Joseph Conrad’s Journey | The New Yorker
In March 1893, John Galsworthy, a product of Harrow and Oxford who had recently passed the English Bar Exam, was boarding the passenger ship Torrens, in Port Adelaide, when he noticed a small man with boisterous black hair carrying load. in a letter home a month after the trip, he described “an excellent chap”, polished, somewhat odd-looking, with “plenty of threads on which he freely drew”. Galsworthy’s sister credited this encounter with turning him away from the law. By early 1897 Galsworthy had put together a book of short stories, and his Polish friend, who had engineered his own midlife career change from British sailor to English novelist, under the name Joseph Conrad, was writing to Edward Garnett, who he worked as a publisher’s lector, a kind of great explorer, who asks him to find a manuscript of “my literature! friend.”
For the most part, however, the favors traveled in the other direction. For the next two decades, Galsworthy served as Conrad’s consigliere, lobbying the royal literary fund (“no living writer of English, in my opinion, deserves more support”), answering Conrad’s inquiries about the education of his son (“I’m sending you the handout to look at”), playing the “man ‘in the middle’” during a dispute with Agent J. B. Pinker (“Conrad asks me to ask you to write to him”). One of the greatest acts of service De Galsworthy came about in 1913, after publisher Frank Nelson Doubleday invited Conrad to lunch in London and offered to buy his existing American copyrights and reprint his books.Conrad welcomed the idea, but, fearing it might not turn out well, He asked Galsworthy if he could write to his friend Alfred A. Knopf, the Doubleday Page employee who, in Conrad’s words, had formulated “this ‘take me’ plan.”
knopf was twenty years old and brimming with ideas to remedy the indignation that “a great writer” couldn’t have “a great audience”. Among the promotional schemes for him was an illustrated brochure, a press release that paraded like an essay. Upon hearing from Galsworthy, he sent Conrad a effusive letter along with an aging and error ridden ten page typescript titled “Joseph Conrad” which he had found somewhere and was gutting for information. p>
Conrad read the typescript carefully and made numerous changes and additions. The southern Polish province, where he was born in 1857, was “Ukraine.” His father, Apollo, a poet and translator, and his mother, Ewa, had been exiled to Vologda, not Siberia, for their support of Polish nationalism. (Apollo had marked Conrad’s birth with a poem titled “To My Son Born in the 85th Year of Muscovite Oppression”). when he was orphaned, at the age of eleven, he was “cared for by his mother’s brother.” Conrad’s first trips, as a teenager, had been to the Gulf of Mexico and the Mediterranean. he then joined an english steamer, not a man-of-war, bound for the sea of azov (not the bosphorus). Where the “notes on me,” in his phrase, mentioned “a voyage to Pacific waters,” Conrad explained that after becoming a captain in the English merchant navy—and a British citizen—he spent much of the 1880s in the east, organizing steamers out of singapore, then commanding the barque otago. the torrens, he wrote, had been a kind of “swan song.”
but knopf wasn’t just asking for help with facts. He was giving Conrad a collaborative role in telling his own story: the selection of details, the setting of emphasis. In the finished booklet, which closely follows Conrad’s responses and his memoir, “A Personal Record” (Conrad sent a copy to Knopf), his career at sea is portrayed as a pause between a 1960s childhood devoted to prodigious feats of reading and the moment he begins to write “Almayer’s Folly” (1895). Even Conrad’s taste for the sea is tied in part to a literary source: his father’s translation of Hugo’s “Sea Workers,” which he read aloud, cover to cover. A synopsis of Conrad’s life at sea beginning “he had been to the corners of the earth” culminating with “he had read a great deal in English and French.” Conrad objected to being called “the greatest marine writer” and instead Knopf praised a man who “has attained as great a distinction as a master of the art of fiction as any living writer.”
Thanks to Galsworthy’s intervention, Conrad became a best-selling double author, but Knopf left the company shortly thereafter, leaving Conrad’s work to those who had not received as close training. In 1916, Conrad was awarded the galleys for a uniform edition of his work. His name was “Otago”, the emblem a sailing ship. Returning the pages to doubleday, he explained that he wanted to “avoid all reference to the sea,” adding: “I am something more, and perhaps something more, than a writer of the sea, or even of the tropics.” /p>
in a limited sense, conrad was simply stating what he considered to be fact. as he said shortly before his death, in 1924, and somewhat exaggerating, “in the body of my work barely a tenth part is what can be called marine matter.” Things get a little shakier when you get to the part about “the tropics.” With few exceptions, most notably his novel about anarchists in late Victorian London, “The Secret Agent” (1907), his stories are set in Asia, Africa, and South America. but then conrad was really talking about aesthetics, not arithmetic, and discussing, or not quite, discussing how he treated his scenarios.
It took him a little while to find his favorite route to abstraction. In his great novel, “The Negro with the ‘Daffodil’” (1897), about a sailor who refuses to accept that he is dying, the material world—the sailors’ “castle,” the streets of London—is solidly present and correct. as alan h. Simmons explains in his new academic edition, part of the complete Cambridge printing of Conrad’s works, the novelist distinguished between writers who treat the sea as merely “a stage” and writers in whose work the sea represents “a factor in the problem of existence”. “the black of the ‘daffodil'” straddles the border. the ship is both a setting and a symbol, a microclimate as well as a microcosm. but it is possible to see Conrad chafing at the limitations of realist storytelling in his use of philosophical digression, and hinting at future priorities in the final paragraphs of the book, which change from a collective point of view with moments of omniscience, a “we” who behaves like a “he”, to a cheeky first person: “never saw one of them again”.
Then came the breakthrough: a strikingly original narrative voice that not only separated Conrad’s fiction from realism, but also called into question the idea of a consensual “reality.” In January 1898, a month after The Nigger was published, Conrad wrote the story Youth, featuring Charles Marlow, a forty-two-year-old merchant seaman, reminiscing about his maiden voyage to the eastern seas. defined by its creator as “a mere device. . . a whispering ‘demon'”, Marlow is more specifically a vehicle for exploring the perspective nature of human affairs: the idea that, for example, the Indian Ocean has no stable essence or identity beyond emotion Inspiring an excitable twenty-year-old sailor, recalling the Judean, the barque on which he served as second mate, Marlow says that, for him, it was not “an old rattle trap” but “the effort, the trial, the proof of life”. youth is what marlow saw and what he saw. places tell us about the people who visit and inhabit them.
Marlow does not celebrate the role that passion or prejudice play in our descriptions of the world; it’s just something he acknowledges. In Conrad’s next Marlow story, “Heart of Darkness” (1899), set in an unnamed colony whose rulers speak exclusively in propaganda falsehoods, Marlow is the only person willing to call a rattlesnake trap a rattlesnake trap. Jingle Bell. encountering a group of natives labeled “enemies”, he identifies men who were “no more than black shadows of disease and famine, lying confused in the greenish gloom”. but bewilderment is useless. the world has been rewritten according to the vocabulary of the white man. what he says goes.
Conrad’s theme is familiar to countless earlier writers, notably Flaubert, who in “Madame Bovary” and “Education Sentimental” gauged the gulf between reality and fantasy. But where Flaubert adopted an air of superhuman indifference, Conrad asserts that Marlow’s position is relativized. Though she is clearly Conrad’s alter ego and even mouthpiece, Marlow is not the narrator of “Youth” and “Heart of Darkness,” but rather a spun yarn described by an audience member of his. everything he says is enclosed in quotation marks.
uncertainties multiply in “lord jim” (1900), conrad’s first long novel to use this method. It is about the spiritual odyssey of a young “water clerk”, drawn to the sea by “holiday light literature”, who leaves a sinking passenger ship called the Patna. The story, told for the most part as an after-dinner anecdote, has been improvised from Marlow’s “impression” of Jim—during the Patna investigation and during the warm friendship that followed—and from reminiscences of various characters. side effects, including the dying mercenary. “gentleman brown” and “an elderly French lieutenant that I ran into one afternoon in Sydney, quite by chance, in some kind of café”. But the witnesses, far from helping him “get to the truth of anything”, only reinforce Marlow’s sense that “there are as many shipwrecks as there are men”, a logic that applies not only to “belief” and “thought”. . and “conviction”, but also by “the visual aspect of material things”. Although “Lord Jim” departs from Marlow’s earlier tales in the author’s use of an narrator, the novel opens with this supposed view of God unable to determine whether Jim is an inch or two “less than six feet.” (In “The Black with the ‘Daffodil'”, we are left in no doubt that James Wait is six and three.)
reading conrad today, it’s easy to see why he had trouble explaining what he was doing. “I am modern,” he declared in 1902, but his intentions became more intelligible in the light of new words and later works. The treatment of knowledge as contingent and provisional requires a range of comparisons, from “Rashomon” to Richard Rorty; Reference points for Conrad’s fragmentary method include Picasso and T. s. eliot–who took the epigraph of “the hollow men” from “heart of darkness.” (That book would have played the same role in “The Waste Land” if Ezra Pound hadn’t objected.) even the late henry james period, that other harbinger of the modernist novel, had not yet begun when conrad invented marlow, and the earlier period of james experiments in perspective (“poynton’s booty”, “what maisie knew”) they don’t go as far as “lord jim”.
Looking back at the “new form” he had created, Conrad said he “kept it” only because “it was essentially mine.” That might suggest complacency, but over the spectacular decade and a half that followed “Lord Jim,” her narrative underwent a series of revisions. Marlow’s duties were given to other characters, such as Morrison, an Englishman adrift in what is now Indonesia, who reconstructs the story of the lonely Heyst, in “Victory” (1915); and the grim “Language Professor” in “Under Western Eyes” (1910), offering an engaging, if ultimately rather cryptic, tour of the Russian community in Geneva. In “Nostromo” (1904), Conrad’s portrait of an invented South American republic, and “The Secret Agent,” the combined roles of narrator and Marlow are assumed by a restless third-person intelligence who floats through the fictional world, hopping back and forth in time, picking up one perspective, then another.
the device that conrad called “irony” persists through these variations. on one level, the word simply describes his dramatic method, in which the reader knows more than any individual character. But Conrad also took a broader ironic stance: a kind of general disbelief, defined by a character in “Under Western Eyes” as the denial of all faith, devotion, and action. Through control of narrative tone and detail, as well as some fairly open shoving, Conrad exposes what he saw as the naiveté of movements such as anarchism and socialism, and the egotistical logic of historical but “naturalized” phenomena such as capitalism (the piracy). with good PR), rationalism (an elaborate defense against our innate irrationality), and imperialism (a grandiose front for old-school rape and looting). to be ironic is to be awake and alert to the prevailing “drowsiness.” In “Nostromo,” a novel full of people getting carried away, we are invited to admire journalist Martin Decoud for ridiculing the idea that people “believe they are influencing the fate of the universe.” (H. G. Wells recalled Conrad’s astonishment that “I could take social and political problems seriously.”)