IAN WATT'S Conrad in the Nineteenth Century is a landmark of literary scholarship. It is the best book so far on Joseph Conrad and, incidentally, one of the best books on modernism in general.

It might have seemed unlikely that yet another book on Conrad would have much to contribute, but no book before Watt's has so completely and accurately done him full justice. No book has so successfully made Conrad come alive as a man and as a writer. No book has so carefully elucidated exactly what Conrad's novels means and exactly how they come to have that meaning.

Most previous books and articles, as Watt persuasively shows, are by comparison cases of special pleading, over-hasty attempts to "explain" Conrad in terms of his "Polish heritage," or of his latent "nihilism," or of some supposed sexual inadequacy which makes his treatment of love unsatisfactory. There is of course some truth in each of these explanations and in many others which have been advanced, but none is the whole truth, and it is the whole truth Ian Watt wants to give. His book fulfills that most difficult requirement of literary scholarship, what Matthew Arnold called "seeing the object as it really is."

Conrad's major novels, Heart of Darkness or Lord Jim, Nostromo or The Secret Agent, are also salient examples of what is meant by the term "modernism." In Conrad's case modernism involves an extraordinary vividness of presentation, both presentation of the appearances of nature, as in Conrad's tales of the sea and of far-off places, and presentation also of the inner states of characters in extreme situations. In Conrad's most characteristic work the two are presented together, and the one stands for the other: the African jungle and the great river that winds through it like a snake are, in Heart of Darkness, the correlatives of Marlow's state of mind as he goes up that river toward his encounter with Kurtz. Watt calls this Conrad's "subjective moral impressionism." In both these forms of presentation Conrad excelled in achieving the goal he set himself in a famous phase: "before all, to make you see."

Modernism in Conrad's case means also the somber eloquence with which he analyzes characters in problematic moral situations. Our modern sense of what is precarious about the human condition has been as much learned from Conrad as from Proust, Joyce, Mann and Faulkner. Modernism for Conrad means, finally, that complexity of storytelling which is especially associated with 20th-century fiction but is already present in Conrad's work in the 1890s: rearrangement of chronological order, narrators within narrators, stories within stories, the use of symbolic patterns of imagery, and that direct presentation of sensory experience which Ford Madox Ford was to call "impressionism."

Conrad in the Nineteenth Century, as its title indicates, takes Conrad only up to 1900. It is to be followed by another volume on the 20th-century part of Conrad's life and work. In its fullness, its leisurely pace and its commitment to a complete representation of all aspects of its author, Watt's book might almost seem an example of that old-fashioned genre, the "life and works." Taking Conrad's early work as his focus and giving a complete account of Almayer's Folly, The Nigger of "Narcissus," Heart of Darkness, and Lord Jim, Watt presents such a full picture of the literary, philosophical, biographical and historical context of these novels that for another equally comprehensive portrait of a period in literature one would need to go for analogies to such magisterial works as M. H. Abrams' The Mirror and the Lamp and Walter Houghton's The Victorian Frame of Mind. Watt shows how Conrad's mind and work are both something special to him and at the same time an example of what is most characteristic of his period.

Conrad in the Nineteenth Century is in fact four or five books in one.

It is a careful, abundantly documented recapitulation of the facts of Conrad's life to 1900 and a vivid presentation on the basis of those facts of Conrad the man. It is a comprehensive description of the literary and historical background, with authoritative discussions of imperialism, symbolism, impressionism, 19th-century pessimism in philosophy, and many other such topics as they bear on Conrad. The book is a judicious recaptulation and evaluation of all the previous criticism of Conrad, done with admirable courtesy and tact. It presents in addition the most complete and sanest interpretation yet written of four of Conrad's major novels. The chapter on Lord Jim , for example, is over 100 pages long. It says something definitive about every aspect of the novel: genesis, real life originals, the structure and techniques of the novel itself, the history of its interpretation by previous critics, and its meaning in detail as Watt sees it, for example, in his discriminating discussion of the famous episode in which Stein gives his enigmatic advice: "to the destructive element submit yourself."

Watt's book, finally, is an admirably complete expression of the literary, historical and moral assumptions of modernism as embodied in a special way in Watt himself. As is generally the case with literary studies, the ultimate value of Conrad in the Nineteenth Century is not in the facts its author has amassed but in the presentation of a certain way of giving value to those facts. In Watt's case this is an acerb scepticism about absolute interpretations of either literature or life, a sense of the baffling complexity of any person or literary text, their irreducibility to formulae.

Watt is dissillusioned in much the same way as Conrad is. He too has a sense that the only recourse in this extremity is to a solidarity in cool common sense and faithful truthtelling, in literary criticism as in life. If Watt's Conrad is a man for whom solidarity to one's fellow man in the faithful performance of obscure duty remained the highest value, intact in spite of all the threats to it, Ian Watt himself conspicuously practices the version of this appropriate to literary study. Such a version would say that a critic must report what he actually finds, not what he wishes to find. Watt's name for this, in an admirable phrase, is "the literal imagination." A sequence of shrewdly sceptical statements, dry, ironical, worldly in the best sense, threads its way through his book and gives it a bracing atmosphere of fearless truth-saying. Here are two examples out of a great many: Conrad, says Watt, "was a good literary critic who was bad at writing literary criticism; the reverse phenomenon, of course, is much commoner." In another place he remarks that "the popularity of what the preface [to The Nigger of the "Narcissus" ] says about solidarity is no doubt partly the result of its telling us what we want to believe, but it can hardly be accepted as a statement of a universal existential truth."

The essence of Watt's reading Conrad as well as of his own attitude is given in the following defense of Conrad's modest moral affirmations: "As against the more absolute negations of Rimbaud and Nietzsche, or the equally absolute transcendental affirmations of Dostoevsky or Yeats, both Freud and Conrad defend a practical social ethic based on their fairly similar reformulations of the Victorian trinity of work, duty and restraint. The general modern tendency has been to overlook this aspect of Conrad and Freud in favor of the more unsettling and nihilistic side of their vision; in effect, both of them have been attacked or praised more for what they saw than for how they judged it; their warnings against the truths they revealed have been overlooked."

As Watt puts it programmatically early in his book: "Alienation of course; but how do we get out of it?" Watt's book is not only a persuasive polemic against the excesses of certain kinds of literary criticism, what he calls "cryptographic interpretation," but also a powerful rejection of that moral stance which is willng to stop at alienation as the last word. CAPTION: Illustrations 1 and 2, Joseph Conrad, by David Levine. Reprinted with permission from the New York Review; Copyright (c) 1974 NYREV, Inc.