The Joy of Conrad

Joseph Conrad’s “The Masterworks (Vol. I)”: A Review

Joseph Conrad was, in general, a rather sad and fretful man. “Really, all of these anxieties do drive me to the verge of madness,” he wrote to one friend, while short of cash and inspiration:

“Death would be the best thing. It would pay off all my debts and there would be no question of MS. Really, if one hadn’t wife and child I don’t know… There are also some pressing bills. Damn.”

Conrad’s work was known for being somewhat depressing too. “One approaches him in various unhappy moods,” wrote Mencken. But not so fast! That is only one’s approach. “One leaves him in the clear, yellow sunshine.” Why is this so? Well, the Sage of Baltimore added, Conrad’s world, like ours, is “a great moral and spiritual spectacle, capable of purging and uplifting the psyche.” True. The world, as Conrad writes about it, is vivid and real. His work transcends the drab dishonesties of the obscure. Pessimistic, it seethes with hot vitality.

This collection of his shorter books is introduced with the claim that “Conrad has sadly fallen out of favor with the literary tastemakers who determine which books get transformed into new movies or assigned as required reading for high schoolers.” It might be a blessing if Conrad is not being polluted by Hollywood or imposed on bored high schoolers who are primed to hate his guts. Still, a newly packaged collection is a fine way to refresh the Conradian corpus for readers who have not been introduced to it (or, perhaps, who have only been introduced to it at school).

The collection begins with the unfortunately titled The Nigger of the “Narcissus”. (I can sense edgier readers revolting against my sensitive adverb but would or would it not be unfortunate if a book that all readers could otherwise value was titled The Cunt of Kraków or The Motherfucker of Marseilles? Magnify that.) The book follows the crew of a ship headed for London as an Afro-Caribbean man, James Wait, lies in his bed with an illness that may or may not be severe.

Defenders of Conrad from charges of racism sometimes tear intellectual hamstrings trying to portray him as a dedicated anti-colonialist. Conrad criticized colonialism, as he criticized all grand schemes, but to believe this shaped his work is to ignore the clear divide he saw between “ideas” and “art”. Still, modern readers who spy simple animus behind the slurs directed towards the Afro-Caribbean man should note how he becomes “Jimmy” or “James” after his death — mortality backing pettiness into a corner. Most of the characters in the book are unlikable, though portrayed with rich detail and humor. I doubt you have ever met somebody like “Old Singleton” but you will remember him.

Conrad was not a flawless stylist. In fact, his prose could be shockingly bad. “The forecastle was a place of damp desolation. They looked at their dwelling with dismay.” The curious critic cringed. In Typhoon — the second book collected here — people “ejaculate” (i.e. speak suddenly) three times in twenty pages. It is not just childishness that makes this seem crude.

But writers should not be judged by their worst phrasing. Readers simply do not have to be that sensitive — as if inartful passages have traumatic effects. Conrad rises to the occasion. Some novelists have invested all their love and care into descriptions of navel lint. Conrad’s prose is at its most intensely evocative when it matters. Witness, for example, the approach of the Narcissus to England:

“The dark land lay alone in the midst of waters, like a mighty ship bestarred with vigilant lights — a ship carrying the burden of millions of lives — a ship freighted with dross and with jewels, with gold and with steel. She towered up immense and strong, guarding priceless traditions and untold suffering, sheltering glorious memories and base forgetfulness, ignoble virtues and splendid transgressions. A great ship!”

This is what Conrad means when he says:

“My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see.”

Conrad had great insight into character, and into the sort of characters a novelist might shrink from: those who act more than they speak. Take Captain MacWhirr in Typhoon: “the past being to his mind done with, and the future not there yet, the more general actualities of the day required no comment — because facts can speak for themselves with overwhelming precision.” See, too, the sharpness of Conrad’s pen as he describes MacWhirr’s wife and “her abject terror of the time when her husband would come home to stay for good.”

Conrad was a keen admirer of amoral virtues. Captain MacWhirr is a dull, unfeeling man, but his courage and stoicism help to drag his ship, the Nan-Shan, through a storm. There is an almost Buddhistic calmness in his sense that the ship must face the typhoon — that there is “so much dirty weather knocking about the world, and the proper thing is to go through it.”

Still, one also senses an interest in man’s incomprehension of the course of history here — from MacWhirr’s grim, stolid pragmatism to the miserable fate of the hundreds of Chinese laborers, here representing the average human, that the Nan-Shan carries below decks. In a then-innovative twist we never see the ship escape the storm. How much skill and how much luck was involved remains unknown.

Perhaps a critic should maintain his pose of omniscience but I must admit that I had never read The Secret Sharer. An ineffectual captain rescues a man who has been clinging to the ladder of his ship and acquires authoritative qualities as he attempts to save him from a fate that may or may not be unjust. Whether the man is real is ambiguous (the modern reader might be forgiven for wondering if Chuck Palahniuk admired this story). Its uplifting elements are also questionable as the captain protects his ship from a danger that he has exposed it to. But Conrad does not offer easy parables. He brings us rich experience and haunted human nature.

The book ends with Youth and Heart of Darkness (originally collected together). Heart of Darkness has been assailed as a racist caricature of Africa and defended as a bold anti-imperialist text. Both arguments, as I have suggested, seem reductive. Conrad would have found ideas of benign and stable Empire and harmonic and inclusive egalitarianism similarly foolish, defying the “immense darkness” of existence. That he “othered” people is inarguable, and condemnable only for people enjoying the cheerful thought of alternative universes where everyone is pretty much the same. His portrayal of Africans might have been simplistic — he did not know them after all — but the fact that the European Kurtz develops a unique deranged savagery is undeniable as well.

Youth and Heart of Darkness both feature Charles Marlow, about whom Conrad writes “he was a seaman, but he was a wanderer, too.” He might as well have been — and, indeed, he might have been — describing himself. The same applies when he writes of Marlow’s storytelling:

“The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.”

Admiring Conrad, F.R. Leavis nonetheless criticized his “insistence upon inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery.” The effect was “not to magnify but rather to muffle,” Leavis wrote. There is something to the stone-faced critic’s dislike of Conrad’s occasional reliance on “adjectival and ejaculatory emphasis” over “concrete presentment of setting, incident and image.” But it must also be granted that clinical observation alone could not encourage the immersive qualities of Conrad’s impressionism. On the ocean, or in the jungle, elements of strangeness and surrealism more authentically convey experience. The surreal is real, and combined detail and divulgence create an important sense of controlled hysteria.

An outsider, with a life of fear and discovery, Conrad’s talents had been slow-cooked in his struggles. A Pole exiled from his long-partitioned homeland, his roaming curiosity must have benefited from his sense of dislocation. Compatriots often appealed to him to do more for Poland. He cared about the country, and promoted its interests, but he was skeptical about its short-term prospects. “Have no illusions,” he wrote in 1914, “If anybody has got to be sacrificed in this war it will be you. If there is any salvation to be found it is only in your own breasts, it is only by the force of your inner life that you will be able to resist the rottenness of Russia and the soullessness of Germany. And this will be your fate for ever and ever. For nothing in the world can alter the force of facts.” As it happens, Conrad’s pessimism was more applicable to World War Two than to World War One but he was prophetic nonetheless. Here was MacWhirr, perhaps, looking at the future and seeing dirty weather.

Still, he was not merely pessimistic. He saw power in the “inner life” — and the inner life can be stirred, even elevated, by exposure to the awful majesty of the external world. Here, Conrad’s legacy triumphs. Modern readers caught between the fantastic mundanities of literary fiction and the mundane fantasies of genre writing will be inspired.

Book reviewed: Joseph Conrad: The Masterworks (Vol. I)

Ben Sixsmith is an English writer and a contributing editor for The Critic.

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