The Conradian: Review

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

“Heart 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 ever-popular story.

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






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