Such impressions are often only highly sensitive reactions and as such quite beyond positive proof. A parrot cry is easy to lay hold of, but a mental attitude is like a will-o’-the-wisp. Besides, criticism has become something of an intellectual vested interest. When critics get hold of an author they are not only annoyed if outsiders disagree with them, but they are annoyed if the author, himself, disagrees. In other words, they are pained when an author’s work does not fit into their preconceived theories about it. That is one reason why critics are so fond of labels. The more remarkable the author the more intolerant are they of his reputation. This is curious but easily explicable. Anyone whose personality lies strongly upon his work is bound to affect his readers in a very definite way. At once an image is formed, which is cherished like a fetish and guarded with an excluding jealousy. Such images are precious, dogmatic, and easily outraged. (I need only instance the reception of The Secret Agent in Conrad’s case.) Whatever happens, the author is prejudged. And in my opinion Conrad is in grave peril of this. The final word on him trembles upon the critics’ lips.
The truth of the matter is that Conrad, as a phenomenon, is as yet but little realised. He is still confounded with men of talent. For it is hard to believe that a real genius can have arisen with so small a perceptible stir. Conrad never woke to find himself suddenly famous. And the very scope and essence of his originality is bewildering. For he is not simply original in the ordinary sense, he is volcanic without being anarchic. There is nothing bizarre about Conrad. His work belongs to a tradition (not an English tradition, it is true), but it no more resembles the work from which it derives than a fish spued up from the bottom of the Atlantic might resemble a fish of the surface except in so far as they were both fishes. The volcanic in Conrad staggers some people, whereas his lack of anarchy and fanaticism annoys others. For in England an original writer is the man of ideas rather than the man of subtlety. We want brilliance, and if we cannot have brilliance we want a problem. It is not the least surprising that men like Shaw, Wells, and Galsworthy are so influential. They are influential because they are representative of the best side of English insularity. Of course their popularity is as nothing compared to that of Florence Barclay or Hall Caine, and perhaps not even so big as that of the society novelists, Hichens, Benson, Locke, and so on, but they are probably as popular as any intellectuals are ever likely to be with us. Conrad’s genius, on the other hand, is foreign to even the most advanced English tradition. He is not concerned with righting the world and he is not sparkling. He is neither the novelist of himself like Chesterton nor the novelist of types like Meredith. He is the novelist of real people. Such impersonality has never been appreciated in England. And Conrad’s romantic spirit, too, is alien to the English mind. It is not the mere spirit of improbable adventure, but a sort of philosophy impressing itself with ardour and pessimism upon the splendour and darkness of the world. Romance as the last word of realism is an uncomfortable idea. People hasten to explain it by the word “Slavonic,” just as they hasten to explain the exuberance of his style by the words “The Tropics” — if, indeed, anyone who so transgresses the ideals of Pater and Wilde can be said to have a style at all.
To speak frankly, there is a far-reaching popular delusion as to style. What is regarded by many people as style is technique of a particularly conceited and self-conscious type. Not only has taste for the negative qualities been obliterated, but taste for the robust personal qualities as well. I discuss Conrad’s prose elsewhere, so will merely say here that his defects and his qualities alike would horrify a “stylist.” Who can wonder at the reaction against style or blame those who consider it a devilish invention, banishing jollity, and humanity? Better far revert to fire-works, morality, and complicated plots than swoon with “stylists” in a garden of roses.
That Conrad should have an increasing reputation on the Continent is not astonishing, for, after all, his affinities lie there, but that he is now considerably read in England and America calls for some remark. Of course, there is a fashion in these things, founded chiefly on curiosity and vanity, but we must suppose, also, that Conrad’s enormous power has really begun to make headway against prejudice. If ever a man has forced the enemy’s gate that man is Conrad. It is an odd thing that both in England and America deep originality is generally appreciated in the long run though it may not be much understood. And in both countries people are now becoming “aware” of Conrad, although he is too massive to be seen clearly all at once. It is always thus.
But when we talk of Conrad’s popularity (for fame is not popularity) we must bear in mind that there are other reasons that militate against him. He is aloof not only in his style but in his whole manner and range of subject. He does not give us the warm, comfortable feeling of an Arnold Bennett. About him there is not that placid, unhurried faculty which makes Bennett’s finest novels so engrossing and so easy to read. Conrad is as restless as the sea. And his sardonic humour hovers over his work with a suggestion, not so much of mockery as in Anatole France, as of disillusionment. His irony can be severe (as in “Heart of Darkness”), or it can be a form of pity (as in “Freya of the Seven Islands”), but in any case it is “un-English.” And furthermore, his psychology is partly developed in disquieting hints — in that resembling the wonderful psychology of Dostoyevsky. In no sense is Conrad a “homely” writer. He knows too much about “the secret of hearts” to be that, even had he placed the scenes of his books in the valley of the Thames instead of in the wild places of dark continents, as he usually does. And, indeed, when he choses London for his scene, as in The Secret Agent, there is something mysterious and exotic in his touch which throws a film of sinister romance over the friendly city.
And then, again, Conrad is not preoccupied solely with the emotion of love. That, generally speaking, is the great touchstone of popularity, although, strangely enough, two of the most popular of modern writers, Stevenson and Synge, did try to avoid it as much as possible. It is a sickness that has affected nearly every writer of our time with a fatal loss of the sense of proportion. Of course, literature has always concerned itself with passion, but it is only recently, as time goes, that it has turned it into a universally morbid disease. Introspection has much to answer for in art even if it has unbared for us the last shelters of egoism.
Although Conrad is an artist there is nothing in him of that pale phantom “art for art’s sake.” After all, he is absorbed with life, and his choice of words and his descriptive ability are part of, and not distinct from, that illusion of reality which he is intent on creating. You will not find in him the corrupt simplicity of a George Moore or the dashing pose of a Cunninghame Graham. And being entirely natural he is neither purposely hectic like Masefield, nor purposely vulgar like Kipling. His work, like the work of Henry James, is essentially dignified and quite untinged by the pettiness of conscious self-approval. That is not to deny that it is mannered. In its own way it is as mannered as the work of Stevenson. But Stevenson allowed his love of words to get between him and his object, whereas Conrad, with a similar love of words, realises that they are subordinate to the object itself. Both Conrad and Henry James have a passion for their theme. And thus their mannerisms have a genuine ring and, not being an aim in themselves, merge at last, together with all their other idiosyncrasies, into one revelation of the “grand manner” — a term for expressing real eminence in art.
Although a writer of Conrad’s calibre must eventually have been recognised, still it is interesting to notice that he did appear at a rather favourable moment. Within the last few years a new and vitalising energy has been breathed into English literature, which had been languishing deplorably since the early ‘90’s, since the end of the aesthetes and the dawn of the empire builders. Men of concrete vigour and tireless production are now the leaders. And it is on the crest of their popularity that Conrad, himself outside and beyond their ideals, has achieved fame. Let me make myself clear. He could not have gained his reputation unless he had been what he is, but under the anaemic conditions of twenty years ago he could hardly have gained it at all. A wave of sound common sense has blown the cobwebs out of English literature — (that it has blown in other obnoxious things in their stead is not our business here). Conrad could only be understood in a society where reality had some sort of a hold.
But I will venture the remark that it is Stevenson, rather than the contributors to The Yellow Book or The National Observer, who has poisoned our English critical intelligence for a decade. For Stevenson’s appeal is more cunning. He is neither unhealthy nor exaggerated and he does not lay himself open to ridicule or hatred. Our error has been in taking him too seriously. Why should this charming light-weight be considered a demi-god? His mind was intelligent, humane, but not particularly distinguished, and his style was a transparent and empty mannerism. But his personality was attractive and his appeal has the glitter of romance. And the result of it all is really disastrous. In innumerable minds he is now the model of what an artist should be. And by this standard the great masters are judged and found wanting. Stevenson sailed delightfully over the surface, little guessing of the tragic depths waiting to be plumbed by men like Conrad.
Well, this is something of a digression, but it may serve to show one of the reasons why such a writer as Conrad finds himself, so to speak, on virgin soil in England. People take a long time to admit that there are two sides to a question and a still longer to admit that the second side may be the correct one. And even if they allow Conrad to be an artist, his art may seem to them almost purposeless. Realism uncoloured by erotic emotion appears to belie its title. In England one allows for the attenuated mysticism of a W. B. Yeats or a Rabindranath Tagore, and one allows for the frank sensuality of an H. G. Wells or a D. H. Lawrence, but one looks askance at an austere morality that is founded neither on the life of dreams nor on the restraint of the senses. That- remark of Giorgio Viola’s at the end of Nostromo, when everything is shattering about his head, “Si — duty,” falls upon inattentive ears? Few of us can even appreciate the incorruptibility of the old Garibaldino. But to Conrad duty is the basis not only of existence but of art itself. I state this with no moralising significance — Conrad’s work is built upon no idea other than that of reality. But to him sincerity, duty, self-command are essential to reality. Without them there is only the chaos of anarchy. That is why so much modern literature is worthless — because, in its very essence, it is insincere and consequently anarchic. For there is as much anarchy in the banal as in Post-Impressionism.
I have no wish, in this chapter, to be led into a discussion of Conrad’s work or point of view. I just put forward these instances to try to account, in part, for his lack of wider and deeper appreciation. There are yet other causes no doubt. A certain indirectness in his manner of narration must explain a good deal, and a monotonous richness of language in his earlier work has certainly repelled many. The popular idea of Conrad as a “picturesque” writer is unfortunate, because people at once jump to the conclusion that he is that and nothing more. In the ordinary way there is not much critical discrimination in England and one false cry may help or retard a man’s reputation for years. Still, why should I labour a subject that will soon be merely historical? For I am sure that Conrad’s day is at hand and that once his sun has risen it will not set.
I do not mean, of course, that he will ever be popular. His work is not cast in that mould. But I mean that he will be genuinely revered. The popular appeal is not necessarily debased and Conrad’s work loses something by not possessing it. It loses a certain universal significance which is the birthright of those artists, such artists as Shakespeare, or Turgenev, or even Maupassant, who have also been popular. And it must be understood that by artists I mean realists. In my opinion realists are the only true artists in fiction. And I do not mean the realism of a Zola which is coarseness or the realism of a Dickens which is caricature — I mean, essentially, the realism of a writer like Turgenev or Conrad, the realism, in fact, of typical and distinguished reality. Anthony Trollope, it is true, is a realist, but he has obviously a second rate intelligence and therefore his creations are wanting in the highest actuality. They are not imagined with the passionate nuances of real life. So when I say that Conrad lacks the popular appeal I am not really meaning the appeal of a man like Dickens (great genius though he is), but rather the appeal of a man of his own genre such as Turgenev.
There is something exalted in Conrad’s creations which will for ever keep them slightly apart from widespread sympathy. We must grasp that when comparing him with his contemporaries, some of whom have more than a touch of this intimate, universal appeal. In a sense it is easier to get en rapport with the people of Gissing or Bennett than with the people of Conrad. This is partly for two reasons. Firstly, they have a wider general interest, and secondly they lack just that touch of distinction which is inherent in the projections of a mind as subtly reserved as Conrad’s. About all Conrad’s work there is a kind of aristocratic flavour which has nothing directly to do with the work itself. Just consider the difference between his view of the East and Kipling’s view. There is something sublime about one and something cockney about the other. Conrad is a philosopher and Kipling is an observer. Both have sanity (that uncommon possession), both know their subject, both show literary genius — and yet no two men could be further apart. For Conrad has his eye upon destiny, whereas Kipling has his eye upon Simla society.
Of course, there is a good deal of unfairness in this comparison — as there is in all such comparisons. One sets out to prove a point and one proves it — but other people may not agree that the point is worth, proving or that it has, indeed, been fairly proved. On certain formulas one can demonstrate that almost anyone is either great or negligible. Fortunately unbacked ex parte statements do not carry conviction. I say all this because I am unwilling that people should think that I am simply putting Conrad on a pinnacle. I quite realise Conrad’s defects and I quite realise other people’s merits. But perfection is not necessarily a criterion of genius and the finest writers may be the easiest to criticise. What differentiates Conrad from nearly all his contemporaries is the quality of greatness. He is on a different plane, as it were, and ‘therefore comparisons are almost certain to miss the real point. I present this here as an opinion, but in the following pages I hope to demonstrate it as a truth.
In this chapter I mean to give, first of all, in a perfectly concise and colourless form, the salient facts of Conrad’s life up to the time of his leaving the sea, and then I mean to examine in a more literary and romantic sense his two books of recollections, Some Reminiscences and The Mirror of the Sea. And I hope to throw some light on the autobiographical basis of many of Conrad’s stories. But I would like to say, straight off, that this chapter will not be of much value to the critic for, like the one that follows it, it is informative rather than critical. That stands to reason.
Teodor Jozef Konrad Korzeniowski was born in the Ukraine in the South of Poland on 6th December 1857. In 1861 he removed to Warsaw with his parents, and in 1862 his father, who had been deeply implicated in the last Polish rebellion, was banished to Vologda by the Russian government. His wife and son followed him into exile. In 1865 Conrad’s mother died and his father sent him back to the Ukraine to stay with his maternal uncle (who is spoken of with such affectionate regard in Some Reminiscences), where he remained for five years. That was the happiest period of Conrad’s childhood — this home-life of the country consciously enjoyed and revelled in. Conrad’s first recollection of public matters was the liberation of the serfs, on the committee of which his uncle was one of the leading spirits. In 1869 Conrad’s father was freed on the ground that he was too ill to be dangerous any longer. He carried off his son to Cracow, the old Polish capital, and died there in 1870. Conrad was sent to the gymnasium of St Anne, the foremost public school of the city. There he came under the care of a tutor who influenced him profoundly and who, according to Some Reminiscences, was a man of remarkable intuition. He was put forward by the relations to counteract Conrad’s strange and inborn desire for a sea-life, but after some earnest and futile talks he realised that his efforts would be useless and ceased to trouble the boy! Conrad’s decision was, indeed, final. Brought up in a country without a coast, in a society where he saw no English (though he knew some of the finest English literature from translations by his father), he had yet resolved that he would be an English seaman of the merchant service. And against all obstacles he carried out his plan. It was in 1874 that he went to sea. Marseilles was his “jumping-off ground,” but it was some years before he was able to sail under the Red Ensign. For it was not till three years later that he set foot in England. Before that he had some adventures in the Mediterranean and had twice been to the West Indies. He calls this his wild oats sowing period. In May 1878 he landed at Lowestoft and first touched English soil. At that time he did not know a word of English, but he learnt it rapidly, being helped in a general sense to some extent, by a local boat-builder who understood French. For five months he was on board a Lowestoft coaster, The Skimmer of the Seas, that traded between that port and Newcastle. In October 1878 he joined the Duke of Sutherland, bound for Australia, as ordinary seaman. (Of eighteen men before the mast all were English save Conrad, a Norwegian, two Americans, and a St. Kitts negro called James Wait — a name used just twenty years later for the negro in The Nigger of the “Narcissus.”)
From now onwards till 1894, when he finally left the sea, Conrad’s life was the usual life of a deep-water seaman. He passed for second mate in 1879 and became aMaster in the English Merchant Service in the year of his naturalisation in 1884. In 1890 and again in 1894 (the year before his uncle’s death) he revisited the Ukraine. But I need not continue such details. I have only a short space at my disposal and, that being so, I think I cannot give a better glimpse of Conrad’s existence during all these years than by jotting down, in order, a rough list of the ships he served in, either as officer or in command, from 1880 till 1894. This is a list I scribbled from Conrad’s dictation, and against each name he has added the titles of those stories of his which the different ships suggest. Of course this must be taken for what it is worth — a single episode, perhaps only a single name, in a story may be associated with a certain ship, or, on the other hand, the whole story may be strongly autobiographical and reminiscent. And then, again, different memories are sometimes welded together into one story. In Chance, for instance, there is an episode connected with the Riversdale and another connected with the Torrens. However, here is the list: I give the ships, and then, in brackets, I give the stories they individually call up in Conrad’s mind.
In 1894, as I say, Conrad finally left the sea. He had never fully recovered from/a severe fever that had invalided him from the Congo and his health was now more or less broken. He did not know what to do with himself (he had still some idea of going to sea again), but, almost as an afterthought, he sent in to Fisher Unwin the novel which he had begun about 1889 and which he had completed in odd moments — the novel of Almayer’s Folly. After waiting for three or four months he heard, to his intense surprise, that it was accepted (Edward Garnett, as reader, was responsible) and from henceforward his life is mainly the history of his books, and does not concern us. I will just add that he married in 1896 and has since lived mostly in Kent where he still resides. The turmoil of a creator’s existence has no outward adventure save the meritand reception of his creations, and in that (amongst other things) it differs from the wild and vigorous life of the sea. For long Conrad was only the novelist of a small following (it was a landmark in his career when Henley accepted The Nigger of the “Narcissus” for The New Review in 1897), but, as everyone knows, that following has widened and widened till it now represents the whole intellectual world.
So here I will close my short biography of Joseph Conrad, merely remarking that what I do give is accurate and may serve to straighten out the tangle for future writers. For a mist gathers about famous men’s lives just as surely as it gathers about their achievements. Here, in these few pages are all the essential facts up to a period beyond which it would be impertinent to inquire. And now let me speak of his autobiographical works, The Mirror of the Sea and Some Reminiscences.
Of Conrad’s two books of memories and impressions, The Mirror of the Sea (1906) is the first. It may be described as a sort of prose-poem about the sea, and a poem founded not alone upon flights of imagery but upon profound realism and knowledge of detail. Its basis of personal reminiscence expands in the rare qualities of poetry and romance. The Mirror of the Sea is the most eloquent of all Conrad’s books. It has something of the grave and exalted eloquence of Paradise Lost, but there is in it, too, a passion of affection and regret very different from the spirit in which Milton wrote. In a sense The Mirror of the Sea is Conrad’s most intimate and revealing book, because the sea is the one thing about which his enthusiasm is for ever undimmed by his pessimistic philosophy. Sentiment rather than reason is the ruling spirit of The Mirror of the Sea. In this work of romance and sea-wisdom, of hard fact and of warm colour, of the chance recollections of old adventure and association is enshrined the true allegiance of a life-time. Its high and glowing eloquence is an offering to the deep, charmed waters. For the sea has been the most powerful, the most urgent influence in Conrad’s life. It has tinged his art with the brilliance, with the sombre glory of its moods, it has fired his imagination with its fickle repose and mighty upheavals. And Conrad’s chief faith in humanity seems to have arisen from contact with the sea. Let me explain my meaning in his own words: —
Having matured in the surroundings and under the special conditions of sea-life, I have a special piety towards that form of my past; for its impressions were vivid, its appeal direct, its demands such as could be responded to with the natural elation of youth and strength equal to the call. There was nothing in them to perplex a young conscience. Having broken away from my origins under a storm of blame from every quarter which had the merest shadow of right to voice an opinion, removed by great distances from such natural affections as were still left to me, and even estranged, in a measure, from them by the totally unintelligible character of the life which had seduced me so mysteriously from my allegiance, I may safely say that through the blind force of circumstances the sea was to be all my world and the merchant service my only home for a long succession of years. No wonder then that in my two exclusively sea books, The Nigger of the “Narcissus” and The Mirror of the Sea (and in the few short sea stories like Youth and Typhoon), I have tried with an almost filial regard to render the vibration of life in the great world of waters, in the hearts of the simple men who have for ages traversed its solitudes, and also that something sentient which seems to dwell in ships — the creatures of their hands and the objects of their care. (Some Reminiscences, pp. 12-3.)
These, surely, are the words of a supreme devotion.
The scheme of The Mirror of the Sea, apparently simple, is in fact subtle with the cross-currents of fact and fancy and with Conrad’s strange and misleading method of narration. In its two realms it might almost remind one of Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno — though in The Mirror of the Sea, the two realms are but two aspects of the same underlying emotion — the emotion of fidelity and love. The book deals with the sea in all its shades of storm and calm, in its historical and mystical significance, and in its influence upon the unsophisticated hearts of seamen. Long conversations intersperse with visions and recollection of strange or familiar waters. There are chapters on landfalls and departures, on Conrad’s own experiences on board the smuggling balancelle Tremolino in the Mediterranean (a curious and fascinating chapter about his early days at sea), on Nelson and the spirit he inculcated, and on many another topic of the sea. And throughout the book the language is beautiful with the soft cadence, with the music, with the reserve force of the ocean itself. Let me give three short passages to represent the tone of the whole work: —
Nobody ever comes back from a “missing” ship to tell how hard was the death of the craft, and how sudden and overwhelming the last anguish of her men. Nobody can say with what thoughts, with what regrets, with what words on their lips they died. But there is something fine in the sudden passing away of these hearts from the extremity of struggle and stress and tremendous uproar — from the vast, unrestful rage of the surface to the profound peace of the depths, sleeping untroubled since the beginning of ages. (The Mirror of the Sea, p. 94.)
For a moment the succession of silky undulations ran on innocently. I saw each of them swell up the misty line of the horizon, far, far away beyond the derelict brig, and the next moment, with a slight friendly toss of our boat, it had passed under us and was gone. The lulling cadence of the rise and fall, the invariable gentleness of this irresistible force, the great charm of the deep waters, warmed my breast deliciously, like the subtle poison of a love-potion. But all this lasted only a few soothing seconds before I jumped up too, making the boat roll like the veriest land-lubber. (The Mirror of the Sea, p. 227.)
Like a subtle and mysterious elixir poured into the perishable day of successive generations, it grows in truth, splendour, and potency with the march of ages. In its incorruptible flow all round the globe of the earth it preserves from the decay and forgetfulness of death the greatness of our great men, and amongst them the passionate and gentle greatness of Nelson, the nature of whose genius was, on the faith of a brave seaman and distinguished Admiral, such as to “Exalt the glory of our nation.” (The Mirror of the Sea, p. 306.)
Some Reminiscences (1912) followed six years later. This is more eminently a genuine work of autobiography than is The Mirror of the Sea, but even so it will mislead a great many people who go to it for facts. For it is as much the story of Mr. Nicholas B.’s life and of his uncle’s life as of Conrad’s own; and even of himself it talks with but fragmentary voice, leaving him, so to speak, upon the threshold of his first voyage. Certainly there are glimpses of the later Conrad, of him as ship’s officer, for instance, and even of him as a guest at his uncle’s Polish house in later years, but they flash upon the page only to tantalise. For the artistically erratic and reminiscent form of biography can be seen in this book in its absolute perfection. You catch sight of some new fact almost as Macbeth caught a sight of the dagger.
An exaggeration, of course, but let it pass. For Some Reminiscences was not meant to be a mine of facts. No, it was conceived in something of the same mood as was The Mirror of the Sea — not exactly in that mood of lyrical exultation, but in a mood of casual, sweet, and drawn-out remembrance. It is a book of childhood, stirred with the first ripples of a lasting passion — the passion of the sea — and overlaid with the adventurous and pensive recollections of a man. Its whole formation points to a mood of lingering memory. Indeed, it is in that, especially, that it resembles The Mirror of the Sea. Of course, there is a great artistic finesse hidden in this air of casual browsing. Both of these books present Conrad’s literary skill at its nicest balance. Their parts are fitted together with the precision and delicacy of a complicated puzzle. But we should realise that the art is at least as much moulded to the mood as the mood is conjured up for the benefit of the art. For these are the works of a true artist, of an artist whose mind and technique would be averse to the obvious form of bald biographical statement. Besides, Conrad’s purpose in them is rather to create an atmosphere than to satisfy curiosity. The real artist is reticent about himself, for impersonality is rooted in his whole idea of art. Indeed, he cannot reveal himself save through the medium of his work.
Some Reminiscences contains much of Conrad’s most finished prose. Less eloquent than The Mirror of the Sea, it is more urbane and more closely knit. His descriptions of people such as his uncle, his tutor, and the original of Almayer, are telling in the accuracy and detail of the portraits, and the whole book is enlivened by the firm lightness of his touch. Moreover, it contains passages of exceptional splendour. I will quote but one, the last in the book, the description of how Conrad first saw, outside the harbour of Marseilles, the Red Ensign floating from the mast of an English ship. It is most beautiful: —
Her head swung a little to the west, pointing towards the miniature lighthouse of the Jolliette breakwater, far away there, hardly distinguishable against the land. The dinghy danced a squashy, splashy jig in the wash of the wake and turning in my seat I followed the James Westoll with my eyes. Before she had gone in a quarter of a mile she hoisted her flag as the harbour regulations prescribe for arriving and departing ships. I saw it suddenly flicker and stream out on the flagstaff. The Red Ensign! In the pellucid, colourless atmosphere bathing the drab and grey masses of that southern land, the livid islets, the sea of pale glassy blue under the pale glassy sky of that cold sunrise, it was as far as the eye could reach the only spot of ardent colour — flame-like, intense, and presently as minute as the tiny red spark the concentrated reflection of a great fire kindles in the clear heart of a globe of crystal. The Red Ensign — the symbolic, protecting warm bit of bunting flung wide upon the seas, and destined for so many years to be the only roof over my head. (Some Reminiscences, p. 236-7.)
These two books are Conrad’s only direct contributions to the history of his autobiography. And, as I said before, they are not strictly autobiographical at all. To create the atmosphere of youth and of the sea, to summon up the illusions of a vanished time, to pay a debt of gratitude and love, these appear to be the mainsprings of their energy and enthusiasm. The best phases of Conrad’s manner can be studied in them to perfection. For the romantic imagery of The Mirror of the Sea is as typical of the earlier Conrad as the faint and rounded irony of Some Reminiscences is typical of the later Conrad. They are as surely his testament as are the Confessions the testament of Rousseau. But what a gulf of difference separates the two men! For it is in such things, above all, that the secret character reveals itself. Who, for instance, would not respect Evelyn more than Pepys, and like Pepys more than Evelyn? And Conrad, in his two books of memories, stands before us in the clear light of day. He may tell us little about himself in one way, in the material way, but in another he tells us much. To read these books sympathetically is to understand Conrad’s attitude towards life and art. His works should never again be mysterious to us, as the works of the few men of real temperamental genius are so apt to be. No, these two books of Conrad’s are the true “open sesame” to his novels and stories. In the complete rectitude and sincerity of his art he never allows imagination to rob him for more than a moment of his hold upon the earth.
Indeed, as I said before, many of his stories are actually founded upon incidents of his own career. That is partly why they possess, against their romantic background, such an air of invincible reality. They are the products of an enormously active and dramatic memory, a memory whose main outline is filled in and amplified by a very sure artistic grasp. Conrad’s philosophy and romance may colour all his work but they never distort it. For they only exist to the point of making his realism more dramatic. His own reminiscences are the foundation of his stories — sometimes obviously, sometimes so subtly that no exact relationship could be established. For I think one does feel that almost all the characters in Conrad, and a great proportion of the events, have definite prototypes — if it be only in embryo. And the more one studies these two autobiographical books the more one feels this. For he shows us admittedly real people, admittedly real incidents precisely as he shows us the people and incidents of imagination. His is the art, which, at its best, conceals the effort in the consummate ease and realism of his manner. And, consequently, in the two books where he is recounting actual adventures there is neither a greater nor a lesser air of reality than in his stories and novels. For the realism of the former is toned down by art and the art of the latter is saturated with realism.
I cannot end this chapter without commenting on the astonishing series of events that led a Polish boy to enter the British Merchant Service, and a master mariner to become a novelist. It seems quite incomprehensible — one of these marvellous “flukes” that fate keeps up its sleeve for a hundred years and then flings in our face. I will not enlarge: it is more astounding as a mere fact than any embroidery could make it. It is, indeed, strangely appropriate that the man who has led one of the most wandering and one of the hardest lives of our time should have written the most realistically-romantic novels of our age.
Letme say at once that this chapter, like the previous one, is of small critical importance and will not interest real students of Conrad. They are advised not to read it. It is, as it were, spade-work — rather dull but of a certain value. For I think it best, before starting upon a reasoned examination of Conrad’s art, to give a short summary of all his published novels and stories. (I say “published,” because Mr. Conrad has completed another novel of the East which has not yet appeared, and also because there are about half a dozen short stories of his which have been issued serially but have not as yet been gathered into a volume. But there is nothing to be gained from criticising work that cannot easily be consulted.) So that this chapter must be considered more explanatory than critical. And yet even in my summaries I present the spirit rather than the story — they are not complete, they only suggest the salient ideas. Conrad’s books are not sufficiently well known for one to assume a general knowledge of them in every reader, and as I shall constantly have to refer to them it does seem wiser to have them definitely and concisely before our eyes once and for all. Of course an objection may well be raised to the method of this book as a whole; and, in the ordinary course, I agree that a more valuable study might be produced by devoting a separate chapter to each one of Conrad’s books rather than by dwelling on the distinct phases of his work. No one can see more clearly than I do the danger of discussing an author’s qualities in any other way but as part of a criticism of individual books — the books not being a mere casket containing various mental attributes but themselves the living body — but I have decided on the course I have because I want to prove certain things about Conrad which will pave the road to a more minute study of his books. I do not lose sight of the fact that, though individual excellencies may make a novelist remarkable, it is only by the continuity of the completed structure that he can be judged as an artist — I do not lose sight of that fact either in theory or in practice. For this book is not a mere introduction to Conrad, though, being a pioneer book, I have had to lay emphasis on things that in future may be taken for granted and to treat his work, consequently, in a manner that is not the ideally critical one. Some day Conrad may have a critic who will build up a vast edifice from the subtle dissection of a few novels; but for me it is enough to prove that he is a writer worthy of such a critic.
This, therefore, must be my excuse for the arrangement of the whole book and for the drawn-out simplicity of this special chapter.
Up to the present Conrad has published ten novels (two of them in collaboration with Ford Madox Hueffer) and five volumes of stories. I will examine his own novels to begin with.
His first book is Almayer’s Folly (1895). This “story of an Eastern River” is one of illusion, weariness, and irresistible passion. Almayer is the white trader, the only white trader, of Sambir, a distant and obscure settlement up the river Pantai of an island in the Dutch East Indies. He has been there many, many years, first with high hope, with much business, and under the protection of powerful Captain Lingard, the famous and dreaded “Rajah Laut,” but latterly with nothing left to him but his love for his half-caste daughter Nina and his belief in a vast treasure waiting for him in the interior. For Captain Lingard has disappeared for ever, ruined and broken, and the wily Abdulla, the Arab treacherously introduced so long ago by Willems (see An Outcast of the Islands), has sapped the very life of his trade. A heretic amongst the True Believers, the once-influential Almayer passes a despised and perilous existence beside the steaming waters of the Pantai. Everything around him has sunk into decay before his brooding and embittered sight, but at last hope, in the form of Dain Maroola, a Malay of noble family, has come to him with the promise of wealth. For it is with Dain the great expedition into the interior is to be made. And with the gold he and Nina will escape from their prison to Europe, and all the misery of the past will be blotted out. But in these visions of a splendid future Almayer is blind to the present, and even as he dreams of perfect felicity, Dain, the conspirator, has stolen away the heart of Nina. And far from that forlorn and hopeless spot she flies with him across the sea, the mysterious and untamed Nina, to the house of his father, the Rajah. But Almayer, weakly violent and affectionate by turns, sinks under the double blow of calamity and disappointment.
There is a secret air of plotting in this book, the plotting of the local Rajah, Lakamba, and his councillor, the one-eyed and pessimistic Babalatchi, the plotting of Almayer and Dain, of Dain and the Rajah, of Dain and Nina, of Babalatchi and Mrs. Almayer, of Abdulla and the Dutch, and, as it were, the patient and sombre plotting of the forces of nature. For the stifling, moist, and foetid smell of the jungle fills the book with a whispered tension. The poisonous breath of the river and of the rotting forests seems to have entered into the hearts of all these actors, and there is positive relief in the thought of Almayer’s death. Almayer’s Folly is not one of Conrad’s easiest stories to read. Its monotonous and oppressive atmosphere has an almost physical effect upon the nerves. But it is an imposing effort of its kind, this sinister revelation of a tropical backwater.
Conrad’s next book is An Outcast of the Islands (1896). This is another tragic story of Sambir and the Pantai, and it would have been almost better to consider it before Almayer’s Folly because it treats of a date fifteen to twenty years anterior to that novel. In An Outcast of the Islands Almayer is still young and Nina a tiny child. Captain Lingard is still in his full vigour, there is still activity on the wharf of Lingard and Co., and the influence of Abdulla is but a shadow. And, indeed, all might have remained well but for the cursed Willems, Hudig’s defaulting clerk from Macassar. It was Captain Lingard, autocratic and indulgent, who had given Willems his first start in life, and it was Captain Lingard who bore him off to the safe retreat of Sambir when the outraged Hudig thrust him forth with curses. From the outset Willems and Almayer hate one another. It is a thing the likelihood of which Captain Lingard should have guessed. When he sailed down the river, leaving the two men together in the treacherous solitude of the forest, he might have known that disaster would follow. But he knew only that his will was law and that he, the benevolent despot, was doing everything for the best. Willems, idle and bored to death, meets in his forest walks the enchanting Aïssa, daughter of the old sea-pirate who lives under Lakamba’s protection. They love with the swift and passionate abandon of the East. And it is in the slavish infatuation of this white man that the one-eyed Babalatchi grasps an opening for his eternal sense of intrigue. Aïssa is taken secretly from Willems, and in the madness of his raving he is told that only under one condition will he ever see her again — on the condition of pilotting Abdulla’s ship from the river’s mouth to the settlement. Abdulla is rich, he is unscrupulous, and once he is in Sambir the power of Lingard, the dreaded “Rajah Laut,” will cease. The infatuated Willems, a megalomaniac and a man without conscience, commits this baseness; and the rich preserve of the white captain, his benefactor, is filched from him for ever.
The latter part of the story consists of Captain Lingard’s punishment of Willems. He returns to the settlement and he finds out all from the indignant Almayer. On his boat he had actually brought with him Willem’s wife and child and he came back full of plans and good thoughts for his protégé. But his revenge is terrible enough. He sentences Willems to perpetual imprisonment in a dark clearing of the Pantai. Before him the river, behind him and on both sides the impenetrable jungle. Willem’s love for Aïssa has turned to loathing and he seeks desperately to escape. But at the moment of his flight (made possible — in appearance — by the treachery of Almayer), she shoots him with his own revolver.
The story of An Outcast of the Islands is one of violent emotion soon spent — like a tropical downpour. There is scheming in it, hatred, and passion. The action is, I consider, too long drawn out, but the situation is impressive and even terrible. As in Almayer’s Folly the teeming, patient, and silent life of the wilds weighs upon every person and thing, colouring the whole aspect of nature not only in a material but in a spiritual sense. An Outcast of the Island reeks of the dank undergrowth.
The Nigger of the “Narcissus” (1898) is Conrad’s third novel. It is the story of one voyage of the sailing-ship Narcissus from Bombay to London — a story dealing with calms and with storms, with mutiny on the high seas, with bravery and with cowardice, with tumultuous life, and with death, the releaser from toil. “The nigger of the Narcissus” is James Wait, a huge St Kitts negro, who is dying from consumption but who clings to existence with scorn, with terror, and with evil words. His sinking life hangs like a mill-stone round the hearts of the sailors. Only Donkin, the Cockney, who pilfers from the dying man, feels in his dirty little soul no touch of compassion.
It is, in fact, the nigger who is the centre figure of the book. From the moment he steps aboard at Bombay till the moment his dead body is lowered into the northern sea he dominates the whole life of the ship. The wastrel Donkin is cunning enough to use him and his illness as a lever for stirring up unrest in the hearts of the crew. They admire their officers but they cannot understand their attitude towards the dying man. And bewilderment to simple men is the first step in disorganisation. But the individual human interest is incidental to the real purpose of the story, which is to conjure up the actual spirit of a voyage, to make it live again before our very eyes. This book is realistic in the finest sense, alike in its atmosphere and its characterisation. We can almost smell the ocean, almost feel the ship moving beneath our feet, almost sense the tropical heat and the winter cold. And it is the same when we come to look at the men. The pictures of the three officers, and of such men as Singleton, “a sixty-year-old child of the mysterious sea,” of Podmore the cook, of Craig (known commonly as “Belfast”), of Wait the nigger, and of the despised (and influential) Donkin, are extraordinarily defined and brilliant.
It is impossible to say much about The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” because it is still more a novel without a plot than Vanity Fair is a novel without a hero. And yet it is one of Conrad’s most original conceptions. He alone has ever written such a book. It has the vividness of an actual experience touched by the magic glitter of remembrance. The descriptions of the sea and of the life on board are strangely beautiful. The Nigger of the “Narcissus” has the qualities of an epic — an epic of the arduous, the exacting, and the enslaving service of the sea.
Lord Jim (1900) is Conrad’s next novel. It is a story of remorse and of the effort to regain self-respect for a deed of fatal and unexpected cowardice. The sea and secluded Eastern settlements are the background. “Lord Jim,” son of a clergyman, and a young man of romantic imagination, faith in himself, and an almost morbid sensibility, is an officer on the pilgrimship Patna, a “steamer as old as the hills, lean like a greyhound, and eaten up with rust worse than a condemned water-tank.” On a calm night in the Red Sea, while Jim on the bridge, lulled into a sense of delicious and perfect security, is awaiting the end of his watch, the Patna