The Conradian: Review

By Hugh Epstein, London

Robert Hampson and Véronique Pauly (eds). The Reception of Joseph Conrad in Europe.
(London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2022), 558 pp. £135.00 / £40.49

‘Literature has to be international, or it cannot be. I think literature cannot have a homeland.’
                                                                       Mario Vargas Llosa in interview (p.252)

The essays in this timely volume persistently ask us to question, as Robert Hampson puts it in his Introduction, ‘To whose literature does Conrad belong?’ The 27th volume in The Reception of British and Irish Authors in Europe series, under the general editorship of Elinor Shaffer, presents 29 essays by 30 contributors, covering 19 countries, preceded by a 21-page Timeline of publications and events from 1857 to 2019, and including extensive, sometimes complete, bibliographies of translations and criticism to accompany each chapter. It has been a huge undertaking, and the collected knowledge and points of reference here is immense. The book is divided into four sections: Poland; France, Germany and Italy; Spain and Latin America; other European countries. The reader will immediately see one large and surprising omission, considering its importance in Conrad’s fiction, that there is nothing here from The Netherlands and Belgium: simply, the promised contribution failed to materialise (though the first-ever Conrad translation, a serialisation of Almayer’s Folly in an Amsterdam daily newspaper in 1896, is noted). Aside from this, the reach of the research across so many countries and languages is such that any and all Conrad scholars will find facts, particularly as to the chronology of translation, that he or she did not know, and will be led to expanded reflections, as we approach the centenary of Conrad’s death, upon what ‘Conrad’ has been and meant in these countries in this riven historical period.

Does a single story emerge from this volume? Does it correspond to the fluctuations in the British reception? I would say no, in both cases, though some patterns do emerge: the popularity of the sea fiction, the making safe of Conrad by marketing him as an adventure writer for juvenile readers, the importance of particular publishing houses for Conrad’s visibility, the censorship of his more overtly political works, sometimes to the point of erasure, by totalitarian regimes. Yet there are, and in almost every chapter of this volume, surprising contrasts that cannot be reconciled by unifying generalisations. Why is it that, in marked contrast to Conrad’s fortunes in Britain, in Czechoslovakia, ‘From the publication history of Conrad’s works in the 1930s, it is evident that the author’s reputation grew considerably over this period’, and ‘Looking back on the early 1930s’ in France, Conrad’s fiction, ‘with a new title released every year by Gallimard, seemed to chime with the period’? In Bulgaria, there is no translation of Chance, The Secret Agent, Under Western Eyes and Victory to this day; Bulgarians had to wait until 1971 to read ‘Heart of Darkness’ in what is still the single translation in their own language, Czechs until 1980, and those in the former Yugoslavia until 1984. In Spain there have been 69 editions of ‘Heart of Darkness’ between 1920 and 2018 in 34 different translations (if I have counted correctly). In Denmark ‘most of Conrad’s works were translated by 1931, with the striking exception of Nostromo’ (which had to wait until 1966!) Under Nazi jurisdiction ‘on the Polish List of Banned and Undesirable Books for 1941, the single banned book cited as written by the English-Pole Korzeniowski was Sieg (Victory). Perhaps the censors only read the title.’ In the forty years of the existence of the GDR, the three novels ‘deemed not suitable’ were The Rescue, The Arrow of Gold and The Rover, fathom that if you can (needless to say, The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes did not see the light of day). Between 1924 and 1929, under the New Economic Policy in the Soviet Union, 35 titles were published (including Nostromo, The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes) in 54 editions. ‘Swedish was the first language in which a book translation of Conrad’s work appeared, with Tales of Unrest in 1903, and the fourth, after Dutch, Polish and Russian, to translate anything by Conrad’, yet Under Western Eyes had to wait until 1979. At Conrad’s death, Tales of Unrest was still described in Sweden as his best-known work. Why is it that there is only a single book publication from Austria (Amy Foster, 2002), while there are 19 from Slovenia between 1928 and 1997? How is it that Véronique Pauly can conclude that in France Conrad ‘occupies a prominent position, not only in ‘French letters’ … but also in French culture’, while in Poland he is primarily visible ‘as a brand’, as Agnieszka Adamowicz-Pośpiech suggests, while ‘among common readers at large, interest in him is relatively low’?

It is fitting that the volume starts with this essay on Poland which acknowledges that Conrad is ‘now more revered than read’. Adamowicz-Pośpiech usefully employs the approach of André Lefevere, who argues that ‘anthologization, editing and translation are all forms of rewriting literature and that rewriters (critics, editors, translators) manipulate the originals to make them fit in with the dominant ideological or poetological currents of their time’, to which nearly every essay in this volume bears testimony. In practice, the current low readership is a modern phenomenon: under the patronage of Stefan Źeromski in the interwar period, Conrad popularly became the Polish Jack London, and Źeromski supervised two series of selected works with a 5-7,000 print run each, with frequent reprints. The intense period of the War was when Conrad’s popularity reached its height, when his fiction was read by the post-1918 generation as if ‘revealing the true nature of surrounding reality’, as Adam Gillon put it. Reading here the novelist Maria Dąbrowska’s impassioned defence of Conrad against his postwar Communist denigration makes one realise with sadness how far such debate has now become merely a property of the academy. The complementary following essay by Ewa Kujawska-Lis, concentrating upon the Polish translations of Lord Jim, exemplifies the other sort of examination valuably pursued by a number of contributors to this volume. Simply comparing competing translations of ‘He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet’ promotes what is, for Anglophone readers especially, who do not approach the text through the prism of translation, a very valuable discussion of delicate choices at the level of the word and phrase. Had the Reception been published some years back, it would surely have had a beneficial contribution to make to Robert Hampson’s and Katherine Baxter’s earlier collection, Conrad and Language (2016).

In 1931, H.-D Davray, Conrad’s important French reviewer and translator, defended the art of translation against ‘a narrow-minded nationalism priding itself on its narrow, intractable views’, and further on in Véronique Pauly’s survey of French reception, in a brilliant footnote discussing Claudine Lesage’s controversial 2009 translation of ‘Heart of Darkness’, Coeur des ténèbres, she debates possible English and French origins for the narrator’s famous ‘cracked nut’ image. Pauly also performs signal service in bringing to our attention Odette Lamolle, neither a university professor nor a professional translator, whose 19 Conrad translations for Autremont won praise from Sylvère Monod. Mario Curreli reminds us of Dacia Maraini’s observations when introducing her Italian translation of ‘The Secret Sharer’: ‘Among other things, the art of translation suits women for historical reasons. It is no coincidence that the majority of the world’s translators are women: people who do their best, in a motherly way, for a price that is always too low, to transfer their child from one language to another, from one imaginary world to another, as if from one cradle to another, always making sure that the ‘baby’ is well fed, well washed and well covered.’ Leaving aside the gender of the translator, Nic Panagopoulos offers an interesting discussion of what is involved in translating ‘nigger’ and ‘Englishman’ into Greek in 1990 and 1999 respectively. Ludmilla Voitkovska reminds us of the Emsky Act of 1876 which removed the Ukrainian language from the public cultural domain. ‘Subsequently, during the Soviet period, foreign authors were translated predominantly into Russian, so most Ukrainian readers developed an appreciation of Conrad through ‘the third party’.’ Considering the forms of antagonism to Conrad applied by the Nazis in Germany, Anthony Fothergill widens the scope of discussion beyond the demanding minutiae of translation to assert, ‘The idea of translating experience is quintessentially a Conradian problem. … Conrad is quintessentially a figure representing translatability, the hope of crossing-over from one language or cultural vernacular to another. This may mean moving from Polish to French to English, or from seaman to landlubber-writer, or from exiled aristocrat son to impoverished immigrant.’ But sounding a note of caution amid the general enthusiasm for translation, Balázs Csizmadia is prepared to say that in Hungary Conrad continues to be regarded largely as a juvenile writer in part because ‘with a few exceptions, his texts are much less powerful in Hungarian translation than in the original English.’ Ebbe Klitgård tells us in Denmark there have been no new translations since 1998. ‘Heart of Darkness’ is widely read in universities, in English, online, as is all Conradian criticism. Google and library search engines provide ‘the main life of Conrad in Denmark today’. Mostly, the Reception is a history, various and frequently in profoundly discouraging circumstances, of how we, and mainly others, got here; occasionally, as here, there surfaces a not altogether comforting snapshot of the present and future.

A major part of that history has lain with the intellectual courage of various publishing houses and their individual editors: Fischer Verlag in Germany, Bompiani and Mursia in Italy, Montaner y Simón in Spain, Melantrich in Czechoslovakia, Martins Forlag of Copenhagen and Oslo. British-American-French criticism has, understandably, dominated the discourse in Western academia (where, sadly, Conrad now largely resides), so the importance of the Nouvelle Revue Française is well-known to Conradians; but a welcome achievement of the Reception is to extend the understanding of ‘Conrad’, particularly for Anglophone readers, beyond these linguistic and territorial borders. Consequently, a figure such as the editor Joan Estelrich (1896-1958) in Spain properly emerges in his true importance. He had met William Heinemann in 1923, and his long and influential essay on Conrad in Catalan in 1925 originated in a conversation with the novelist Josep Pla on the day of Conrad’s death in the previous year. What also emerges from the three chapters in the Reception on Spain and Catalonia is the profundity of the affinity of several Spanish novelists with Conrad, making these chapters, for this reviewer at least, among the most revealing in the book. For readers who do not already know Anthony Fothergill’s Secret Sharers (2006), his discussion of Conrad’s reception in Germany will provide the most compelling narrative in the Reception: the heroic resistance of Samuel Fischer and his successor at Fischer Verlag, Peter Suhrkamp, and others, enabling Conrad to survive the Nazi destruction, under Goebbels, of the notion of ‘criticism’, and such authoritative statements as Wilhelm Stapel’s 1936 lecture, ‘The Literary Domination of the Jews in Germany 1918-1933’ with its indictment of the ‘Polish Jew, Josef Conrad’; and, further, the salutary reading of Conrad on the U-boat U-96 in 1941, as recounted by the novelist Lothar-Günther Buchheim, later author of Das Boot (1970). But when it comes to Conrad, the ‘riven history’ that I referred to earlier does not only refer to the Third Reich, but also to the much longer interruption to and distortion of his visibility under the cultural edicts of the Soviet Union. The effects here, explored through seven chapters of the Reception, provide another version of Conrad’s very unGermanic refusal to be categorized and aligned (his great appeal to those Germans who wished to resist those growing political imperatives of the 1920s and 30s): as Ludmilla Voitkovska writes, ‘Russian critics struggle with his identity – they find it confusing. …Thus Galsworthy was an English writer, while Conrad was an ontological problem.’ And thus, even in a seminal 1947 essay with a high valuation of Conrad’s sea stories, Ivan Kashkin, like Robert Lynd in 1908 (dealt with by Richard Niland in a chapter on Ireland), calls him ‘an outcast and a vagabond, a person without a motherland and without a language’. Modern Russia continues this disdain and refusal of the complexities of cultural self-determination: the volume ends with two chapters on Ukraine, and it must be an earnest hope that Tempora, in Kyiv, will be enabled to complete their projected ‘Complete Works of Joseph Conrad in Ukrainian Translation’, a signal contribution to the cultural and political direction of the country.

Although Conrad wrote his fiction exclusively in English, the Reception shows that an exclusively Anglophone account of its effects upon readers is radically incomplete. It could plausibly be argued from this volume that his cultural importance has been greatest in those countries and languages where he has been most subject to the distortions wrought by state disapproval. Peter Mallios’s Our Conrad: Constituting American Modernity (2010) gave us a Conrad who had at one time been a more vital part of political discussion in the United States than he has ever been in Britain, and the conclusion to Hampson’s Introduction states what this volume goes on to demonstrate, that in Europe Conrad ‘has regularly been seen, in the course of the twentieth century, as a bearer of cultural values in different circumstances of oppression.’ Margreta Grigorova and Petya Tsoneva Ivanova note that ‘The period after 2007 can be identified as the time when Conrad entered the Bulgarian cultural space once again … Coincidentally, this period overlaps with Bulgaria’s accession to the EU.’ Perhaps not coincidentally; for the other salient lesson to emerge from the Reception in various ways is put by Richard Ambrosini in his discussion of Emilio Cecchi’s work in 1923 and 1924: ‘Cecchi was the first European critic to analyse Conrad’s opus in its entirety. In Italian culture, he fixed forever our perception of Conrad as an artist firmly at the heart of European literature and unique in his ability to synthesize the lessons of a Flaubert and a Dostoyevsky in narrative forms relevant to a new generation of writers and readers.’

There are some gems in the Reception: Claes Lindskog finds that the very first Swedish translation, ‘An Outpost of Progress’ in the Stockholms Dagblad (21 November 1898), ‘was printed on the same page as a report of Joseph Chamberlain’s speech in Manchester on 16 November 1898, in which the British Colonial Secretary talked about ‘the progress of geography’ which has ‘coloured in […] the big white space’ in the middle of the map of Africa’; Richard Niland alerts us to the sort of prevailing myth about Conrad (and an inability to read his books) exemplified in a contemporary Irish Times review of Nostromo: ‘Mr Conrad deals with life in those islands off South America which he knows so well’; and in quite a different vein, Evelyn Fishburn reminds us that ‘in ‘Fame’ (1981), a poem written towards the end of his life, Borges wonders which aspects of his life might have contributed to his inexplicable ‘fame’, and among these ‘being a devotee of Conrad’ ranks high, almost next to ‘being blind’.’ And there are a few howlers: ‘Alan Harvey’ and ‘Mrs Travis’ (in different essays) should not have been granted their passports, and it must have been prestidigitation, or wishful thinking, that enabled Tajny Agent to be published in Poland (in two volumes) in 1902, four years before Conrad had written it. These are just quibbles, amusements, especially considering the number of languages and scripts reproduced throughout the volume. The contribution of the Reception, simply in bibliographical terms, is immense: Daniel Zurbano Garcia’s Spanish bibliography is astonishing; equally the background reading of many contributors, presented in a Works Cited for each chapter, is of heroic proportions. It is a virtue of this volume, then, that what we are treated to is a variety of Conrads, in different countries at different times, observed, primarily in a historical manner, for the reader to make of that what she or he will. It is likely to be consulted as a ‘resource’, read selectively by the scholar on a hunt for facts, and very few, other than the reviewer, will read it chapter by chapter, as if in search of a continuous narrative. Should you find yourself doing so, however, and despite the welcome and productive lack of editorial insistence upon a homogenous form or approach to each essay, you will think that you will pretty much know the story already as you begin each new chapter, or country, and find that you were not quite right and far from complete, that nearly everywhere there are a few holes in space and time in which the unexpected happens, to mangle together two of JC’s aphorisms. We are indebted to the editors, and to all these scholars who have given time and thought to this project, that of trying to find an objective picture of ‘Conrad’s’ presence in their own language and intellectual and political culture.

© 2023 Hugh Epstein

last updated: Saturday, December 31, 2011 7:36 AM
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