By Tanya Gokulsing, Worcester College, Oxford
Heart of Darkness. Foreword by A.
N. Wilson. London: Hesperus Press, 2002. vii + 137pp. £6.99
The Return. Foreword by Colm Tóibín.
London: Hesperus Press, 2004. vii + 75pp. £6.99
A Smile of Fortune. Foreword by Salley
Vickers. London: Hesperus Press, 2007. vii + 81pp. £7.99
of Darkness,” “The Return,” and “A Smile
of Fortune”: confronted with this combination of titles in
Hesperus Press’s short series of Conrad stories, the reader
is immediately drawn to question the design behind publishing such
an eclectic assortment. The answer to this question is to some extent
given by the publisher’s mission statement:
Hesperus Press is committed
to bringing near what is far – far both in space and time.
Works written by the greatest authors, unjustly neglected or simply
little known in the English language, will be made accessible through
new translations and a completely fresh editorial approach. Through
these short classic works, each little more than 100 pages in length,
the reader will be introduced to the greatest writers from all times
and all cultures.
This, at least, explains
the motivation behind publishing “The Return,” perhaps
the least popular of Conrad’s short stories, as a single-volume
work, and, indeed, Colm Tóibín’s introduction
to the story seeks to rescue it from neglect both by situating it
in the more familiar contexts of the kind of “society”
fiction and comedies of manners written by Henry James and Oscar
Wilde, and by maintaining that it is worthy of attention.
While the publisher’s
mission statement may provide the answer to the appearance of “The
Return” in this series, it simultaneously raises the question
of why “Heart of Darkness” is also included, for this
novella can hardly be considered “unjustly neglected or simply
little known in the English language.” A. N. Wilson’s
perfectly adequate introduction sheds no new light on the novella,
but rather, simply reminds us of Achebe’s objections to the
tale and counters this with evidence from Adam Hochschild’s
excellent King Leopold’s Ghost.
Wilson does take us forward
a little into somewhat fresh territory, indicating the relevance
of the novella for events in early twentieth-century Russia and
in war-time Europe, but, at the same time, he fails to take us backwards
to explore the relevance Conrad’s personal history and the
Polish nationalism that shaped his youth.
Perhaps the greatest
credit of the edition, therefore, is the inclusion of “The
Congo Diary” and “Up-River Book” edited by Zdzislaw
Najder, both extremely important and valuable contexts in which
to view the novella itself. On the whole, however, there seems to
be little to mark this edition out from the many others of this
The choice of the third
and final story in the series, “A Smile of Fortune”
is quickly explained by Salley Vickers’s introduction, for,
as she says, “Conrad is best known for his sea stories,”
and perhaps it was felt that at least one sea story ought to appear
in Hesperus Press’s collection.
As in the case of “The
Return,” the inclusion of “A Smile of Fortune”
is largely justified by the publisher’s mission statement.
Although the tale was popular with many of its first reviewers when
it appeared in ’Twixt Land and Sea (1912), later critics have
found it wanting. In her effort to claim greater value for the story
than other critics have placed upon it, Vickers emphasises the tale’s
comedy in its “mixture of acutely captured psychology, humour
and pathos” and closing pages of “darkly brilliant irony.”
The question ultimately
posed by this series is that of readership. While “Heart of
Darkness” may well be bought by A-level and perhaps undergraduate
students of the text, “The Return” and “A Smile
of Fortune” are unlikely candidates for study by the beginning
student. Scholars are certainly unlikely buyers, for there is little
new here. Moreover, The Cambridge Edition of Conrad’s works
will soon include “A Smile of Fortune,” with ’Twixt
Land and Sea appearing in 2007.
All three introductions
to the stories are slight, which suggests that the texts are aimed
at the ordinary reader – “the man on the street,”
as Conrad once put it. Gaining such an audience may well have pleased
Conrad, at least during the formative years of his career, but I
am unsure how successful this series will be in so doing today.
The publication of “Heart of Darkness”
alongside “The Return” and “A Smile of Fortune”
is apparently an attempt to encourage readers to buy all three,
but while, I am pleased to see The Return” published as a
single volume (for it has always seemed to me to be more deserving
of attention than others have found it to be), I remain uncertain
that “Heart of Darkness” will really draw readers to
this series or that “The Return” will ever appeal to
the casual reader.
© 2007 Tanya Gokulsing