The Conradian: Reviews

By David Miller, London

Conrad in Penguin's Classics: General Editor: J. H. Stape

Typhoon and Other Stories, ed. J. H. Stape. 320 pp £8.99
Heart of Darkness ed. Owen Knowles and Robert Hampson. £6.99 192 pp
Lord Jim, ed. Allan H. Simmons and J. H. Stape. 400 pp £8.99
Nostromo, ed. Véronique Pauly. 544 pp £8.99
The Secret Agent, ed. Michael Newton. 320 pages £7.99
Under Western Eyes, ed. Stephen Donovan with an introduction by Allan H. Simmons. 400 pp £9.99
The Nigger of the "Narcissus" and Other Stories, ed. Allan H. Simmons and J. H. Stape with an introduction by Gail Fraser. 528 pp. £9.99

The re-appearance in black Penguin Classics of seven volumes of Conrad’s work in the 150th year after his birth can only be applauded. Handsomely produced, with impressively gloomy covers commissioned from Phil Hale (the ones for The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes are particularly evocative, especially when held up against the two new volumes from Vintage Classics), these should be the editions read not only by undergraduates but also by the general reader.

Each has a new accessible, enlightening introduction under the general editorship of J. H. Stape. (Full disclosure demands I state thatI act as his literary agent, although I am not involved in the books under review.)

To start with a few, now usual, editorial glitches. The repetition of the word “sojourn” in the Chronology to each volume jarred for this reader. Again, the Chronology could have paid more attention to world events, as in the Everyman editions, to place Conrad’s life in more of a political and cultural context. The Equator has been relocated to run through Taiwan in the map for The Nigger of the "Narcissus" and Other Stories, but not in Lord Jim.

Such quibbles are minor, almost pathetically pedantic when considering the splendour of the series as a whole. These books should be for the public, not the academic, and the text of each volume shows they are: all are a delight to read – the new font is clear and clean, the best I’ve read any "modern classic" – with introductions that are almost uniformly superb, and with notes that illuminate and, amusingly, correct even Conrad himself (“Africa has only crocodiles, not alligators”).

In alphabetical order. Gail Fraser’s task is the least easy to perform in the series, taking as she has to stories as different from one another as “The Secret Sharer” and “The Idiots” with some of the greatest of Conrad’s other shorter works. This reader may have more complaint against the selection of short work on offer to us, and Fraser (why not include all Conrad’s short fiction save the novellas?), but she is, as ever, splendidly sharp in informing the general reader of each story’s origins and its biographical and thematic place in a Conradian context.

Owen Knowles has, these days, perhaps written – and certainly read – more about Heart of Darkness than any sane man should. His introduction begins, as do all of the others, with an italicized (and surely redundant) disclaimer: "New readers are advised that this Introduction makes details of the plot explicit."

Knowles makes explicit in his effortlessly erudite and elegant essay the brilliance of Conrad’s novella, taking the reader through Conrad’s story to T. S. Eliot and V. S. Naipaul in prose so supremely readable, each of his references drawing one to Conrad’s writing itself, but concluding with worrying precision that “the work’s path-finding significance lies in its use of a simulated nightmare-quest by which to dramatize the relationship between the self and the modern world, with its attendant feelings of moral and metaphysical panic” (xxxii), a sentence academics will be reading about Conrad himself when marking their students’ papers for a few years to come.

(I have suggested for several years we need say no more about Heart of Darkness: it would be good to think Knowles has had the Last Word for, say, at least a dozen, so when someone actually wants to say something we know they may have something to say about the text, and not the theory around the text.)

Michael Newton’s incisive comments on The Secret Agent are usefully flavoured by both his reading of the novel through its understanding of contemporary moral and metaphysical panic over immigration and terrorism, and, secondly, by his clear reading of the book.

He places the “Simple Tale” in its historical and literary contexts with ease (“we find only Dickensian randomness without resolution”, xxiii), whilst being supremely informative on Anarchist Soho as well as in the more domestic sphere of the novel, and in its singular understanding of Verloc – “He is utterly alone, but never realizes it. This failure of thinking is a failure of feeling” (xxviii). Newton’s prose is seamlessly enthusiastic about the public and private nature of the book and its reading of the horror of what Conrad offers to the reader in 1907, and to the readers of the future.

Nostromo is, after Fraser’s commission, the hardest apple to chew. The book is a triumphant mess – partly due to the ambition of its author and the circumstances of his undertaking such a feat. Véronique Pauly’s remarks on Nostromo are perhaps the most academic in the series, but they offer no failure of thinking or feeling, providing a terrific commentary of “the work of a great Modernist showing that literature is at its most powerful when it manages to combine aesthetics and ethics, beauty and depth” (xxxiii) through an extensive survey of sources and biographical material.

Allan Simmons has been given two hard tasks in the series as it stands – to write introductions to Lord Jim and Under Western Eyes. One is not better than the other, and we are richer for both. Any student at any level reading both Simmons’s introductions would want not only to read the books that follow them, but also to follow the man who wrote the introductions to them. They are both models.

From his opening sentence about Lord Jim, which – to Simmons – “in some sense requires little introduction” (xiii), to his conclusion on Under Western Eyes moves from the personal of Stevenson, Kafka, and Le Carré to the political – “rarely has totalitarianism looked so bleak” (xxxiv). Both essays show a writer and teacher who can move seamlessly through Conrad’s life, letters, and work, and place it in the milieu of the last hundred years of writing.

J. H. Stape contributes a splendid introduction to Typhoon and Other Stories. His remarks on the narrative techniques of both "Amy Foster" and "Falk" are characteristically adept and insightful. He suggests the four stories in the volume, including "To-Morrow," provide a bridge to Conrad’s early and mature work, arguing that the stories are engaged with a “modern sensibility … [handling] alienation, cultural displacement, economic exploitation and the erotic” and then quoting Beethoven to a recalcitrant violinist – ‘It is not for you, but for a later age’ – an “address, likewise, arguably more to our time than to his” (xxxii-iii).

My main grievance against the whole series, one which should backlist for at least two generations, is Penguin’s pricing. Coughing up £6.99 for 192 pages (Heart of Darkness), whilst paying £9.99 for 544 pages (Nostromo) or 528 pages (The Nigger of the "Narcissus" and Other Stories) seems marvellously but unevenly steep. The US dollar price for each volume at the last week’s rate of exchange suggests anyone based in Europe should order copies from any online shop in the USA and would receive an instant 50%+ discount. £6.99 somehow equals $11 for Penguin, whereas buying it in the US at the time of writing would be a bit more like £3.30 ….

The other objection is more a suggestion for Penguin. Where are Chance, Victory? Could there be a volume of memoirs combining A Personal Record and The Mirror of the Sea (a combination available in the Oxford World's Classics series)? I’d adore to see "The Return" and The Shadow-Line – the domestic and the public lives – in one volume.

But carps do little, with hindsight. Carpe diem, instead. Stape – along with the team he has assembled – have done more in this anniversary year than many others to ensure Conrad’s work is presented to an old, but more importantly new, audience and it is hoped that by the power of Conrad’s works, these new editions will make us hear, makes us feel, and, above all, make us read Conrad’s work, repeatedly.

2007 means something to Conradians. Conrad is, though, of his time, immortal, and relevant to us all or, as he wrote: “In his own time a man is always very modern.” The editions presented to us here are precisely that.

© 2007 David Miller






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