The Conradian: Review

By Hugh Epstein, London

Johan Warodell, Conrad’s Decentered Fiction (Cambridge University Press, 2022), 224 pp. Hardback £75.

For several years Johan Warodell has entertained many of us with his papers at Joseph Conrad Society conferences; now, his first monograph collects, expands and adds to these in a thoroughly diverting book which argues for close attention to detail and particularly for attending to what Conrad criticism has generally considered to be merely marginal in significance. It is a book full of details: of doodles, maps and drawings, of arrows and sticks, shoes and heels and hats and animals. Warodell’s knowledge of the minutiae of Conrad’s writing seems inexhaustible, and his reference to all shades of Conrad criticism, from Richard Curle and Wilson Follett through to William Atkinson, Yael Levin and Judith Paltin, pleasingly wide-ranging. It is typical, for instance, that he digs out an essay, ‘Joseph Conrad as a Geographer’, by Florence Clemens from Scientific Monthly, 1940: there is none of the disdain here for earlier approaches that is often shown by modern, theory-driven criticism. I am reminded of a recent reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement complaining of a book ‘driven by a small number of big ideas that [the writer] develops to explain far too much.’ Warodell’s book sets itself against such totalising, large-scale ventures in interpretation to ask us, instead, to look at the myriad atoms that actually make up our reading of what Conrad wrote. Does his approach add up? Warodell’s book implies that if we make ‘adding up’ too much the point, we obscure the very marks on the page, drawn as well as written, that catch our interest and pleasure in the first place.

The book consists of nine chapters, plus an Introduction and Conclusion, presented in three parts: ‘Preprint Documents’, ‘Published Texts’, ‘Patterns and Preoccupations: Marginal Voices and Characters’. In his Introduction, Warodell takes what he calls a Morellian approach to Conrad’s ‘detail-rich writing’ (after the art critic Giovanni Morelli 1816-91): ‘he urged us to look at the painting itself and fondle its details’, while ‘many critics have taken anything but’. He is quite clear: ‘In my reading, Conrad’s fiction exhibits a fascination with details that have significant value exclusive of their service to an overarching narrative.’ But he forestalls objections, here and throughout, with the nagging question, ‘But can one study impressions rendered for their own sake? Or does the study become a type of a rational criticism of merely registering observations?’ Warodell’s pursuit of the fascination over the next nine chapters definitely yields observations any reader must be grateful for, but the ‘study’ of marginal items can threaten the marginal status which is, arguably, their interest- and life-giving habitat. Consistently writing with a winning awareness of contradiction and the frail or questionable status of categories and names, Warodell ends his Introduction: ‘If the ideas in this monograph are convincing, however, you will rightly call me out on the fact that “detail”, “margins” and “marginality” are misnomers: inappropriate terms for dealing with significant elements of Conrad’s authorship.’

Warodell’s first exhibit is the 109 doodles that are the ‘unofficial decoration’ of The Shadow-Line manuscript. Canvassing current scholarly editions, he concludes ‘The assumption is that doodles are insignificant and separated from the text’, and he proceeds to offer ways in which they can be rejoined to it and should be so in his view. Unseen hours of labour underpin the invitations made here and on many other pages to further study: would you have guessed that the second most doodled manuscript is that of ‘The Warrior’s Soul’ and that ‘K’ features in six other manuscripts in addition to its now well-known appearance in Under Western Eyes? Warodell modestly says he has ‘only been able to personally access about thirty of Conrad’s book-length manuscripts and a selection of the holograph letters’, and in the footnotes we can gather not only his work in the Beinecke, the Rosenbach, Houghton and Harry Ransom libraries, but also his scrutiny of major Conrad editions, up to and including recent publications in the Cambridge Edition, which elicits this cool assessment of its huge Victory (2016, 920 pp), which, ‘seeking to present a raw and unedited Conrad constructed directly from primary sources, follows its predecessors by overlooking the most visually striking way in which the handwritten manuscript differs from the printed edition: the doodles on almost every page.’ Warodell’s aim is ‘understanding the texts as living documents’, and to this end he reminds us that ‘There are no keywords in the margins of Conrad’s manuscripts, but sketched maps.’ In practice, he finds the map for Victory, for instance, ‘provides plenty of room for speculation but little room for conclusive statements.’ Conrad’s drawings, however, he considers in a section which is more tightly drawn to interpretation, this time of The Sisters. In an interesting argument about Stephen, and a more sustained discussion of a single novel, Warodell sees the accomplished drawings (two of which are reproduced in the book) as done ‘in an effort to understand his subject: Stephen’, and he persuasively opposes Stephen’s artistic credo to that of Conrad himself as expressed in the Preface to The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’. Warodell sees The Sisters as wrongly neglected in criticism: it is ‘not an anomalous product to be placed on the margins of Conrad scholarship’. He has a good line of argument and yet, finishing the chapter, you feel he’s not quite nailed the novel. But he would probably retort, with D. H. Lawrence, that if you try for that sort of thing the novel will get up and walk away with the nail. It is perhaps a pity that there is no mention of Kafka who, mainly between 1901 and 1907, produced many ‘marginal figures’, from stick men to portraits, now collected in book form, of which one reviewer has said, ‘There is a certain irony about the way these dispersed sketches, scraps of paper and cut-up notebooks are now contained in this weighty, lavishly-produced volume, lending them the gravitas of canonization.’ (TLS 10.6.22). It is an irony of which Warodell is only too aware in his own work of retrieval from the margins.

The three studies in this first part make for the most coherently connected sequence in the book. The second section, more ‘philosophical’ as Warodell says, is both more obviously substantial and in one way more problematic. The first chapter is devoted to an extensive examination of Ian Watt’s ‘delayed decoding’. It incorporates the article that Warodell wrote for The Conradian (40:1, Spring 2015), considerably extended by prefacing it with a discussion of Conrad and Bertrand Russell, ‘two of the most innovative thinkers on language and writing of their generation’. The basis for this is Warodell’s assessment that ‘Russell found truth in minute, detailed, atomic, sensory experience’, a position that he productively engages with Conrad’s ‘fidelity to [his] own sensations’, so that Russell’s ‘logical atomism’ becomes an underpinning in linguistic philosophy ‘to provide a major argument for the importance of the minor details of Conrad’s prose.’ This discussion could usefully be read alongside John Attridge’s excellent chapter on G. E. Moore and Idealism in Conrad and Language (Baxter and Hampson eds. 2016). I would only add, however, that Warodell’s instincts in his book are to challenge the hierarchy of major and minor, foreground and background, overarching conception and supporting detail, such that nothing is ‘minor’; here his enjoyment of wordplay endangers his own best principles! ‘Similar to the scientific spirit of analytic philosophy, Conrad generally aspires to leave events uninterpreted, to show but not to tell, to compose texts disinterestedly, objectively and diplomatically,’ and Warodell goes on to examine this minutely by questioning Watt’s ‘delayed decoding’. Conrad ‘is concerned with pictorial, private and phenomenological [sic, phenomenal?] reality – not with conceptualized, symbolic and figurative reality.’ I tend to agree: those who read him in the latter light go on to construct systems and symbols from his work, while the strength and consistency of Warodell’s approach is to maintain his path among details and impressions, the unfinished and unteleological, as opposed to the message to be extracted. Exactly how Conrad does this is the subject of the most sustained and closely-argued discussion of the ‘little sticks’ and ‘arrows’ in ‘Heart of Darkness’ that we are likely ever to get, one that pleasingly gives a full evaluation of Bruce Johnson’s significant dissent from Watt before concluding that the delay is ‘better understood as a tripartite transition than as a two-step equation’, that the episode is inconclusive and does not ‘end’ in definite understanding.

I find Warodell’s discussion, proceeding by almost ‘naïve’ questions about the words rather than weighing-in too quickly with explanatory concepts, to be thoroughly convincing and fundamentally true to Conrad’s prose when he is writing at his sensational best. (My own dissent from Watt is that ‘decoding’ is wrong; the term should have been ‘encoding’ and Conrad’s great art lies exactly in the delay, not in the eventual codification.) However, the next two chapters in this section of Warodell’s book do not yield quite such productive results. This is because he becomes too attached to an apparently explanatory word, and it leads to an all-purpose application, surprising in view of his sensitivity to nuance throughout and his suspicion of the ‘overarching’. The word in question is ‘distraction’, employed more loosely than one would expect from such a fine-grained study. Warodell (who is against the ready adoption of categories) erects a category of ‘distracted writing’ to name the apparent deflection from the main sequence of events or ostensible plotline evident in several of the big, familiar Conrad texts. But distracted by what from what, Warodell is chary of saying, and his use of the word strays towards the construction of an abstract entity, one which does not fit well with the ordinary English usage of being distressed, confused, even deranged. What Warodell is talking about is those instances in the process of composition, that appear to diverge into an alternative activity from what one was engaged upon, but one which turns out to be part of that activity because it helps in (or was a stage in) producing the final effect. So ‘distraction’ turns out not to be (not to have been) a distraction. Warodell’s whole point is that ‘distraction’ proves productive for Conrad’s literary composition. He even formulates it into a ‘guiding principle for Conrad’s work’, the sort of strategy of which he was suspicious in his Introduction. I am grateful for Warodell’s ‘distracting’ details: his collection of items from across the whole range of Conrad’s texts is prodigious, and we can’t help but be better readers for it. He has a point that is full of potential in saying these moments are ‘uncensored’; but following a collection of ladies’ heels and shoes directly with a paragraph that says this ‘distraction’ is ‘like’ Marlow’s attention being caught by the bit of white worsted around the neck of the enslaved worker in the grove of death reveals a need for more discrimination in creating an assemblage of items to demonstrate a category. Far from being ‘distracted’, in this instance Marlow’s attention is riveted upon central and never-to-be answered questions that this person’s life and death pose him and the reader. To do Warodell justice, he says his chapter aims to ‘develop a model of Conradian distraction as stolen attention (rather than lost or diminished attention)’; sometimes the word interferes with this more nuanced purpose. So more broadly, Warodell picks up Conrad’s description, in a letter to Hugh Clifford, of ‘the whole story’ of Lord Jim as ‘made up of such side shows’ (that is, all the people who encountered Jim and from whom Marlow gets accounts of him): but are ‘side shows’ distractions? They are, rather, the central method by which Jim, as a fictional creation and as living in others’ minds, ‘exists’. They are the means of pursuit of Jim, not distractions from him by people more interesting to Marlow than him. Warodell, however, is concerned to put the case that we can in our reading validly prioritise these ‘thumbnail sketches’, in Conrad’s words, above the story about Jim.

In his following chapter, on The Secret Agent, Warodell’s aim could be taken as diametrically opposed to this: to take what some have seen as a fragmentary, even an ‘anarchist’, novel, and to reveal how internally ordered and unified it is. But a similar adherence to a word that will finally prove unhelpful, or even misleading, waylays a well-attuned perception of the novel’s assured structure with unnecessary distraction, ‘disordered’ the culprit here. When writing about Conrad’s most evidently and obviously tightly-organised novel, to spend time positing ‘the novel’s disorder’ and ‘disorganized characters, chapters and circumstances’, shows that the lure of an inclusive term can beguile into generalisation someone even of Warodell’s gifts of close reading and commitment to the particularity of each detail. He sees The Secret Agent as ‘placing the disordered anarchists in an ordered creation’ – exactly, but I wonder how helpful ‘disordered’ is when each of them (including the Professor) is shown to be a devotee of orderly life. Warodell has some very good observations about walking in the novel and how it confers an order upon the apparently ‘independent chronological units’ of the chapters; but I question his (and others’) reading of Chapter I as, after its first sentence, a ‘digression’, the more so as it lays down a misleading premiss for a discussion of what is at the margin and at the centre of the novel, in which Bruegel’s Fall of Icarus and Martin Handford’s Where’s Wally? drawing play their entertaining part, but one I find less ‘instructive for how to read The Secret Agent’ than Warodell does.

With the third section Warodell returns with less of an argued agenda to the margins and to the sort of apparently untethered attention eschewing categorisation that characterises him at his best. In a chapter on The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ he lists all the cargoes carried by every vessel Conrad writes about in order to help him think towards why Conrad does not name what the Narcissus carries. In a small tour-de-force he reminds us of the ‘more than 900 direct utterances’ in the novel and his naming of the auditory range of the novel’s vocalisations, more than thirty different types and timbres, valuably conveys the sensory fabric Conrad’s writing creates. Thinking of the crew, Warodell says, ‘Being “voiceless” is not a matter of not speaking but a matter of not being heard.’ I wish he had explored this illuminating insight further. Who is ‘heard’ in Conrad? But the chapter that follows, discussing the more than 25 different types of hat in Conrad’s fiction, equivalent to Melville and Woolf and more than Wells and Nabokov (all of whose hats you can find detailed in a footnote), does not prompt us to ask this sort of far-reaching question. Warodell argues that ‘a topic that manages to qualify itself as uninteresting on so many counts deserves our interest for this very reason. What do you find when you look where no one has looked? – And where no one expects you to look?’ There is something both whimsical and contrastingly painstaking in Warodell’s treatment of his topics: more than most critics he takes the chance of being simply a temperament speaking to other temperaments, and I suspect that for some he will simply miss while others find him engaging. So here he goes some way to rescue ‘The Secret Sharer’s’ floppy hat from the symbolic weight that it has accrued from many other critics, and it is salutary to be returned to the material world which Conrad’s writing so celebrates even as it questions its knowability. Yet Warodell can be guilty of special pleading for the incidental quality of such moments when objects briefly fill the frame: he talks of the captain ‘accidentally spotting his floppy hat floating on the water’, while the text says ‘my strained, yearning stare distinguished a white object floating…’ While the captain is not looking for his hat specifically, this ‘spotting’ can scarcely be called accidental! Of course, there is plenty on Mr Verloc’s hat, comprehensive, playful, yet somehow a little solemn. But Warodell’s new contribution to criticism is to show the importance of the Ridgeway’s illustrator Henry Patrick Raleigh for the increased presence of the hat in the book version, to the extent that ‘the later version of The Secret Agent illustrates Raleigh’s hat scene with words.’

The final chapter is about animals in Conrad, replete with lists (and for Melville, Nabokov and Woolf too) and an especially interesting one of all the reptiles, insects and arachnids, birds, land mammals, amphibians, molluscs, crustaceans and marine invertebrates, and then the mythological creatures and the fantasy animals. A discussion of the place of nonhuman organisms in Conrad’s fiction shows “the metaphorical far outnumber the literal animals” which are ‘often conspicuously absent’. With this metaphorical cue –‘while there are only a very few direct references to real-life animals in ‘Heart of Darkness’, the metaphors alone refer to thirteen animals’ (listed in a footnote) – Warodell concludes with an extensive and quizzical enquiry, matching the ‘delayed decoding’ chapter, into ‘a sentimental bat’ (William Dunster in ‘The Planter of Malata’), ‘an inquisitive goat’ (Babalatchi), ‘an offended owl’ (Shaw in The Rescue), and ‘a bloodthirsty pigeon’ (Tomas Castro in Romance).  The chapter exemplifies Warodell’s largely atomistic reading at its most productive, breaking the text down into the constituent units, words and references, of our line-by-line reading, rather than taking the text as a whole and offering a grand narrative or totalising interpretation. Always at ease with details, sometimes an overall thesis seems a little elusive or strained after. At the outset of the book, Warodell writes, ‘In Conrad studies, sentences are frequently discussed not on the basis of their inherent exuberance, brilliance or strength but whether they fit an overarching critical category … Yet’, he goes on to admit, ‘if Conrad scholarship were to cease to enlighten us with abstractions … the change from a focus on large narratives would invite accusations of triviality and misdirected attention.’ I don’t think that what he goes on to write in this book falls to that accusation: he returns us to Conrad refreshed, enquiring, and less sure of what we thought we knew. He hopes the last word will not be his, and while there are readers who approach Conrad’s fiction as attentively and open-mindedly as Warodell, wary of fitting him into some programme or agenda, Conrad scholarship will remain alive and surprising.

© 2022 Hugh Epstein

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