The Conradian: Review

By Katherine Isobel Baxter, Richmond American International University, London

Stephen Donovan, Joseph Conrad and Popular Culture. London: Palgrave, 2005. xiii + 236 pp. £45/ $74.95


In the arena of Conrad scholarship work has already been done in specialized areas of Conrad's interaction with popular culture. Andrea White and Linda Dryden have explored his relationship with imperial romance to great effect. Susan Jones's seminal Conrad and Women (1999) investigated the implications for Conrad's oeuvre of that device, so commonly dismissed as a lowering of Conrad's literary standards through popular appeal, the presence of the female. Richard Hand's recent book (2005) on Conrad's relationship to the theatre provides another practical antidote to the equation of popular forms with poor aesthetic judgement in Conrad's work.

Stephen Donovan's book is the first, however, to devote itself wholeheartedly and unabashedly to the field of popular culture. Popular culture is, by nature, temporary. It encompasses the reusable, the recyclable, the disposable, the dispersed, and the dispensable. It is oral, aural, ephemeral. Like till spread on a field, popular culture is absorbed through the power of environment and osmosis, transforming the landscape unseen.

Even the contemporary meta-literature of popular culture is temporally and culturally bound. A discussion of Larry the Lamb based on popular experience of Larry loses its resonance when that experience itself is lost. What is left can only ever be a trace of an experience whose reconstruction requires an effort disproportionate to that expended in the original reception of Larry. There is an irony in this, therefore, in that popular culture's very transitory virtue makes its study an archaeological and, at times, esoteric labour. Exploration of earlier popular cultural artefacts and their semiotic structures becomes a task of scholarly excavation, bringing to light the textual traces that the "common" or "popular" reader misses.

Stephen Donovan is to be praised both for the care and detail of his excavation of popular culture in Conrad's œuvre and for the lucidity with which he presents his results. The volume is divided into four sections "Visual Entertainment," "Tourism," "Advertising," and "Magazine Fiction" within the frames of introduction and conclusion. Each section addresses itself to a form of popular culture, which Donovan identifies as particularly significant for Conrad's work.

Of course these forms overlap both in their appearances in Conrad's work and in their media. Indeed all, to greater and lesser degrees, privilege the visual sense, the ability "to see." In another's hands these overlaps might all too easily lead to repetition between chapters; however, Donovan skilfully avoids such pitfalls and manages to present Chance, for example, with new insight at each appearance.

Donovan opens his chapter on visual entertainment with Borys Conrad's story of when he and his father found themselves in 1914 in a Viennese shooting range, where the moving targets were cinematically projected Scottish infantrymen. Conrad hisses to Borys, "We have to go through with it, Boy but take care you don't hit any of those fellows." The story reminds us of the multiplicity of uses to which early cinema was put and therefore of the form'sinstability as a cultural medium. More specifically, it indicates the complexity of the world of visual entertainment with which Conrad's "artistic intention" was engaged.

Donovan goes on to discuss that engagement with reference to cinema, photography (including spirit photography), theatre, waxwork tableaux, woodcuts, and puppets, among others, to show how these forms of entertainment informed Conrad's aesthetics and appeared as cultural signifiers within his work.

The chapter on tourism similarly explores ways in which leisured travel informed Conrad's works and appears within them. In addition it traces Conrad's distinction between "serious" and "unserious" travel in life and letters. This distinction lies at the crux of much writing on travel and tourism and can also be proposed in terms of authenticity and inauthenticity. However, these distinctions are unstable. Indeed, just as the study of past popular culture requires scholastic excavation so too, ironically, the privileging of authenticity in travel is almost inevitably accompanied by a nostalgia, whose presence calls into question the origins of the authentic notation.

Donovan unravels the intricacies of Conrad's extensive literary and biographical relationship with travel along these lines, although he does not discuss in full the destabilizing implications of nostalgia for authenticity. Instead, he considers at some length the cultural context for the Fynes's tramping in Chance and, more suggestively, the quiet presence of noisy tourists in Lord Jim. Donovan concludes that "Lord Jim can be seen to record the impact of tourism in two ways: firstly, as a deformation of the true nature of sea travel and, secondly, as a spatial closing-off of the high seas to romance, a shift symbolized by the odious presence of globetrotters." This conclusion is presented in the context of Cook's Tours and of "the humiliating memory" of Conrad's last maritime employment "as a glorified tourist guide on the ill-fated Adowa."

n his chapter on advertising Donovan describes the extraordinary proliferation of visual advertising during Conrad's lifetime. Focussing predominantly on Britain, he explores not only the advertisements themselves but also the new commodities they sold and the controversies that frequently raged about the advertisements and their commodities.

Donovan's scholarly energy is at its best here, mining contemporary handbooks on effective advertising as well as advertising archives and contemporary commentary. Not that it is simply diligence or tenacity that calls for praise, but the use to which the results of this research are put. Donovan applies it compellingly in his discussion of "An Anarchist" to suggest that the B.O.S. Company is a thinly veiled parody of Bovril, whose brand name was ubiquitous at the time.

The final chapter takes on the most complex topic at least for the purposes of understanding Conrad's relationship with popular culture magazine fiction. This complexity is due to the fact that magazine fictions of the time were extremely heterogeneous as were the magazines that carried them. It is yet another irony that the rapid development during Conrad's lifetime of global media infrastructures, which facilitated trans-national syndication of printed news and entertainment, whilst threatening/promising homogeneity saturated the market with such a diversity of material that the magazines were able to present an extraordinary variety of content. Furthermore, the physical presentation of fiction did not necessarily differ in any clear way from the presentation of reportage, memoir, and history in magazine's like Blackwood's.

Magazine fiction could thus choose either to distinguish itself from the non-fiction around it through linguistic register and narrative genre or to ape non-fiction by borrowing subject matter and stylistic tropes. Donovan focuses his attention primarily on the relationship of Conrad's fiction to other magazine fiction and advertising, rather than to non-fiction, and it would have been interesting to see more discussion of this context here, in what is the shortest chapter.

His extended discussion of Typhoon's conglomeration of genres nevertheless demonstrates the multivalency of contemporary magazine culture: "Far from merely offering a sop to the Pall Mall's popular readers or providing a cover for smuggling in a properly Modernist narrative, the "low" elements of comedy and physical violence in "Typhoon" ought to be understood as part of a more ambitious attempt to meet the conflicting demands now being placed upon fiction magazines."

Throughout his study Donovan does not radically overturn our conception of Conrad's œuvre, nor does he seek to do so, and the volume is all the more nuanced for this. Neither does he deny that "Conrad energetically denounced the general public as irredeemably undiscerning." What he does show is that, "all his protestations to the contrary," Conrad "had direct and substantial knowledge of popular cultural texts and practices, and that these latter exerted a significant influence on his fiction and prose writing."

Indeed, the volume successfully provokes a desire to examine further the infinite matrix of relationships between Conrad, his work, and the popular culture in which both had no choice but to operate. Not only does this volume provoke renewed interest in its subject matter, but it also stands as a paradigm in its meticulous research, so that the combination provides that novel and most welcome thing a riveting new work of Conrad scholarship.

© 2006 Katherine Isobel Baxter


 

 

 

 

 

 
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ody of ambitious plays” by placing them within the context of evolving theatrical traditions, including melodrama, Expressionism, Grand-Guignol, and naturalism, to argue that, despite his protestations to the contrary, Conrad’s awareness of contemporary theatre was more advanced than has hitherto been recognized.

Bringing the volume to a close, Mary Morzinski challenges the “achievement and decline” claims made by Moser et al. to provide a strident defence of Conrad’s stylistic development as one of continual growth, using the manuscript of The Rescue as evidence. A linguistic approach to Conrad, this essay’s context is Second Language Acquisition, whereby the speaker develops an “interlanguage.” Analysis of such characteristics as verb tense and word order (of adverbial modifiers and adjectives) leads into a discussion of asyndeton and synecdoche to argue that the hallmarks of Conrad’s style are simultaneously aspects of his artistic techniques, and that these continue to evolve across Conrad’s career.

The Conrad: Eastern and Western Perspectives series is proving to be a useful contribution to on-going Conradian scholarship and critical debate. Apart from occasional designated monographs, including Morzinski’s own Linguistic Influence of Polish on Conrad’s Style (Vol. 3: 1994), the series are largely composed of edited collections of essays that, if heterogeneous, are ultimately satisfyingly wide-ranging in their range and scope.