The Conradian: Review

By Anthony Fothergill, University of Exeter

Kim Salmons, Food in the Novels of Joseph Conrad: Eating as Narrative.
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), xiii + 217 pp.  £49.99.

Food, clean water, fresh air and shelter (and today, perhaps, IT facilities) are essential for human existence. Thus, unsurprisingly, food as a narrative subject figures prominently in the works of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Fielding, Dickens and Proust, among many others. Social and economic class are dimensions of these essentials. In Zola’s accounts of Parisian dwellings, the changing quality of cooking smells coming from apartment buildings signifies the increasing poverty of inhabitants of each higher floor. In To the Lighthouse Woolf’s upper-middle-class Mrs. Ramsay serves ‘boeuf en daube’; Joyce’s lower-middle-class Leopold Bloom cooks a breakfast of delicious offal, with “the fine tang of faintly scented urine” of (pork) kidneys, which he “ate with relish.”

As Byron wrote in Don Juan: “All human history attests / That happiness for man—the hungry sinner! — / Since Eve ate apples, much depends in dinner.” Food is materially ubiquitous in our lives; it is also ubiquitous as a social, cultural, political and geographical index, and as a metaphorical and mythical signifier. These are all themes which Kim Salmons’s book weaves together in fine, complex detail, supported with wide-ranging critical reference. Significant recent critical scholarship on food has appeared, but the originality of this study lies in putting Conrad’s works, rather than perhaps more obvious writers and novels, at its centre. Essentials for life are reliant on social, political, cultural and economic circumstances; these, in turn, change over time, affected, for example, by forms of production, globalisation, colonisation, and slavery. Salmons’ study offers a thoroughly fresh exploration of these thematic ingredients in Conrad’s works and significantly extends the Conradian critical menu.  
A reader’s first thought about food in relation to Conrad might be of Jessie Conrad’s recipe book, for which Conrad wrote ‘Cookery’, a rather off-hand preface, which he described as “a mock serious thing into which I dragged Red Indians and other incongruous things”. Thinking about Conrad and the kitchen, a reader might remember the carving knife Winnie Verloc uses on her betraying husband in The Secret Agent, or recall the domestic centrality of the Verloc dwellings, particularly the kitchen behind the dubious front shop, where food is eaten, Winnie cares for Stevie, and anarchists meet. Food is something consumed locally, from sheer need or sometimes pleasure, but it has global dimensions and cannot be dissociated from economics and politics.

Salmons’s opening paragraph cites the anecdote in A Personal Record in which Conrad tells the story of his great uncle, Nicholas Bobrowski, who was starving on the brutal retreat from Moscow with Napoleon’s army and was forced to kill, behead and eat the flesh of a Lithuanian village dog. The fact that she begins her study with this incident alerts readers to Salmons’ readiness to explore an imaginative range of representations of food and consumption. In this instance, her point is about the ubiquity of need. When the six-year old Conrad expresses an understandable disgust at the story, his grandmother says, “Perhaps you don’t know what it means to be hungry.” Salmons’s discussion of the tensions between food as cuisine and as something, anything, snatched out of need does not end there. Following ZdzisĹ‚aw Najder, Salmons convincingly argues that Conrad’s mature account of his childhood disgust was born at least partially out of a sense of proper social – that is, class – ‘taste’, that he was disturbed by the disgusting consumption of a ‘common’ dog. His family’s szlachta Polish aristocratic heritage of fine living was offended, even if by brutal necessity. Honour, even for failing ideals, should outweigh one’s near-starvation, the young Conrad thinks.

‘Need’ and social, ethnic and class positions and notions of political action are thematically interlinked throughout Salmons’s account.  Jessie Conrad’s own accounts of her husband’s eating habits indicate that the “gastronomic degradation” Conrad saw in the account of his great uncle’s dog-eating coloured his attitude to food more generally. Even when the maid was serving up a fine roast (cooked by Jessie), Conrad was upset at having the whole joint on the table, in full view. Presumably, carving things up is best done out of sight, (as Winnie surmised, when wielding the knife).  Jessie Conrad recalls that Conrad seemed not to enjoy food. This is indeed the tone of all of the chapters in which Salmons offers close readings of food in four of Conrad’s works, Almayer’s Folly, ‘Falk’, The Secret Agent, and Under Western Eyes. But the opening two chapters present Salmons’s larger canvas. After a general thematic Introduction, there follows an informed, if necessarily abbreviated, account of the historical context for the food consumed in Conrad’s novels: meat, fruit and vegetables, rice and sugar, bread, fish and chips. The mixed menu is extended to include what would seem to be the merest mentions of food, and these are shown to deserve fuller attention. The food having a presence in Conrad’s works highlights the significance of trade routes and their relation to imperial and cultural interests, to slavery, agricultural practices, and nutritional assumptions.

The discussion of Almayer’s Folly begins with the novel’s seemingly insignificant opening words: “‘Kaspar! Makan!’”. As Salmons observes, the words immediately signify cross-cultural and colonial, as well as social semiotic, differences, for Almayer is being called by his Malay wife for ‘Makan’ (‘time to eat’/’dinner’). The observation of this delicate cultural conjunction is followed by an analysis of the significance of the Malay meal (rice and fish) and of European vs. ‘local’ cultural differences. Through this analysis, Salmons reveals a web of tensions between cultures and competing colonial interests, between Almayer’s dreams and material realities, between hope and failure. The chapter begins with an epigraph from Claude Levi-Strauss’ Structural Anthropology, the most prominent theorist employed in the book, but it offers a critique of simplistic (and cultural imperialist) distinctions between the cooked and the raw, the  civilized and the savage, the West and the ‘Orient’. Diagnosing these oppositional and hierarchical distinctions by way of the food eaten “greedily” by Almayer, whose imagination is full of a “splendid banquet,” Salmons argues that they are confounded in Conrad’s far more complicated and knowledgeable understanding.

Salmons’s study is less dependent on grand theories applied to the text than on the technique of allowing the details she analyses to open up broader themes and theoretical perspectives. Nonetheless, she does employ Levi-Strauss’ anthropological model of the raw and the cooked as a general guiding principle. The theory aligns with cultural evaluations of the “savage” and the “civilised,” and by implication the animal(istic) and the human, although Salmons’ sensitivity to Conrad’s complexity in Almayer’s Folly cogently complicates these binary divisions. (Levi-Strauss himself later modified the binary simplifications that were encouraged by his structuralist theories.) Salmons is particularly interesting in her argument that the savage/civilised distinction fails when the terms of cannibalism are used metaphorically. One might also point out that in Conrad’s anecdote, great uncle Bobrowski did at least cook the dog. Moreover, in some cultures raw flesh is considered ‘haute cuisine’, raw horsemeat favoured in Italy and raw horsemeat and fish in Japanese sashimi menus. In terms of food, ‘raw’ versus ‘cooked’, ‘degrading’ versus ‘civilised’—and even the division into animal, vegetable and mineral—are not fixed categories but rather a historical-cultural-scientific moveable feast. One has only to think of the Holy Communion for further complications to these categories, as Montaigne pointed out, let alone botanists’  recent accounts of fungi with mycelium networks as having a sort of neural system that sends signals and forms of ‘communication’ , having what mycologists  call ‘sense’ or indeed ‘intelligence’, seeking out food  sources. Categories are problematic, as Conrad often shows.

Unsurprisingly, Salmons next turns to the theme of cannibalism in ‘Falk’ and refers to historical instances (alluded to in Heart of Darkness) of it in the ‘Knights Errant’, the Greely Arctic explorations, the wreck of the Mignonette and other British ships, and the well–publicised trial of the Euxine survivors held in Exeter, discussed in Brian Simpson’s Cannibalism and the Common Law. She does not fully explore the unfortunate fate of Sir John Franklin’s expedition, though rumours of cannibalism circulated by the 1850s, which Conrad would have likely known, following the abandonment of the ice-locked Erebus and Terror. (Recent scientific finds have confirmed that cannibalism and the extraction of bone-marrow, albeit of already dead companions, took place.) Rather, Salmons builds a convincing case that it was the then well-documented Greely case of cannibalism which inspired Conrad’s ‘Falk’. It is intriguing that the Norwegian cannibalism case of the Thekla (1893), which Salmons mentions and upon which Simpson elaborates, involves a crew member being murdered and then eaten. Is it coincidental that the name—which in Scandinavian and Slav mythology means ‘faithful glory and servant of the Gods’—recurs in the character Tekla, exploited and metaphorically eaten up by Peter Ivanovitch in Under Western Eyes? Might the Thelka case be another Conradian ‘inspirational’ source for ‘Falk’? The name obviously carried resonances for him.

Legal inquiries after the event often suggest and then debate the existence of a kind of cannibal etiquette, which Salmons carefully investigates. Is the person already dead, or will they be killed for food? If the latter, are lots drawn to choose the victim? Is the flesh cooked or eaten raw? Falk stresses that he did not want to risk losing in a ‘drawing of straws’ and so murders the younger sailor when he could have eaten a member of his already dead crew. Murder is against the etiquette tested in courts in historical cases, as the Euxine Exeter trial illustrated, when the accused were found guilty, but not hung for murder. But Salmons goes on to make a further point about a kind of ‘honour’ that Falk exhibits in  revealing his secrets, admitting to cannibalism to assuage his guilt and to gain Hermann’s niece’s love. For “he was hungry for the girl, terribly hungry, as he had been terribly hungry for food.” Although Falk’s tastes are not everyone’s, Salmons points out that Conrad’s is a much more nuanced portrayal of Falk than a simply ‘civilised’ dismissal of him. Even Falk’s rejection of food at Schomberg’s hotel, where he sits in solitude, is a sign not only of his social separation but also of his distaste for the latter’s poor food-offering. So, again, Conrad discriminates.

The Secret Agent, which Salmons next addresses, provides rich pickings for a discussion of other spaces for the consumption of food, as well as metaphors of cannibalism and “raw meat” when Conrad’s cool, ironic, stylistic distance reveals disdain for the “shams” and the servants of the State who serve only their self-interest. Her argument takes a political turn in exploring the relationship between anarchy and vegetarianism, the latter as a form of opposition to capitalism, for which she cites Percy Bysshe Shelley’s vegetarian views and evokes Levi-Strauss’ “raw and cooked.”  An earlier chapter has dwelt on the specific location of food consumption in the novel: kitchen, lower-class City pubs, an Italian restaurant in Soho (a working-class area then), all places where anarchist plotters meet. The lonely Assistant Commissioner eats “fraudulent cookery” in the Italian restaurant, noting its often foreign patrons had lost “all their national and private characteristics” and that “the Italian restaurant is such a peculiarly British institution”. Here, the nondescript food mirrors its consumers: anonymity and isolation within crowded cosmopolitan London enables disguise and secretive anarchist activity. On leaving the restaurant the Assistant Commissioner himself assumes the appearance of a shady non-descript, as if the location and food has transformed him. (A much more benign Italian watering hole is Giorgio Viola’s ‘Albergo d’Italia Una’ in Nostromo, not discussed by Salmons, for Giorgio is both a Garibaldino revolutionary and a “famous cook,”  implying that Conrad allowed at least some Italian food  cooked outside Italy to be good.)

The chapter bases its more general argument on Shelley’s endorsement of vegetarianism and its embrace by anarchists and some socialists, who saw in it an anti-capitalist politics. In the nineteenth century, industrialised food production, particularly of meat and its off-cuts, so to speak—corned beef and other tinned meat, and meat extracts like ‘Bovril’ and ‘Oxo’—became monopoly-owned, mostly by American and British multi-nationals, and globalised in its distribution. Not surprisingly, political criticism of such capitalist economic forms spoke of them as ‘cannibalism’. I might remark that Marx’s writing employs metaphors of cannibalism and vampirism to describe economic exploitation, a literary and political rhetoric increasingly widespread during the century. Marx was not a vegetarian nor an anarchist, but such rhetoric was powerful. For Shelley, expensive meat-eating is a privilege of the wealthy, and so by extension the ‘greed’ of capitalists is at the cost of lives of the labouring poor.  Incidentally, we may remember that in Shelley’s “The Mask of Anarchy”, anarchy is associated with the murderous forces of the State, not the protesters at Peterloo, an association almost echoed in Conrad’s comment to Cunninghame Graham when he says “the true anarchist […] is the millionaire”. It  is argued (by Fred Karl)  that a ‘genuine’ anarchist spirit in Conrad is in a sense displaced or disguised, writing as he does to Graham of the “sham revolutionaries” he portrays, excepting only the Professor’s extremism as “respectable”. The implicit contradiction here is evident when the Professor’s activities result in Stevie’s blown-up body being scraped up as “raw meat.” The “sham revolutionaries” also employ Shelley’s, or perhaps Marx’s, association of capitalism and cannibalism / vampirism, both perhaps echoing Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’. Conrad’s ironic narrator reports Michaelis spouting a slightly parodied version of the opening of Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire on capitalism, and Karl Yundt repeats Shelley’s and Marx’s tropes of cannibalism and ruling class wealth and power. But it is not made clear in Salmons’s chapter whether Conrad is endorsing the links of anarchism and vegetarianism or is thoroughly ironic towards them.

Salmons’s epigraph to this chapter, from Conrad’s ‘Cookery’ preface on good cooking, argues for “the preparation of the simple food of everyday life, not the more or less skilful concoction of idle feasts and rare dishes”. But there is not much sense in the novel (nor indeed in the other novels discussed) that eating good food is actually enjoyable. The (“sham”) anarchists hardly inspire others to aim at fine vegetarian eating, so while their anarcho-vegetarianism is historically interesting, its representation leaves a hungry reader wanting. There is a disjunction in the chapter between the anarchist/vegetarian theory worked out by Salmons and her analysis of its fictional representation. The implication seems to be that a person’s physical form, slim or fat, healthy or ill, might be an index of moral worth or indulgence (unless of course you are starving).  But there are complications. Ossipon is constantly described as ‘robust’; Michaelis is grossly obese on leaving prison, as if fattened-up like veal, as Salmons points out. The Professor finds this would-be anarchist living in poverty and notes the remains of his breakfast, a half-eaten raw carrot.  “He lives on a diet of raw carrots and a little milk now”. How should we read this? Is it an endorsement of vegetarianism or is vegetarianism a sign of deprivation?

Discussion of Under Western Eyes takes an equally political-cum-dietary perspective, with several sub-sections: “Bread and Liberty”, “Food and Russia”, and then, after an interlude with Rousseau, “A Hungry Mother Russia.” It is summarized with Miss Haldin’s opening quotation, taken from the novel but used (problematically) as epigraph: “I would take liberty […] as a hungry man would snatch at a piece of bread”. Her words within the novel are “snatch a piece of bread”. The difference is slight but crucial, the latter implying success, the former, only a dubious attempt. Is the difference intentional or is it an editorial mistake to be ignored (as many editions do)? While Salmons is clear about the difference in meaning and its links to forms of abstract ‘liberty’, she remains, editorially, ‘agnostic’. But as a good possibility, I find a deliberate ‘mistake’  much more interesting and consistent with a prominent theme in the novel and would argue the discrepancy points towards the political, ideological, combination of language, its unreliability, its concealment of lies, set against real material need.

The chief ideologue in Under Western Eyes, Peter Ivanovitch, dictates his self-mythologising account of heroic escape and the glorification of (simple) women to Tekla, abidingly faithful but exploited and (one might say) cannibalised. (The fact that a third-century Tekla was said to be the first female martyr is a nice Conradian irony.) Ivanovitch’s reputation is itself passed on by other narratives, including word-of-mouth accounts, by his own writing, and by the narrator of much of the novel, the teacher of languages. Salmons does not play on this idea of deliberate narrative unreliability as a Conradian critique of the status of writing. But she does make a striking reference to a manuscript description, when the teacher of languages talks about a book by Ivanovitch, in which he notes that while ‘thirsting’ for  drinking water,  he was forced to eat “red herrings.” That idiom rather sums things up. But Salmons fruitfully explores the cultural, political, and rhetorical links between Natalia Haldin’s ‘thirst’ for freedom and food, explaining in particular the historical role of bread in Russia. She persuasively informs us of the revolutionary links in Russian culture between liberty and bread, that is sufficient food. (This link is echoed in her alluding to the French Revolution, women’s marches for ‘bread and liberty’ and, apocryphally, Marie-Antoinette’s gateaux, or rather, brioche).The epigraph highlights a central theme—but what of the ‘mis-print’? Ivanovitch, now enjoying an indulgent freedom and aristocratic support, has written of his suffering and liberty, offering an ideological, rhetorical self-representation.   Almost the whole novel is based on written or re-narrated accounts, often by the teacher of languages. In my view the slippage in the quotation of the epigraph is a brilliant Conradian tactic for casting doubt on the truth status of espoused ideas. Ideologies, whether promising ‘Liberty’, ‘Civilisation’, ‘Democracy’, or ‘Bread’, are matters of persuasive narratives. Conrad’s scepticism about such ‘ideals’ is as much about language and writing. As he says in the Preface to Jessie’s cookery book, “Only [ books] that treat of cooking are, from a moral point of view, above suspicion.” When the sceptical Razumov asks the teacher of languages how he knows what the truth is, the latter pathetically replies that he knows because he read it in an English newspaper.

Salmons’s argument about this tension between ‘revolution’ and ‘need’ (real freedom, real bread) could well be glossed with an intriguing exchange, when the disillusioned Razumov, later questioning Sophia Antonovna, offers a specific ‘materialist’ inversion of Natalia’s idealistic beliefs. He implies that the ideology of liberty is not the route to assuaging hunger: “You must remember the definition of Cabanis: ‘Man is a digestive tube […] you can’t deny the importance of a good digestion. The joy of life […] depends on a sound stomach.’” Sophia Antonovna, the idealist revolutionary, is incredulous. [Cabanis (1757-1808) was a French materialist philosopher and an influential early physiologist, who asserted there were direct neurological links between the gut and the brain, thus contesting a separate ‘soul/mind’].

Salmons then shifts to the idea of ideology by highlighting metaphors of ‘ghosts’ and ‘apparitions’, located also in Russian cultural stories of the revolutionary imagined, folkloric witchcraft and hauntings with links to traditional Baba-Iaga myths. These are manifestations of the folktale of ‘Hungry Mother Russia’, a witch-like mother who represents fertility but also destruction, cannibalistically preying on those she is meant to be succouring. Here, Salmons identifies Conrad’s critique of Russia in ‘Autocracy and War’ as an image of a false authority exploiting, not protecting, her people, consuming their hopes and needs in her political wars. This cross-referencing, often based on linguistic details and characterisation, is discriminating and typical of Salmons’s very close reading, from which she builds a cumulative case for the central importance of food, culture, and historical politics in Conrad’s works.

In Under Western Eyes, food luxury comes as French gâteaux for the privileged ‘revolutionaries’ in Geneva, while perpetual hunger and starvation reduces Russia to a ‘strange apparition’, ‘a ravenous ghoul’. The idea of insubstantial ideas and the use of metaphors of “ghosts” and the idea of unreality with regard to ideologies of revolution and liberty deserves closer attention. Ideologies may be regarded as false, but they are not insubstantial, in the sense that they are affective. People live and die for them, however false they may appear to others. Even “ghosts” are also things people might believe in, as Natalia does the revolutionary promise of ‘Liberty’, just as some believe in and pray to the Holy Ghost. We will also recall Marx evokes the rhetoric of a “spectre haunting Europe” but for him it is a revolutionary future, not the past, which is feared by capitalists. His language is a sign of how ubiquitous literary tropes are in political expression. ‘Apparitions’ and ‘ghosts’ embrace both a past and a possible future. Marx borrows the motif of Hamlet’s father’s ghost, hoping to rectify what the play claims, that “the time is out of joint.” But in Conrad’s novel, the present ‘real’ persistence of poverty and hunger are not rescued but rather cannibalised by a ravenous ghoul, as Salmons shows.

These considerations take us back to the opening anecdote of Great Uncle Bobrowski eating a dog. My initial mis-reading was that “Lithuanian” might refer to the breed of ‘Lithuanian hound’. It became common in  Lithuania, originating as a cross between common hunting dogs (which the rural poor relied on, as hunting provided a vital source of food) with the finer Polish hunting hound, traditionally owned by the wealthy Polish aristocracy, who hunted on horseback for fun and to obtain finer meat for civilised  banquets. While Salmons’s account does not pick up on this irony of mixed cultures, classes and eating habits, she does elaborate on the more important point about notions of propriety, honour and food. I do not know whether the young Conrad’s disgust at eating (cooked) dog meat might, however, have been complicated by the fact that it might have been partly an aristocratic Polish dog, and thus a variation on the cannibalism theme.

A slight quibble with this fine and stimulating book lies with the publisher’s house-style and formatting of this series, which I found to be somewhat distracting. Designed as an e-book, its chapters appear as separate articles, each having an “Abstract,” “Keywords,” and “References.” There is no collated bibliography, but instead the frequent repetition of titles in separate chapters. This format does not do justice to the quality of the book and its wide-ranging research. It encourages the e-book reader to ‘pick and mix’ from the ‘buffet’ on offer and to select mouth-sized bites. This makes it too easy to ignore the important complexities of the social, economic and history of food production and consumption discussed in the Introduction and the next chapter on the Historical Context. But these opening chapters offer very accessible and well-informed intertextual and interdisciplinary insight, crucially important as groundwork for the subsequent fine chapters on the individual novels. The imperfect copy-editing of the book has resulted in a number of the typographical errors, one of which at least—“writtings” in the index—may be taken as a subtle illustration of textual unreliability, even in the face of Salmons’s witty, elegant, and thoughtful writing.

Her very evident knowledge of and interest in food, its histories and complexities are not mechanically ‘applied’ to Conrad’s writing. Rather, Salmons offers the thematic and linguistic filter through which we can read Conrad from a fresh, rich and nourishing, perspective.

© 2021 Anthony Fothergill

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