Michael Dirda

He took up English as a foreign language and left his mark on literature.

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Sunday, April 27, 2008; Page BW10


By John Stape

Pantheon. 369 pp. $30

Suppose you were asked to name the most studied classic of English fiction, that single work most often read in high school and college classrooms. What would you choose? My own guess would be Joseph Conrad's nightmare-vision of moral decay, Heart of Darkness. A hallucinatory account of a journey up the Congo River to a distant trading camp, a supposed "outpost of progress," this 1902 novella foretells the whole bloody history of the past century. It misses nothing: imperialism, racism and genocide, the squalid megalomania and corruption of those in power, our era's spiritual torpor, the exploitation of third-world peoples, the raping of nature and women, massacre justified as political expediency, rampant mendacity, the ethos of the concentration camp. "Exterminate all the brutes!" Even now, Mistah Kurtz's dying words and his final scream -- "The horror! the horror!" -- continue to rip away the smiling mask of civilized values to show us what lies beneath, what lies ahead -- Paschendale, Auschwitz, AIDS, 9/11, mass starvation in Africa, the daily body count in the Middle East.

In all his fiction Joseph Conrad's great theme is human nature in extremis, and perhaps only Dostoevsky plumbs more deeply into the ravaged souls of men. While Conrad's prose can be slack or overripe, and sometimes his syntax doesn't quite track, that voice on the page earns its grandeur and eloquence. It speaks with the melancholy authority of lived experience.

In Lord Jim, he writes, "It is when we try to grapple with another man's intimate need that we perceive how incomprehensible, wavering, and misty are the beings that share with us the sight of the stars and the warmth of the sun. It is as if loneliness were a hard and absolute condition of existence; the envelope of flesh and blood on which our eyes are fixed melts before the outstretched hand, and there remains only the capricious, unconsolable, and elusive spirit that no eye can follow, no hand can grasp."

As John Stape reminds us in this brilliantly concise (and often witty) biography, Conrad's life was one of loneliness, steady work, reckless extravagance and recurrent suffering. Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski (1857-1924) grew up a Pole when Poland no longer existed, his homeland having been absorbed into Russia and the Austrian empire. His parents died when he was young, and while still in his teens, the boy bid farewell to the landlocked world he knew to become a sailor. For nearly two decades he lived on ships and slept in seamen's hostels. Early on he began to serve on British merchant ships, where he must have learned most of his English. During his years as a seaman, a first or second mate and occasionally a captain, he traveled in the Caribbean and Central America, the Mediterranean, Australasia, the Far East and Africa.

It was a hard life, sometimes made harder by the youthful sailor's taste for gambling and heedless overspending. Yet Conrad was hardly your typical roustabout sailor: He read Flaubert and Dickens in his bunk and was noted throughout his life for impeccable manners. Why he began to write, though, remains "an intractable mystery." When Almayer's Folly appeared in 1895, it was virtually the only thing he'd ever composed in English, aside from letters, an unpublished squib for the magazine Tit-Bits and perhaps the answers to examination questions to become a Master Mariner. A comparably fine novel, An Outcast of the Islands, followed a year later, by which time Conrad decided to definitely hang up his peacoat and settle down with pen and ink.

No one could have predicted the astonishing run of masterpieces he would produce in the next decade: The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' (1897), "Youth" (1898), Heart of Darkness (1899), Lord Jim (1900), Typhoon (1902), Nostromo (1904), The Secret Agent (1907). (Only his most famous short story, "The Secret Sharer," from 1912, is missing.) Many of these draw on their author's experiences at sea, but none is just a nautical adventure. What Conrad achieves is, in critic Ian Watt's phrase, "the revelation of moral essences." His is work of the utmost seriousness: "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. That -- and no more, and it is everything."

Just as this decade mirabilis was beginning, Conrad -- apparently eager to settle down -- married the solidly working-class Jessie George. It is hard to judge the couple's years together, though Conrad's fiction repeatedly turns on unfulfilling marriages and failed dreams. Because of an accident, Jessie was to suffer most of her life from leg and knee pain. Over time she grew enormously fat, partly because she couldn't move around well. At the same time, Conrad repeatedly showed a homosocial fondness for younger men, often writers -- Stephen Crane, for instance, and later the largely forgotten Hugh Walpole and Richard Curle.

Still, Conrad's real life was spent at his desk, at least when he wasn't suffering from crippling gout or even more crippling depression. Almost all his projects took far longer than he originally expected. Lord Jim started life as a short story before ending up a 130,000-word masterpiece of interlocking narratives, a tour de force of time shifts and brilliant set pieces. Like so much of Conrad, it probes the destructive power of dreams -- not that any of us can really escape the romance of illusions. "A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea."

Up until the outbreak of World War I, Conrad offered the world magnificent works of art, and hardly anyone cared. But from Chance (1914) onward, he began to produce weak and uneven books -- with the arguable exception of Victory (1915) -- and suddenly earned great sums of money. Stape is quite forthright about this artistic decline: He tells us that The Arrow of Gold (1919) vies with The Rover (1923) for "worst novel ever written by a major writer."

By the 1920s Conrad had essentially stopped writing. He had become what Yeats called a "smiling public man," visiting the United States in 1923, making the cover of Time magazine, overseeing a collected edition of his work and hoping for the Nobel Prize (which never came). He died at age 66 from a heart attack.

The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad possesses three great strengths. First is Stape's authority as a Conrad scholar; he worked as an editor of the collected letters and now oversees the Penguin Classics editions of the novels and stories. Second, his biography is utterly without padding -- every precise sentence adds new information and moves the narrative briskly along. And third, the book offers lots of extra matter of real use, including photographs, maps, a family tree, a biographical who's who, a pronunciation guide for people and places in Conrad's life and an extensive bibliography. Stape has pressed into one volume all the basic factual information anyone is likely to want to know about Conrad's life.

Still, while we learn about Conrad's partnership with Ford Madox Ford (whose name was then Hueffer) on such books as The Inheritors (1901) and Romance (1903) or about the writer's long-term relations with editor Edward Garnett and literary agent J.B Pinker, we are told only the barest minimum about the various works. Readers wanting an introduction to Conrad's artistry will need to go elsewhere, perhaps to Ian Watt's masterly Conrad in the Nineteenth Century, even though that study doesn't cover what some would argue are the author's most ambitious achievements, Nostromo, about political corruption in Latin America, and The Secret Agent, about an anarchist bomb plot. Of course, neither of these will ever match Heart of Darkness in popularity among readers and critics. The most recent update to the Norton Critical Edition of the novella reprints Conrad's text in 70 pages -- and then adds 400 pages of commentary and criticism.

Yet even while that book enjoys a special status, John Stape reminds us that virtually everything Conrad wrote reveals the desperate loneliness and fragmentation of modern life. His influence can be seen on such contemporary novelists as J.G. Ballard and J. M. Coetzee, on V.S. Naipaul and John le Carré. We still see through those steady, mariner's eyes and know -- all too well -- that "there are as many shipwrecks as there are men." ·

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com.

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