The Conradian: Review

By Richard Niland, Imperial College, London

Two Recent Conrad Editions

John G. Peters (ed.) The Secret Sharer and Other Stories (Norton, 2015) 624 pp. Paperback $18.75

D. C. R. A. Goonetilleke (ed.) Heart of Darkness (Broadview Press, 2020) 344 pp. eBook $9.99

The Secret Sharer and Other Stories, edited by John G. Peters

John G. Peters’ edition of The Secret Sharer and Other Stories comes with a beautifully enigmatic cover reproduction of Yves Tanguy’s The Rapidity of Sleep (1945), which captures a desiccated shadow image of Conrad’s “mysterious system of half-submerged bamboo fences” at the start of “The Secret Sharer” while also suggesting the endlessly navigable yet ultimately chartless psychological landscapes of Conrad’s best fiction.

Following the more or less identifiable Norton format of Text, Background and Contexts, and Contemporary Reviews followed by Critical Essays, this edition is notable for its presentation of Conrad’s major sea fiction, namely “The Secret Sharer,” The Shadow-Line, The Nigger of the “Narcissus, and “Typhoon.” Copiously accompanied by Conrad’s various author’s notes, prefaces, correspondence, and relevant contemporary responses, Peters also provides a detailed glossary of nautical terms along with several pages of maps and fine illustrations of ships, their layout, and rigging.

While alert to Conrad’s symbolic and psychological scope, Peters’ edition is equally conscious of the material world of Conrad’s characters and the terrain through which they move. All of this reinforces the once prevalent, and subsequently, at least until fairly recently, unfashionable idea of Conrad as primarily a writer of the sea; an idea that a generation of critics and thinkers sought to move away from, only for emerging scholars to realize that all the while it contained an ingredient essential to Conrad’s relevance: namely, the environment, both physical and climactic, and the human actions it both facilitates and overwhelms; and, of course, by which it is frequently and increasingly threatened.

The section of Criticism offers an excellent range of essays on subjects from Conrad’s language and narrative method to gender, topography, race, and labour, pointing to the multifaceted depth of the stories beneath their surface images of the sea and struggles of the self against the public and professional commitment. With essays by Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan, Fredric Jameson, Cesare Casarino, and Jakob Lothe, amongst a host of others, Peters’ selections provide a breadth of important readings that demonstrate the sophisticated critical reach of responses to Conrad’s writing.

Overall, this generous edition provides an ideal introduction to Conrad’s texts exploring the world of the sea and which reveal his mastery of shorter fiction, all supported by Peters’ expertly curated choice of literary, biographical, historical, and critical material.

Heart of Darkness, edited by D. C. R. A. Goonetilleke

Now in its third iteration, D.C.R.A. Goonetilleke’s excellent Broadview edition of Heart of Darkness is provided with a new preface and introduction and includes fresh accompanying contextual documents that respond to a range of recent criticism and scholarship, from David van Reybrouck to Maya Jasanoff, preserving the comprehensive qualities of the previous two editions while positioning the text in relation to current critical debates on globalization, race, history, and empire.

In addition to the text of Conrad’s celebrated and controversial novella, which is supplemented with an appendix of textual variants across major editions, Goonetilleke offers a rich range of contemporary reviews, samples from Conrad’s correspondence and essays, and a wealth of political and cultural texts relating to empire, geography, politics, and Conrad’s literary influences. The section on the Congo in particular provides a diverse range of African, American, and European viewpoints from the late 19th and early 20th centuries on the Scramble for Africa and its subsequent pillage and exploitation, with passages from the autobiography of the Congolese Disasi Makulo (c. 1871-1941) giving a significant distinctive voice to the often-inarticulate Africa found in Conrad’s work.

After selections from the work of Henry Morton Stanley and a representative range of British perspectives on race and imperialism, Goonetilleke also offers contemporary political material from both Conrad’s circle (figures such as R. B. Cunninghame Graham) and from the British press, such as pieces on Africa and the Congo from The Times and Century Magazine, that informed his artistic process while writing Heart of Darkness.

The later sections of the edition reproduce images of Africa taken by 19th century figures such as the Belgian traveler Alexandre Delcommune and the British missionary and photographer Alice Seeley Harris, providing graphic documentary evidence of the people, landscape, and culture of the Congo in the 19th century and the horrific punitive practices of the European colonizer.

Surrounded by such difficult yet unavoidable material, Goonetilleke’s edition reinforces the moral centrality of Conrad’s work in light of the troublingly violent historical reality out of which it emerged.

Clearly laid out, highly astute in its selections, very handsomely presented, and up to date, this edition offers a superb entry point for readers of all kinds to Conrad’s most enduring and challenging work.

© 2022 Richard Niland

last updated: Saturday, June 23, 2018 9:08 PM
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