The Conradian: Review

By Jeremy Hawthorn, Norwegian University of Technology, Trondheim

Owen Knowles and Gene M. Moore's Oxford Reader's Companion to Conrad Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. xxxii + 429 pp., £20 (paper) and J. H. Stape (editor), The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. xx + 258 pp., £15.99 (paper)

Companions come in very varied shapes and forms; not only are these two books very unlike each other, but they also differ from Norman Page’s earlier A Conrad Companion (Macmillan, 1986). Publishers seem at present to like the concept of the "companion" – perhaps because the word suggests that the book needs to be kept near at hand, and thus must be bought rather than borrowed.

For those with a specialist interest in Conrad, The Oxford Reader's Companion to Conrad is an indispensable book, one that anyone interested enough in Conrad to be reading The Conradian will want to have guaranteed access to.

Authors Owen Knowles and Gene Moore have the best credentials for producing such a book, and they have been ably helped by advisers Hans van Marle and J. H. Stape, and by contributors Robert Hampson, Allan H. Simmons, J. H. Stape, and Zdisław Najder. The result of this array of Conradian authority is predictably splendid: not just an excellent reference work, but also compulsive browsing for the addict. Its over 400 double-column pages are packed with information that no-one, not even the most knowledgeable of Conradians, can hope to have at his or her easy disposal. It is also a very handsome book, beautifully printed and illustrated, and showing signs of very diligent copy-editing and proofreading.

The "Classified Contents List" of the Oxford companion provides a fair indication of its scope: Conrad’s life (private life and attitudes, sea career, relatives and family, friends, associates, employees and contemporaries); places associated with Conrad; Conrad’s works; influences and sources; Conrad’s literary life; Conrad’s reputation; historical and cultural contexts. There is an entry on every significant work of Conrad’s, with extended, typographically distinguished entries on the major works, and even short entries on many very minor pieces of journalism and forewords.

In a sense, though, the entries on the major works are of lesser interest. We know that they have to be there, that they have to summarize the works in question, indicate critical responses and mention textual issues. Good students will use the summaries of critical responses as starting points for their own readings of criticism, bad students will appropriate the plot summaries for their essays. For Conradians, however, it is not these entries that are the most interesting, but those of a more specialist nature.

We all know, for example, that Conrad became a naturalized British subject, but the entry on "naturalization" contains detailed information on complex issues involving not just Britain but also Russia, Austria, and France and their claims on and attractions to the young Conrad. We know that Conrad collaborated with Ford, but the entry for "collaborations" gives us a full overview of what this entailed. Many entries are there to answer questions that will naturally occur to anyone interested in Conrad. What do Conrad know about, or think of, Nietzsche? The entry on "Nietzsche" sums up the evidence and surveys later critical discussion of its significance. What ships were associated with Conrad? The entry for "ships and voyages" lists them.

Which of Conrad’s works have been filmed, and under what titles? The extended entry for "Films" tells us. There are entries on 85 individuals from Jane Anderson to Stefan Żeromski, another seven for members of Conrad’s immediate family, 27 authors who were "Iinfluences" and others who were part of his "Literary life" or who were "Publishers." If you are interested in Conrad’s relation to journalism then the entry for "Daily Mail" gives you fifteen cross-references, while the entry for "Dedications" not only lists those to whom Conrad dedicated works, but also many of those who dedicated works to Conrad. Another entry does the job for "Epigraphs," while there is an invaluable and extended entry on "Reading" that details individual books and articles read by Conrad as well as his more elusive reading habits and preferences. Do I remember that H. G. Wells’s Tono-Bungay contains a caricatured representation of Conrad? A glance at the entry for Wells confirms that it does – but then so too does the same author’s Boon.

Some of the more attention-grabbing entries are those that this reviewer would not have predicted – on "Comic books," "Illustrations" (an unexpectedly thought-provoking entry), "Mont Blanc" (the French restaurant in Soho where many writers including Conrad met and dined), "Typewriters" (human and mechanical) and so on, and so on. The level of scholarly accuracy is very high: a random check of quotations and references revealed only two very small slips. For anyone with more than a passing interest in Conrad there are only two things to say about this book: buy it, and get your local library to order it too.

J. H. Stape’s Cambridge Companion seems at first sight more conventional. The latest in a well-established series available both in hardback and paperback, it consists of twelve essays along with a chronology of Conrad’s life and suggestions for further reading. The contributors are again established Conradians (indeed, four of them are also associated with the Oxford venture): Owen Knowles on "Conrad’s Life"; Gail Fraser on "The Short Fiction"; Cedric Watts on "Heart of Darkness"; J. H. Stape on Lord Jim; Eloise Knapp Hay on Nostromo; Jacques Berthoud on The Secret Agent; Keith Carabine on Under Western Eyes; Robert Hampson on "The Late Novels"; Jakob Lothe on "Conradian Narrative"; Andrea White on "Conrad and Imperialism"; Kenneth Graham on "Conrad and Modernism"; and Gene M. Moore on "Conrad’s Influence." This is, in cricketing parlance, the first eleven (twelve, actually), and the players are all on top form. Like its Oxford counterpart, this is also a well-produced book, attractively typeset and accurately proofread.

Writing essays for a book of this sort is not an easy matter. A contribution has to be accessible to the student who knows very little about Conrad, and thus has to introduce a text or a topic and survey critical and other discussion, but without becoming a tedious descriptive rehash. All of the essays included manage to cover what for veteran Conradians must often be familiar material, while engaging with Conrad and his work in ways that have something fresh and interesting about them.

Owen Knowles’s account of "Conrad’s Life," for example, presents the known information while drawing on recent work on marginality and hybridity to engage thought-provokingly with recent theory. Robert Hampson also draws intelligently on recent theory (here on "the gaze") to discuss Conrad’s late novels. Cedric Watts has written much on "Heart of Darkness," and yet his essay is impressively concise and focussed. Students for whom "Heart of Darkness" is their introduction to Conrad could do no better than to start their engagement with Conrad criticism by reading this essay. Jakob Lothe also does an excellent job writing about Conradian narrative, and his comments on Conrad’s manipulation of distance are especially interesting.

If I do not refer to all of the essays it contains this is not to be taken as a value judgement: I felt that there were no weak essays here, and that the book can be warmly recommended as an ideal student text – indeed, so far as Conrad is concerned, the ideal student text.

I should like to conclude by chasing a few random hares that the different essays in this book, and the varied entries in the Oxford Companion, set running in my mind.

First, on Alfred Hitchcock. Gene M. Moore’s essay in the Cambridge Companion, and the entry on "Films" in The Oxford Companion, both mention that Hitchcock’s 1936 film Sabotage is based on Conrad’s The Secret Agent. A crucial additional fact that ought to be better known to Conradians, however, is that Hitchcock actually saw Conrad’s dramatization of his own novel when it was performed in London. Donald Spoto’s 1983 biography The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock reports that this theatrical event made such a strong impression on Hitchcock that he persuaded Michael Balcon to let him film the work. Reports that the play was an honourable failure when first performed need to be qualified by the fact that it made a profound and productive impression on one of the greatest of all film directors.

Second, on Orson Welles. Gene M. Moore also reports that Orson Welles planned to film "Heart of Darkness," and that many of the experimental techniques that Welles planned to use in this film were actually used in Citizen Kane (1941), the film he made instead. It is worth supplementing this information with the fact that Welles did actually complete a half-hour radio version of "Heart of Darkness," which is still in existence. Perhaps some organiser of a forthcoming Conrad conference might consider arranging for it to be played to participants. I certainly feel that "Heart of Darkness" has a substantial presence in Welles’s greatest film.

Third, I note with interest that the word "realist" is creeping back into discussion of Conrad. The late and sadly missed Eloise Knapp Hay, in her essay on Nostromo for the Cambridge volume, comments that "The all-seeing narrator adds that Gould ‘was prepared to stoop for his weapons’ but that he ‘was competent because he had no illusions’" (p. 85). The assessment should warn us not to put complete faith in Decoud, who believes to the contrary that Gould lives "on illusions" (p. 239). The authorial voice by contrast momentarily offers a realist’s benediction on Gould’s revolutionary intentions, which the unmercenary Emilia even finds splendid, at first. (87; page references to Dent's Collected Edition)

It seems to me that the first of the quotations given by Hay can be read as, if not quite Free Indirect Discourse, certainly as providing the reader with Charles Gould’s conception of himself as without illusions, rather than as a realist narrator’s benediction on Gould’s revolutionary intentions. For what it is worth, my own view is that the weight of the evidence suggests that it is Decoud who is right. Gould, like many who believe themselves to be without illusions, is actually in their thrall.

Kenneth Graham’s essay Conrad and Modernism" also includes use of the term "realist," suggesting that the "presence of a paradigmatic, observing, realist’s eye always persists in Conrad, even when so much of his tendency, as in “Heart of Darkness” and Victory, is to convey the underlying dream-effect that erodes the normal solidity of the world" (204). I think that this is true, and although I take issue with the particular point being made by Eloise Knapp Hay I think that she, too, is undoubtedly right to associate the authorial voice in Nostromo with a realist perspective. We expect an essay on "Conrad and Modernism" rather than one on "Conrad and Realism" in a book like The Cambridge Companion because we associate Conrad’s Modernist aspects with what is new and innovative in his fiction. But the presence of both elements in Conrad’s work is, as Hay and Graham clearly recognize, fundamental to his achievement.

Depite the similarity of their titles, then, these books are not really competitors. If the excellence and uniqueness of the Oxford Reader’s Companion to Conrad must win it the warmer praise, this should not obscure the more modest but none the less very substantial virtues of The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad.

© 2001, 2006 Jeremy Hawthorn






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