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Book Review

In 'Several Lives,' biographer fails to get to the heart of Conrad

English was the third language of Joseph Conrad. English was the third language of Joseph Conrad. (Charles beresford)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Matthew Price
May 13, 2008

The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad, By John Stape, Pantheon, 369 pp., illustrated, $30

Joseph Conrad made great claims on behalf of his art. He famously declared that "my task . . . is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel - it is, before all, to make you see." In a succession of masterpieces - his famous novella "Heart of Darkness" and a quartet of novels, "Lord Jim," "Nostromo," "The Secret Agent," and "Under Western Eyes" - Conrad made good on the claim.

He brought a visionary style and a grave moral seriousness to his stories of tormented exiles, marooned sailors, imperial adventurers, brooding spies, and political radicals, and, along with Henry James, helped push the English novel into the modern era. Reading him takes effort. His writing is beset by a portentous self-consciousness - there is a lot of metaphysical heavy weather to contend with. Yet his finest work holds you in the rarest kind of spell.

Conrad's achievement is all the more remarkable when you consider the fact that English wasn't his first language. It wasn't even his second - that was French. How, then, did a Polish-born seaman with little formal education transform himself into one of the 20th century's most important novelists? It's a fascinating question to ponder, but don't look to John Stape's tepid, lifeless biography for any good answers.

"The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad" is an odd, frustrating book. The facts are all there (and much minutiae besides), but it's as if Stape thinks the information should do all the work. This is only half of the equation. It's up to the biographer to shape the facts of a life into a coherent portrait, and Stape fails considerably in this regard. Chronology is not biography. We are taken from birth to death, yet Stape is reluctant to get inside Conrad's head, and we learn little about the writer's complex psyche, what drove him, what influenced him, or even what he looked like. (Stape himself calls his biography "deliberately constrained" - a colossal understatement.) Stape is curiously reluctant to provide much literary judgment or context, so the uninitiated will find the book virtually useless; those familiar with Conrad will find it merely dull.

Conrad was born Josef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857 in formerly Polish territory under Russian control. (It is now part of the Ukraine.) By 11, he was an orphan. His mother and his father, a journalist and Polish nationalist who fell afoul of the Tsarist police for his political activities, both died of tuberculosis. A kindly uncle took in the young Conrad, and became something of a mentor. Conrad's early years were entirely landlocked, but he was drawn to a life on the sea. This "would be a break from everything he had known, including the life of his nation," and he would be liberated from the past. Stape, however, does little with Conrad's time as a sailor, save document the ships on which he served and catalog the various ports he visited in East Asia, the Malay Archipelago, and South America. How did this offer liberation from his past? On these voyages, Conrad would learn much about duty, honor, bravery, and cowardice - all major themes in his work - but Stape gives us little more than an itinerary.

In the early 1890s, Conrad journeyed to the Congo, a trip that would prove decisive and give him the material for "Heart of Darkness." His three-year stay nearly killed him - he contracted a fever, the effects of which he felt for the rest of his life. He started on his first novel, "Almayer's Folly," and settled in London. The literary world filled him with trepidation - "as inviting as a peep into a brigand's cave and a good deal less reassuring," he told a friend. Yet Conrad slowly worked his way into the literary establishment - his friends included Henry James and John Galsworthy, among many others - and made himself into an English gentleman and man of letters.

It is as a guide to Conrad's emergence as a major English writer that Stape proves most disappointing. We are given much about Conrad's financial dealings, his advances, and the work of his literary agents, so much so that you feel as if you're reading the work of an accountant, not a literary biographer. Conrad elevated the spy story and the sea adventure into searching moral inquiries and grappled with the vexed issues of imperialism and colonialism. Conrad's work has provoked a mountain of criticism, but Stape is mute on the subject of Conrad's larger, still controversial reputation. Stape writes that Conrad is "uncommonly influential on novelists" like Graham Greene and John le Carré, and quotes short review snippets from the English literary press, but none of his major critics, among them F. R. Leavis and Edward Said, who have approached Conrad from radically different directions.

Conrad never ceases to be relevant. "The Secret Agent," for example, has often been cited since 9/11 for its exploration of the terrorist mind - it is also one of the great novels about London - and "Heart of Darkness" still provokes furious debates about racism and colonialism. Conrad has been called a racist and a reactionary for his political views, charges his biographer doesn't address. Stape is up front about his focus on the life and not the works, but this leaves his biography with a gaping void. Conrad is a difficult writer who requires careful explanation; Stape's summaries of Conrad's writing are cursory and bland. A major writer deserves much better.

Matthew Price is a critic and journalist in Brooklyn.

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