OF ALL THE MASTERS of modern English fiction, Joseph Conrad certainly underwent one of the oddest apprenticeships. The son of a Polish patriot who had translated Shakespeare and died defeated and in exile, he fled to a career as a merchant seaman to escape the emotional pressure of that heritage -- and, incidentally, a possible 25 years of service in the Russian army. But even once outside of Poland, his first voyages were on French rather than British ships, and he does not seem even to have begun learning the language over which he was to achieve such extraordinary command until well into his manhood.

The progression of Conrad's life resists easy analysis. Out of the smothered little boy, the witness of his father's death-in-life descent into messianic nationalism and mystical, guilt-ridden worship of his dead wife, springs the youthful scapegrace of the Marseilles period, who dabbles in cafe society, seamanship, gunrunning and romantic politics and finally runs so far into debt that he attempts suicide. This episode is followed by 20 years of respectable service in the British Merchant Marine and, finally, by the literary career Conrad seems to have taken up simply because he couldn't find a suitable berth as a ship's officer.

Yet in all this there is a kind of consistency. Conrad's life and art were of a piece, or at least seem to have been about the same things. The son of an exile, in exile himself, the Pole who served on British ships, whose very name underwent successive reductions -- from Jozef Theodor Konrad Korzeniowski to Joseph Conrad -- because the men with whom he sailed couldn't pronounce it, became a novelist who wrote in English and yet was unwilling to lecture in America for fear people would be put off by his accent. This man, unsurprisingly, became the chronicler of Lord Jim and Kurtz, of Verloc and Axel Heyst, of men, in short, as isolated, as thrown back upon themselves -- as "marginal," to use Frederick Karl's favored adjective -- as he was himself. Conrad's stories have helped to define what we understand as the modern predicament, the situation of the alienated individual, mortally aware of his own limitations of comprehension and courage, who must nevertheless find his integrity. This seems also to have been the theme of his life.

Conrad poses a number of problems for his biographers. His published recollections are demonstrably unreliable, and he seems in all respects to have been secretive and untrustworthy about his past. Direct evidence for his youth in Poland and his career at sea is neither extensive nor particularly revealing. The scholar must do a very judicious job of sifting.

Karl, however, too often abandons that caution which becomes the biographer of so slippery a subject to indulge in speculations more appropriate to the novelist. For instance, after describing the ordeal of the family's journey into exile, he states that, following Conrad's mother's death, "when Conrad lived alone with his father, their conversations -- as they occasionally broke the silence -- must have been of such moments of horror, recriminations, memories stained by inferno-like images and scenes. Conrad's lifelong attempt to create order out of chaos, through sheer force of personal effort, first on board ship and then at his writing desk, may have been his way of containing these images of terror and chaos." Surely so sweeping a statement, based on the presumption of conversations for which, apparently, no evidence exists, is excessive. At another point, when writing of the tendency of works Conrad originally conceived of as short stories to develop into novel length, Karl goes on, "The analogy would be of concentric circles that result from a stone thrown into a pond; the inner vibration sets off increasingly broader circles until the smaller inner core becomes the whole, the universe. Staring at the sea had suggested a method and supplied a structure." He seems to have forgotten that the sea is no pond, and in any case the whole idea only just misses absurdity.

This sort of thing is much more pronounced in the earlier parts of the book, dealing with periods of Conrad's life for which there is little direct evidence. dence. Once he takes up the literary career, and has the letters to work with, Karl is much better, and his portrait of Conrad's early artistic and financial struggles, before the success of Chance made him popular and rich, is at once detailed and harrowing.

Taken as a whole, however, The Three Lives is simply too flawed, too poorly argued as a work of conjectural psychology, too prone to the fanciful analogy presented as the discovery of some arcane truth, to replace Jocelyn Baines' critical biography as the standard life of this most interesting of our great modern novelists.