Joseph Conrad, Writer of Tales

“Everything can be found at sea, according to the spirit of your quest—strife, peace, romance, naturalism of the most pronounced kind, ideals, boredom, disgust, inspiration—and every conceivable opportunity, including the opportunity to make a fool of yourself, exactly as in the pursuit of literature. But the quarter-deck criticism is somewhat different from literary criticism. This much they have in common, that before the one and the other the answering back, as a general rule, does not pay…”

Yes, that will just about do the trick, I’d say, as a sample of the consummate high style and questing thematic bent that we call ‘Conradian.’

Joseph Conrad’s standing among the greatest of modern novelists has never been under serious threat, as far as I’m aware. Even FR Leavis had him marked up as one of Literature’s A-team. Faber novelist Giles Foden, in an essay marking the 150th anniversary of the great man’s birth, did worry that contemporary readers might find him a tad opaque, but this only an aside to the task of reaffirming Conrad’s ‘genius.’ Newfound admirers can join in the deliberations of more hardcore Conradians at the Joseph Conrad Society. For me the youthful discovery of his novels was revelatory in many ways, one little shock being that a Pole (in the manner of certain Russians, Irish and Americans I’d already read) could write English so much better than the mass of writers born in England.

Conrad is represented in Faber Finds by his 1912 memoir A Personal Record: Some Reminiscences, a work that is considered somewhat sketchy as autobiography (inasmuch as it is reticent and digressive by turns) but which is nonetheless, per the above quotation, a ravishing read. I’m not sure it even does the job of explaining why Conrad opted finally for the writing life. “The greatest of my gifts being a consummate capacity for doing nothing”, he says at one point, “I cannot even point to boredom as a rational stimulus for taking up a pen.” And yet he lets us know that he did indeed have “a pen rolling about somewhere”… and in due course turned himself into “a writer of tales.” (Indeed a mighty one: I think I once heard Martin Amis relate a hearsay legend that Conrad could quite vexed by visitors to his home who were not interested in inspecting for themselves the very pen with which the master wrote Nostromo.)

Conrad was hard to pin down as a writer and a man. ‘I have been called romantic’, he remarks in A Personal Record. ‘Well, that can’t be helped…’ If you were to describe for some uninitiated reader the basic plots of Nostromo or The Secret Agent, or even Heart of Darkness – said reader might assume this was an essentially political novelist, a dramatist too, but with a strong attachment to realism. Of course, that wouldn’t begin to do Conrad justice. (Leavis, who scorned the art of cinema, nonetheless thought Conrad made a good match for the movies: he was wrong, Conrad among the most striking proofs of Hitchcock’s law that the best books don’t make good films.)

For Leavis good books were also moral books, and he gave Conrad a distinguished pass on that score. But A Personal Record shows Conrad’s very mixed feelings on the matter. The following passage, which starts out with lecture-hall sobriety only to take flight spectacularly, is worth quoting at length.

“The ethical view of the universe involves us at last in so many cruel and absurd contradictions, where the last vestiges of faith, hope, charity, and even of reason itself, seem ready to perish, that I have come to suspect that the aim of creation cannot be ethical at all. I would fondly believe that its object is purely spectacular: a spectacle for awe, love, adoration, or hate, if you like, but in this view—and in this view alone—never for despair! Those visions, delicious or poignant, are a moral end in themselves. The rest is our affair—the laughter, the tears, the tenderness, the indignation, the high tranquillity of a steeled heart, the detached curiosity of a subtle mind—that’s our affair! And the unwearied self-forgetful attention to every phase of the living universe reflected in our consciousness may be our appointed task on this earth—a task in which fate has perhaps engaged nothing of us except our conscience, gifted with a voice in order to bear true testimony to the visible wonder, the haunting terror, the infinite passion, and the illimitable serenity; to the supreme law and the abiding mystery of the sublime spectacle…”

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