The Conradian: Review

By Hugh Epstein

The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Joseph Conrad

The Rover, edited by Alexandre Fachard and J. H. Stape, Cambridge Edition of the Works of Joseph Conrad (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, (2018) lviii + 533 pp. £85.

The Rover was Conrad’s last completed novel, a “popular success on publication,” as the jacket note for this edition tells us. The inflated puffs for the Christmas 1923 market that helped to make it so are illustrated within, along with much else that makes this new edition welcome. That initial success has not been translated into commensurate critical consideration. To take two instances significant for their close attention to Conrad’s art of writing, and for their own academic status: Jakob Lothe’s Conrad’s Narrative Method (1989) accords The Rover a single, dismissive comment (“lengthy, rather monotonous and not very exciting” (132)), while Jeremy Hawthorn, in his Narrative Technique and Ideological Commitment of the following year, does not find the novel interesting enough to warrant a mention. Despite some more sustained attention this century (for instance from Hugh Epstein, Katherine Baxter, Claude Maisonnat, and Andrea White), The Rover has not radically altered its place as – if read at all – a novel of which some readers are rather indulgently fond. This Cambridge Edition – with its even smaller readership – will not alter this state of affairs, but it actually has within it material enough that might at least make The Rover somewhat more central in the academic study of Conrad.

The seventeenth volume in the Cambridge Edition of the Works of Joseph Conrad, The Rover completes all the major novels with the exception of Chance, The Arrow of Gold, and the two longest, The Rescue and Nostromo. The volume follows the established format of a Cambridge Edition: Introduction (Origins; Sources; Reception); the text; “The Text: An Essay”; an apparatus detailing emendations and variations, and which, other than the text of the novel, comprises by far the largest part of the volume; appendices, including Conrad’s advertisement for the first English edition, Doubleday’s advertisement for the De Luxe edition in America, and letters about The Rover; and explanatory notes, glossaries, and maps. All this does not lead to a book with the unwieldy proportions of the Victory that preceded it in this series (see Peter Mallios’s review in The Conradian 44.1): it is beautifully produced, good to hold in the hand, designed to be lasting. But therewithal, not so easy to use. If you simply read the novel, you feel you are missing the point; if you consult the scholarship provided, you find yourself rather missing the novel.

The editors, who are fully aware of how vexed an issue a scholarly edition can be, spend a considerable number of pages elucidating their principles. The text is not an untouched reproduction of one of the versions already printed, and the editors have been prepared to make their own interventions:

In a word, the policy of the present edition is not to preserve genuine errors or idiosyncrasies spawned during the course of the text’s production even when such errors originate with the author himself, the intention here being to offer a critical edition rather than a diplomatic transcription of the documents that happen to survive’ (269).

Thus, “faulty punctuation, whatever its source … has been emended when it damages or contravenes what may reasonably be construed as the sense of a passage” (270). And here the inescapable problem of judgment begins, as we will all disagree on what is “faulty,” what “damages,” what “contravenes”; in fact, what a reasonable construing of the sense amounts to. Far safer, probably, to go for the “social text,” one that does, at any rate, have a historical existence as having been put before the eyes of a particular readership, and thus conforms to one version of what has been known as The Rover, rather than an ideal construction that no one has ever seen in print before. But the various editors of successive Cambridge Editions have found in their researches so many errors of transmission, so many variations and states of the text accruing to each of Conrad’s works, that they have not gone down that route. It is the bolder, riskier, choice; though in the case of The Rover it has not led, unless my reading has been very slack, to a text notably different from the one we are used to in the Dent Uniform and Collected editions. The “restoration to the text of authorial wordings, emphases and rhythms never before seen in print … shorn of layers of intervention by other agents” (277) does not prove as dramatic in the reading as in the announcement. And in practice, the editors say, “selecting a copy-text for a critical edition from among the surviving documents is straightforward” (265). There were two contenders, and the first revised typescript (held at the New York Public Library’s Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature), produced mainly by Miss Hallowes, to whom Conrad dictated most of the novel, is deemed closer to Conrad’s hand and voice.

However, it is very good to have demonstrated for us in “The Text: An Essay” how complex is the journey from short story to short novel, to a full-length one, of even this comparatively simple work, primarily composed “almost uninterruptedly” from March to mid-July 1922, and “repeatedly … obsessively” revised over the next eleven months. Walter Tittle reports Conrad as saying “I wrote the thing at least eleven times” (277), and the Cambridge editors seem almost to have equalled Conrad in their labour, unpicking for us “the novel’s tangled transmissional history” (265), errors, including those which began with Conrad, and what Conrad himself called “the ‘Rover’ tangle” from November 1922 to late January 1923, when production of both serial and book was halted by heated negotiations about publication. It is interpretationally significant to learn that in January 1922 Conrad was considering The Rover as a short story that would join “Prince Roman,” “The Tale,” and “The Warrior’s Soul” in a volume addressing political and historical themes. Its serial publication, starting in September 1923 in the American mass-circulation women’s magazine Pictorial Review, was very differently inflected. With the heading “Beginning a Superb Romance – the Illustrious Conrad’s Own Favorite,” the first number carries the instalment subtitle, “Introducing the Mysterious and Lovely Arlette, Beside the Blue Mediterranean, and Sundry Rugged Heroes of French Revolutionary Days.” A huge amount of detective work and reconstruction has been undertaken to track the history of Doubleday’s galley proofs, and particularly the mystery of how sixty variants entered the final two chapters of the novel at a late stage, offering us glimpses of Conrad working on three different sets of the same book at once. Unwin published the English edition on 3 December 1923, selling for 7s 6d., and Conrad was delighted with the book’s design and production values (how unlike his reaction to Nostromo!). The initial print run of 18,000 plus 8,000 for the colonial market failed to meet public demand. Thus this “Great New Novel” by “the greatest living writer of today” had its print run increased to 40,000. While none of this is a revelation, in gathering this sort of primary evidence, and much more, in a single volume the Cambridge editors have performed an immense service for future scholars of the novel.

The Introduction is not quite so happy an affair. For the novel’s origins the Introduction turns helpfully to Conrad’s recent reading of Sidney Colvin’s Memories and Notes of Persons and Places, 1852-1912 (1921), and also to William Rothenstein’s proposal of a reissue of The Mirror of the Sea to be illustrated by John Everett, performing another act of retrospection. The befriending of the painter Alice Kinkead in Corsica in 1921 lent another impetus to the atmospheric visualization of the Mediterranean, and this Origins section spends some time attaching and detaching The Rover from the larger Mediterranean undertaking that resulted in Suspense. Here, the Introduction gets into a tangle of its own making, plausibly seeing in the white-haired seaman whose steering, “perhaps … done for Italy,” concludes that novel a figure indebted to Peyrol, yet, in admitting that this part of Suspense was written after completion of The Rover, disqualifying Suspense’s seaman as an origin. Likewise, in the Sources section, a paragraph that begins by asserting the “immediate autobiographical origins” of Arlette in Jane Anderson backtracks to conclude that “Anderson, known for her ebullience, contributes little to the introverted and psychologically damaged Arlette” (xliii). This is of a piece with the rather speculative nature of both sections, and their tendency to rely upon the modality of “must have made an impression/have had an immediate appeal.” While the desire to counter a reading of The Rover which sees Conrad in this novel as “turning his back on the problems of the present” (Cedric Watts) can be supported, the rather lengthy analogies made between Arlette and World War One shell-shock victims (including Borys), the painful postwar adjustments of Great Britain in the 1920s, and the linking of the politics of The Rover to that of The Secret Agent (the printing of whose stage adaptation Conrad had attended to in 1919), form part of a discussion rather too broad satisfactorily to illuminate the novel’s “origins,” or to provide convincing substantiation. Keeping closer to the Napoleonic Wars and to recent Polish history, and to what Conrad had written about them, Andrea White’s incisive essay from the year before this Cambridge Introduction, exploring The Rover “as a concerned response to contemporary events,” proves more precise and convincing on this aspect of the novel (“The Rover: An Unlikely Patriot,” The Conradian 42.2 (Autumn 2017): 18–34). The truth seems to be that the Cambridge formula of “Origins” and “Sources” has not served The Rover particularly well: not finding very much concrete material to present, the editors have rather elided the two, holding together with words that are somewhat worn thin their account of a novel in which “a restraint and intimacy of tone resembl(es) the hush that comes to a battlefield when the swords have returned to their scabbards and the guns have fallen silent” (xxx).

The literary sources for the novel are more successfully treated. Classical notions of the nostos, maritime literature, including Fenimore Cooper, Hugo, and Garneray, the motif of “The Sleeping Beauty” and La Sonnambula, and above all the literature and letters from and about the Napoleonic period and Nelson which Conrad possessed in his library – are all succinctly presented and offer a stimulus for further research. The “Reception” section of the Introduction shows us interestingly how, despite a “Conrad fashion” attending a novelist at the height of his fame in 1923, The Rover was “caught in the crossfire” of the fag-end of a belletristic (sic) and impressionistic criticism and “a new frankness of expression” which saw estimates range from “it ranks high among Mr Conrad’s achievements” to “downright bad” (li). It is particularly interesting to read the lament, or surprise, of American reviewers, who had been anticipating the “Mediterranean novel” they had been promised (and which Conrad later claimed to have been Suspense): “How totally different was the book from our expectations” (Buffalo Evening News). The Cambridge editors overall judge the reviews “mixed, though favourable responses tended to outweigh negative ones” (li).

Extensive quotation from Cambridge’s Contemporary Reviews series demonstrates the various ways in which reviewers judged the book on three main issues: the “truth to life” of the characters, the prose style and descriptive skill, the pace of the action and development of the plot. The reviews generally approved of the portrayal of Peyrol but were more divided about Arlette. The “thrilling” quality of the final sea-chase often passed for discussion of the novel’s action (“thrilling” was Richard Curle’s stand-by word when trying in 1914 to identify what was so special about Conrad’s writing). Although the Cambridge editors choose not to comment upon it, they show that the misrepresentation of The Rover set in very early: Vanity Fair (NY) proclaimed, “Here is a narrative as swift as any dullard could wish, and a plot as plain as a pikestaff,” while Raymond Mortimer in the New Statesman wrote, “The Rover is not difficult to read; a boy of twelve might quite enjoy it.” This wholly erroneous view of the novel has been remarkably tenacious. It is as if readers have been consistently more ready to import presuppositions about the nature of the book than to read the words on the page in front of them, and if this edition succeeds in doing anything, let us hope that it slows readers down to the pace and the concerns of Conrad’s own version of “late style.”

For it is in reading the text of the novel accompanied by the two hundred pages of “Emendation and Variation” that this Cambridge Edition comes into its own. The largest single fact of the novel’s composition is that Conrad made more than five thousand changes between the first typescript and the revised first typescript, which affects nearly every line that we read. Strikingly unlike The Secret Agent and Nostromo, for instance, the revised text is some seven thousand words shorter than “the novel as it emerged from the typewriter” (235). In displaying these changes, readers can for the first time in one volume see and assess for themselves the intentions, direction, and refinement that Conrad applied to his art, and emerge with a reading of The Rover demonstrably informed by the spirit of Conrad’s choices. The editorial comment is restrained (see pages 234 to 238): its most pointed “steer” is directed to characterization and the removal of background details, “possibly … to emphasize typicality rather than individuality in a novel as much concerned with the grand sweep of history and politics as with private stories” (235: how wrong seems that “grand sweep”!). The field lies open to scholars to ponder the evidence and advance their own re-vivified characterizations of the novel’s tone, its art, ultimately its meaning.

To take just a few instances from the masterly first chapter shows how very small changes produced the final effect that we read. Thus in the first paragraph Conrad had initially written, “Peyrol had made up his mind from the first unemotionally to blow up his valuable charge,” which he amended to “Peyrol had made up his mind from the first to blow up his valuable charge – unemotionally, for such was his character…” (5). That change in rhythm does not just deal more effectively with the awkward insertion of the adverb “unemotionally”; it entirely changes the pace of the sentence, so that we now come directly upon the action, “to blow up,” but then are detained by the held-back “ – unemotionally,” in a detached manner entirely consonant with “his character,” the one that Conrad is in this way unhurriedly building up, enacting it, as it were. The strikingly objective third paragraph – three sentences transmitting Peyrol’s activity, starting with “He,” and one sentence of observation – shows just why Hemingway devoured The Rover. But then to see that Conrad has changed the “sailor” hat to a “low-crowned” one, and “he looked a very creditable prize-master” to “he made a very creditable…” (6) is to see the art of Conrad at the level of minute particulars, rendering the picture more concrete, but then going beyond the visual to ghost in Peyrol’s free indirect thought and the sense of contrivance in “made.” That move to infuse the narrative with something of Peyrol’s laconic understatement while not giving access to much of a thinking, reflective man (a dynamic and a question that The Rover takes its whole length, right to the last page, to explore) can be further seen in Conrad’s change from the literary and explanatory “Thereupon he remained in Toulon till the business connected with the prize was settled” to “But till all the legal business was settled he remained in Toulon” (6) – perhaps the most speech-based of the narrative phrasing so far. By providing us with these pre-publication verbal decisions, the Cambridge Edition puts into readers’ hands materials that invite renewed attention to just what Conrad is doing, sentence by sentence – if readers find it of any significance to apply that sort of patience!

Because patience it certainly does take. Uniformly in this series, Cambridge has decided to give us an attractive reading page and to place all these variants in a separate section much later in the volume. To use it, this requires larger fingers than mine, or strips of paper employed as markers (as I do) as one turns back and forth, and thereby one undoubtedly loses something of the pleasure of the discoveries one makes. The alternative of proper footnotes rather than endnotes might give us something like an Arden Shakespeare, and it could be argued that a novel, in particular, asks for longer uninterrupted sequences of reading on the page than would result from a footnoted edition. I think that the gain in the immediacy of the comparisons that one could make would be well worth it, but the issue remains a problem for all academic work, whether editions, monographs, or journal articles.

The revisions to the first typescript of The Rover show Conrad, with very considerable consistency, doing two main things: further slowing this exquisitely paced novel, and reducing access to analyzed mental interiors. He everywhere intensifies and makes more decided tendencies already present in his first conceptions: this is a novel resolutely set against swift disclosure. Conrad’s most important statement about The Rover is the letter to Garnett of 4 December 1923, quoted in full in this edition, whose most famous comment is “This is perhaps my only work in which brevity was a conscious aim. I don’t mean compression. I mean brevity ab initio, in the very conception, in the very manner of thinking about the people and the events” (CL8 237). How brevity works out in revision is not to speed up the action, but to keep the reader confined for longer to an unexplained sensational present of surfaces, of small domestic actions, and not to be too ready with narrative or analytical revelation about Peyrol, Arlette, and Réal. So at the beginning of Chapter III, a substantial section has been cut which would have explained to readers that “All this happened seven or eight years before.” Similarly, in Chapter VII, as they sit round the farmhouse table, Scevola is given the three-word-sentence of free indirect thought: “Everything was lost” (64); Conrad cut out “a long time ago,” making the present and the historical past less clearly differentiated, the same time-stopped zone in which what happened to Arlette in Toulon might as well have been yesterday as ten years previously. Nearly all of Conrad’s choices serve to unmoor the story a little, leaving it hovering in suggestion rather than as firmly anchored in events as it had been. Equally, Chapter V severely reduces the thoughts of the English sailor Bolt about what might have happened to his fellow crew-member Symons on his expedition ashore, and also Captain Vincent’s responses, which disclose more about Symons’s past. When, in Chapter IX, we now get the story of Symons’ adventure picked up from forty pages previously in Chapter V, the sentence about Peyrol’s thoughts – “What a strange predicament to be in, he thought” – is cut in favour of moving directly to the next action: “Peyrol stooped and felt the body all over” (96). “Predicament” is not a Peyrol word, and access to Peyrol’s mental reactions is given by rendering external signs, not by a telling of internal contents.

Slowing our reading down in this way, the Cambridge Edition does not offer us a new Rover, but it is revelatory in helping us appreciate afresh the artful trajectory, the force, of what we thought we knew. The other famous statement Conrad made about the novel was to Curle: “The whole thing came on at me at the last as through a broken dam” (CL7 484), and this seems to correspond absolutely to the enormous quickening of the final two chapters. But reading this edition I have found myself labelling so many of the previous chapters “climactic,” all the way back to Chapter VI, the one in which the plan of deceiving the English first occurs to Réal, and yet a chapter in which nothing more happens than a goat getting to its feet. Masterly! The detonation which starts The Rover into life (the important word in this novel about an ageing seaman’s death) belongs to Arlette in Chapter X in her compulsion to assert the state of her heart in her prayer in church. We can see from this edition the small hesitations and elaborations that Conrad removed before arriving at the absoluteness of the opening sentence of Chapter XI: “After leaving the church by the sacristy door Arlette never looked back” (122). And in her rapid walk back to Escampobar, “as if she could not get there soon enough,” Conrad cuts a large section of inner reflection on her part, including the emerging, partly formulated, awareness that “that moment of a unique experience was like the crossing of floating on [sic] wings across an abyss which should make her safe from the pursuit of her past” (394). Too analytic, too explanatory, too prying almost, this goes. But, in opposition to all these cuts, it is salutary to learn, for our critical attempts to point to what is significant about the novel, that at the climax (one of several) in the long Chapter XV, when Peyrol has manoeuvred the tartane out of the cove into the sea, Conrad added the key sentence “His unsubdued heart heavy for so many days had a moment of buoyancy – the illusion of immense freedom” (191).

This Cambridge Edition helps us to see more fully the paradoxical art of The Rover. In the stony, petrified, Chapter II, for instance, the pace of our reading is stayed by the gloriously slow descriptive paragraph: “The sun blazed on the boulders and stones and bushes in the perfect stillness of the air…” (18). Yet within a page we are given the first description of the bloodshed in Toulon and two paragraphs later Peyrol is confronted by Arlette, her wandering eyes and her disconcerting questions and replies. The startling speed of the strange drama, precipitated by her seemingly childish directness, is read through dispassionate factual sentences that work against the quickening of romance and adventure. Conrad’s aim is, as Merleau-Ponty puts it (not about Conrad), to “make visible how the world touches us” (“Cézanne’s Doubt” (1964), original emphases). The revisions to a later image of Arlette’s eyes, “smitten on the very verge of womanhood by such sights of bloodshed and terror” (41), reveal just how Conrad works powerfully to achieve this. He had originally written simply that Arlette had “seen” these sights. The passage goes on, “as to leave in her a fear of looking steadily in any direction for long, lest she should see coming through the empty air some mutilated vision of the dead. Peyrol called it trying not to see something that was not there.” In accordance with that “unmooring” I suggested earlier, Conrad cut, after “terror,” the historical placing of “after the evacuation of Toulon,” and yet he simultaneously ties Arlette more tightly to her sensations by significantly strengthening the end of the sentence, which had read, “some dreadful image of the past.” The “mutilated vision of the dead” is altogether more physiological, moving away from emotion in “dreadful” to the fact of seen corpses in “mutilated,” while “vision” is more actively of the present than the resolved “image.” In thus sensing his way, in revision, more fully into Arlette’s experience, Conrad radically changes his understanding of it: in place of the “trying not to see” of the next sentence, he had previously written “looking for” (311).

This slightest of dipping into the “Emendation and Variation” section of this edition broadly shows us Conrad reducing the explanatory exposition of the narrator to achieve less narration of the connecting threads, more reliance on the succession of scenes. (As he had written over a quarter of a century previously to Garnett about The Rescue: “No analysis. No damned mouthing. Pictures – pictures – picture” (CL1 392). We see even at this late stage of his writing career how Conrad is still seeking the sensational moment. So in Chapter VII he revises out the narrative that had opened a paragraph – “Then he stepped out into the blaze and heat…”– to the more sensationally immediate “In the blaze and heat of the yard” (65): we are in it with Peyrol rather than being told what Peyrol did to put himself there. What Conrad is working at in this novel is the mental, emotional, sexual, moral stirring of habitually unreflective and uncommunicative people and how, artistically, to get at that, just as the issue for both characters and readers alike is how do we get at Arlette. The Cambridge Edition makes visible this working towards the novel’s distinctive configuration of restraint and vividness. While we see the text subject to Conrad’s cutting, I could have wished, on the contrary, for a little more at times from the apparatus that surrounds it: it is odd that there is no mention in the Glossary of Foreign Words and Phrases of malin (cunning, sly, mischievous), a word used twice in the text; and there were opportunities in the Explanatory Notes to offer more Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary history that have not been taken. Nothing gives this history more appositely to this novel than Alain Corbin’s wonderful study Village Bells: Sound and Meaning in the Nineteenth-Century French Countryside (1999). But in providing in a single volume all the different states of the text the Cambridge editors of The Rover have performed a great service for all close readers. And they have made inescapably visible something we thought we had confidently disposed of nearly a hundred years ago – authorial intention! It is now up to us to use their evidence interestingly.

The Rover will certainly not find rest after toil in this edition. Instead, we see more precisely, and prompting us to fresh labours, into Conrad’s accommodation of deeply serious themes – nothing less than the death drive and the life urge – to a format that could be marketed as popular, but which as it unfolds scarcely conforms to that expectation. Did all those readers who eagerly bought it for Christmas 1923 really relish what they found they were reading? It is a pity that, if read at all now, it inhabits a mere corner of an academic enclave. For in Chapter VIII, Peyrol sits down and hears the cicadas: “Delicate, evanescent, cheerful, careless sort of life, yet not without passion” (81). What a surprising and remarkable sentence, enigmatically poised between narratorial comment and Peyrol’s free indirect thought. This deserves to be a more popular novel.

© 2019 Hugh Epstein

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