The Burden of Isolation

An unhappy man remains unconsoled by his own literary genius.

In this age of canon reformation, Joseph Conrad’s readership, at least as evidenced by the relative infrequency with which his major novels turn up on school and university course syllabi, is smaller than it once was. It has been a long time since F.R. Leavis confidently charted for the English novel a great tradition that began with Jane Austen and passed through George Eliot, Henry James and Conrad en route to D.H. Lawrence. With the exception of Austen, these weighty names now seem more honoured in the invocation than in the actual reading, even among students enrolled in English literature programs. Conrad in particular has two strikes against him on the critical fashion front. Because of a subject matter often rooted in his early experience as a voyager to exotic and dangerous parts, he has the reputation of being a writer who appeals primarily to men. And the work of his that, courtesy of its relative shortness, does still turn up on many English courses (with such regularity as on occasion to elicit from the critics’ section in the back row the collective groan “Not Heart of Darkness again!”) is as likely as not to be approached via the dubiously useful question of whether it should be deemed racist. Discussion of this charge, laid 30 years ago in a famous but carelessly argued essay by Chinua Achebe, seems an unkindly limiting pedagogical route into a work that did more than any other piece of writing—imaginative or polemical—to bring to public awareness the appalling record of slavery and brutality in the administration of the Belgian Congo. Of such ironies is politico-critical fashion made, although this one does seem particularly harsh given that by the ahistorical standards of those post-colonial critics who find the charge proved, it would be virtually impossible to identify a major European writer active at any time between the Renaissance and the Second World War whose work was not susceptible to the same judgement.

Nearly 30 years ago now, the American scholar Frederick R. Karl published a biography entitled Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives. On length grounds alone—clocking in at 1,000+ pages—it more than earned its publisher’s promotional designation as “magisterial.” The three lives in question, identified by Conrad himself, were as Pole, man of the sea and writer, the last lived in what was Conrad’s third language, learned as an adult after his seafaring career took him at the age of 20 to England, the adopted country in which he was to establish his reputation as one of the world’s great modernist writers. Presumably in a deliberate nod to Karl’s earlier work, Stape—editor of The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad and co-editor of volumes 7 and 9 of the Collected Letters—also makes titular play with the idea of the multiplicity of his subject’s lives.

However, his book is conspicuously unlike Karl’s in having brevity as one of its declared aims, “particularly as biographies of late have tended to bloat, stuffed with undigested facts or marred by distorting ‘angles’.” Conrad biography has itself not been immune to the general tendency. Standing between Karl and Stape, for example, is Joseph Conrad: A Biography by Jeffrey Meyers, which expended much obsessive energy, out of all proportion to the documentable facts or to the significance of the speculations had they been documentable, on Conrad’s relationship and possible affair with the “vivacious and reckless” American journalist Jane Anderson. Stape resists such enticements to gossipy unveilings, making his primary claims to originality with his perspectives on Conrad as husband, father and friend.

Even his family and those relatively few people counted among his close friends would probably not have suggested that Conrad’s talents in any of these roles warranted more than that bleak standby of harried schoolteachers at report card time, “can do better.” The version of Conrad we get here is of a man perennially overwhelmed by circumstance and constitutional depressiveness. A few months before that first journey to England, while living, largely unemployed, in Marseille, having gambled away what few financial resources he had managed to borrow, he actually attempted suicide, the bullet from his revolver passing close to his heart without doing any lasting damage. This was the shape of emotional crises to come, although they never again brought him so close to self-destruction. Recurrently plagued by money worries and incapable of living within his means, even when literary success rendered these quite substantial, susceptible to bouts of “nerve trouble” and gout, unprepared for marriage and still less ready for fatherhood, demanding of his friends emotionally as well as financially and quick to take offence but slow to offer reconciliation—Conrad’s brooding presence haunts the pages of this book, capable of eliciting grudging respect or lukewarm sympathy but little real affection. Stape has a good eye for the cameo domestic moment that speaks worlds, as in his observation that Conrad, when annoyed, which he seems to have been with some regularity, “had a habit of flicking bread pellets at table, even in restaurants … once served a calf’s head by his wife, he refused to eat it by pettishly turning his chair round until the offending dish was removed.”

In Stape’s account of the day-by-day minutiae of Conrad’s claustrophobic married life—all the more enclosed in contrast to the wide-ranging journeyings of his youth—these temperamental glooms become the ground bass to the sad coexistence of family members who give the appearance of being holed up in each other’s lives largely by accident. Jessie George, the working-class girl from South London to whom Conrad proposed marriage by the unconventional strategy of revealing that he was in poor health, had little time to live and wouldn’t have children (assertions that proved to be substantially inaccurate on all three counts), herself progressively declined into ill health and morbid obesity. She ultimately attracted Lady Ottoline Morrell’s unflattering assessment that she was “a good-looking fat creature” and “reposeful mattress” for Conrad. Borys, the elder son, whose health in childhood gave frequent cause for concern, survived the First World War, at the cost of severe shellshock, and declined into depression that ultimately led, after his father’s death, to bankruptcy, a charge of fraud and a year’s imprisonment in Wormwood Scrubs. The younger son, John, had a somewhat less fraught youth, although he was only 18 when his father died, and was to lose both his own sons to car accidents. This is a family that in the midst of middle-class comfort, much of it provided by friends and institutions (a grant from the Royal Literary Fund here, a Royal Bounty Grant there) committed to the collective task of keeping Conrad writing, is dogged by misfortune, much of it self-induced.

Out of the grind of daily domestic and professional survival Stape constructs his account of a life that seemed to bring few enduring contentments. This is not in any developed way a literary-critical biography. Individual writings are mentioned only to indicate what Conrad is up to professionally in any given year: little attempt is made either to explicate or evaluate them in more detail than is provided by passing comment on increasing or declining creative energies. In fact, Stape seems rather more interested in documenting what their often economically embarrassed author got out of them monetarily than what he put into them imaginatively. This emphasis generates some quite astonishing figures as, with the aid of the Economic History Services website, Stape offers equivalents in 2005 money for amounts owed and earned by Conrad. Attempting to adjust not only for yearly inflation but also for the increase in average income, he suggests, for example, that a contemporary equivalent for the £2,700 that Conrad owed his agent, J.B. Pinker, in 1910 becomes £240,000 when merely adjusted for inflation but jumps to a colossal £973,000 in 2005 funds when the debt is also expressed in relation to average incomes in the two years. It seems barely credible that, long-suffering as Pinker was in his dealings with the Micawberish Conrad, an agent, then or now, would allow one of his authors to run up a debt to him of close to a million pounds. But Stape would seem to have economic authority on his side for these calculations.

Certainly the worrying of monetary detail into forms to which the modern reader can relate helps to contextualize the domestic, social and professional realities of Conrad’s life. This laudable aim is further bolstered by a useful group of appendices offering maps, family trees, a who’s who biographical checklist of Conrad’s circle and a guide to pronunciation (this last bearing, perhaps, the stamp of rather fussy authorial micro-management: not limited to glossing the inscrutabilities of Polish for readers of English, it includes such potential puzzlers as “Gillingham: JILL-ing-uhm,” “Greenwich: GREN-itch” and “Vauxhall: VOK-sull”).

But for all its atmospheric authenticity, there is an irony in the picture of Conrad that emerges from this study that may not have been intended, or even fully recognized, by its author. As he moves into the cadences of closure, Stape attempts to get a summative purchase on Conrad’s self-contradictory defining features: a “punctilious English gentleman in bowler and monocle” troubled by “his essential loneliness and sense of the horror of existence,” “an anguished, self-riven man awkwardly straddling the late-Victorian and early-Modern periods,” but also “undeniably ‘one of us’.” But rather more suggestively than he might be said to be one of us (a curtain-line phrase closing many a biography eager to make facile claims for the contemporaneity of its subject), Stape’s Conrad also shares some of the qualities of the fictional characters through whom his brilliant imaginative evocations of the alienated and automatized moods of the modern experience are effected. Those “material interests” that haunt his greatest novel, Nostromo (frequently mentioned by critics in the same breath as War and Peace), obscuring and finally destroying the humanity that they might have served, have an echo in Stape’s rendering of Conrad’s life too.

The figure who comes most irresistibly to mind as one closes this book is Nostromo’s Martin Decoud, the boulevardier, cynic and social aspirant who, stranded on an island alone with a fortune in silver, succumbs to that burden of isolation often identified by scholars as being definitionally Conradian. The trigger that Decoud pulls grants him the irreversible release from the traumas of consciousness that the 20-year-old Conrad was fortunately denied: “A victim of the disillusioned weariness which is the retribution meted out to intellectual audacity, the brilliant Don Martin Decoud, weighted by the bars of San Tomé silver, disappeared without a trace, swallowed up in the immense indifference of things.” This biography, with its sharp focus on the mental and physical fragilities, emotional inversions and nagging material preoccupations of Conrad’s domestic and professional circumstances, may have identified the forces in his life that, with the assistance of temperamental proclivity and genius, made Conrad such a remarkably subtle and moving chronicler of the modern condition.