The Conradian: Review
Letters Volume 7

By Sylvère Monod, Emeritus, Université de Paris - Sorbonne Nouvelle

Laurence Davies and J. H. Stape, editors. The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad: Volume 7: 1920-1922. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. £90

VOLUME 7 of the The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad includes the output of three significant years. The editors, Laurence Davies and J. H. Stape, who preserve the high level of achievement to which the previous volumes had accustomed us, mention the sad fact that this is the first volume to appear since the deaths of F. R. Karl, Philip Conrad and Bruce Harkness.

After 65 pages of introductory and editorial material, the next 640 provide the text of all the letters written or dictated by Conrad during those three years that have been preserved. I failed to find anywhere in the volume any mention by the editors of the number of letters now given to the public, many for the first time, but a swift count yields the following figures: 280 in 1920, 197 in 1921, 282 in 1922; thus the volume contains 759 letters (or fragments of letters, for a few are not known in their entirety, but only from excerpts in catalogues and the like). The volume also offers a series of excellent illustrations.

To get rid at once of the only disagreeable part of the reviewer's task, I must mention a few imperfections, which seem to become more inevitable these days, when the fruit of the editors' exemplary textual labour has to pass through many hands, sometimes in several countries, before seeing the light of print, a light that tends to be occasionally dimmed by inferior expertise. Misprints are few and far between, but, for instance, "overture" becomes "overtrue" (52n.), and "to send you wife" presumably stands for "to send your wife" (233). A thin handful of factual errors includes a misquotation of Shakespeare (270 n. 4), a wrong title to Martin Ray's book (494 n.1); and more might have been said about Mme Gide's sufferings (321), for more than from chronic ill-health, she suffered from being the wife of a very peculiar husband.

The evolution of Conrad's English is not the editors' responsibility. My impression that it became less assured in the later years of his career is, on the whole, reinforced by the perusal of this volume. Admittedly, Conrad was already ageing, often ill, nearly always hurried, weary, stressed and anxious, and it was more or less inevitable that he should write rather less well than in the past. His addiction to Gallicisms is by no means a novelty; the use of "lecture" for "reading" (137) already appears in "The End of the Tether," but "I let myself go to talk" (372), so obviously based on the French "je me suis laissé aller à," does not strike one as satisfactory English. "Sailors's yarns" (383) is unfortunate. Conrad, who occasionally deplores his bad accent in spoken English (593), none the less attempts to teach English phonetics to a correspondent who had questioned his ascribing to Donkin the pronunciation of "minute" as "minnyt": "I know that the phonetic spelling of the Oxd. Dictionary is a mere phantasy; for no one says minit, giving exactly the same sound to both i's in that word." No one? Robert Browning, perhaps the all-time champion of accuracy in the pairing of sounds, rhymes "on life's one minute" with "out of the gulf or in it" ("Old Pictures in Florence," Stanza XVIII).

But Conrad's difficulties with English do not prevent him from most of the time writing or dictating superb and even powerfully inventive English. The difficulties are minimal if compared with his problems in the use of French. And that is where Volume 7 does not quite supply all the information one might desire. The editors deliberately disregard Conrad's mistakes about accents; that is understandable though somewhat unfortunate, for in French à is a completely different word from a, and so is from ou. The editors do draw attention by means of asterisks to a number of misspellings and grammatical errors in Conrad's francophone letters, but their asterisks seem to have been used far too sparingly. Indeed, there is hardly one of those letters not marred by mistakes -- often unasterisked -- that in the copybook of a French schoolchild would be regarded as howlers. For instance, que est (202) instead of qui est; l'article définitif (for défini [433]), or je lui dit (for je lui dis [526]).

But what do we know about the kind of control Conrad exerted over his letters before they were sent out? They were often written with very few minutes to spare before they were taken to the train that would carry them to London. Besides, some may have been dictated. And what do we know about Miss Hallowes's command of French? This slight disappointment will of course matter only to the volume's francophone readers; the others will find translations of the same letters into English, which are more than adequate most of the time, and even often talented. (One of the few exceptions is "confined to his care" for confié à ses soins [217], i.e., entrusted, confided).

The explanatory footnotes are first-rate, and some are unobtrusively and delightfully humorous (see 531).

The highlights of the present volume are obviously, and not surprisingly, as follows: there is the progress of the collected editions of Conrad's works, the attempt he made to become a playwright and its failure, his frequent bouts of ill-health, his astonishingly precarious financial situation at the height of his fame and of his commercial success, and his relationship with his agent J. B. Pinker and, after the latter's sudden death, with Eric, his son and successor. The usual ingredients of the Conrads' life are still observable: his wife's operations and sufferings, reading, writing, friendships, moving around on a small scale (mostly between Kent and London, with the striking exception of the trip to Corsica). But before examining the light Volume 7 throws on these major topics, I should like to mention a few significant, though definitely minor points, of interest in the volume.

The evolution and the uncertainties of Conrad's relationships with a number of people are illustrated by the mode of address he uses to each correspondent - a point returned to below. The altered tone of his letters to his "aunt" Marguerite Poradowska is striking; they are now few and very far from the effusiveness of the early days (see 232). About Philippe Neel, one of the French translators in the team supervised by Gide, Conrad is of two minds; he writes to him in terms of admiration, gratitude, and confidence; to other correspondents he mentions his reservations (506, 550). To Northcliffe Conrad writes with almost fulsome respect, while expressing himself about the same person with very little esteem -- but then that was before his first meeting with the great man, who certainly surprised him most favourably. Of Hugh Walpole he always makes much, whether writing to him or about him; perhaps his genuine appreciation of the younger writer's talent was somewhat in excess of the merits of the case, but it was based on a strong feeling of personal friendship, and as a return for intelligently admiring criticism of his own works.

Then, when he writes about politics, Conrad irresistibly discloses the highly conservative, if not reactionary tone of his thinking (39-40, 70; on the other hand, he rejoices at the success of the Labour party ... as the opposition [595]). As to his religious views, a letter to Garnett expresses with heavy irony very little respect for "the Jewish God," suspected of being "a Futile Person" (398-99). He also appears as more sensitive to criticism than he would like us - and himself - to believe. The theory still is that he could not care less, that in fact he does not read reviews of his work, but he reacts quite vividly to the imputation that his work has anything to do with "Sclavonism." (This had come from Mencken, in whose intelligence and talent Conrad says he takes great delight [see 616].)

Conrad's prophetic soul lets him down when he expresses pessimism about the future of the cinema: "I have a sort of feeling that the bottom is about to fall out of that business" (288), though he had earlier declared: "I prefer Cinema to Stage" (163). A Frenchman appears in the volume, whose main title to fame seems to lie in his having written to Conrad and received a couple of letters from him. The editors tell us that this man, Charles Chassé, was a writer on modern art. He was that, among other things. He interests me because I used to meet him in the old Bibliothèque Nationale. I regarded him as an angliciste, and indeed believed Chassé must have been a teacher of English, although, admittedly, when he once talked to me of a writer whose name sounded like sacré, it took me a few seconds to understand that he was talking of Thackeray. Chassé did write at least one book on English literature and publish translations of Sir Thomas Browne, Gordon Craig, Jerrold, Nashe, Shaw, Walton, and H. G. Wells.

More than one passage revives the question to which Gene M. Moore has lately drawn much attention: "How unfinished is Suspense?" As we all know, Moore's answer is that, on the whole, Suspense was not unfinished, that at any rate the novel neared completion by the time Conrad died. Reading The Collected Letters of those late years, one may be tempted to reverse the direction of the query by asking "How non-unfinished was Suspense?" When Conrad gives his future Napoleonic novel provisional titles like The Isle of Rest (107) or The Island of Rest (127) he must be referring to Elba, a place the actually completed part of the story never reaches. He says more clearly to Ford that the novel "ends with N[apoleon]'s departure from Elba" (394). How could the novel see the Emperor depart from Elba without visiting the island?

To another correspondent he speaks of the novel, "half written, of proportions which may be called either noble or monstrous, in which Napoleon 1st will have a speaking part of about twenty-two words." And it is as late as the end of December 1922 that Conrad assures Gide that of Suspense "la moitié a peu près est faite" [about half is done]. As Volume 7 confirms, Conrad experienced considerable difficulties and reluctance while working on Suspense; and did not add much to the manuscript after December 1922 and certainly not as much matter as was already in existence by then. He had been only too glad to take a holiday from the arduous task of writing his "big" Napoleonic novel in order to produce The Rover (planned, like many of the author's full-scale novels, as a short story).

Quite a number of letters deal with literature, either in general or in the form of Conrad's own works and those of his friends and others. He discusses The Rescue with John Quinn, and vigorously defends his treatment of the Lingard-Edith idyll, of which he is rather proud: "As a matter of fact I have never been so truly and whole-heartedly romantic as in conducting the story of Lingard and Edith Travers to its inevitable end. In verisimilitude, in commonsense and even in cold reason that end could not be other than it is" (128-29). To Pinker, in connection with The Rescue and the future Napoleonic novel, he makes some interesting comments: "[that novel] will have a tremendous advantage in its subject. That is from the public point of view. From my own private point of view I don't know that a great subject is an advantage. It increases one's sense of responsibility and awakens all that mistrust of oneself that has been my companion through all these literary years" (110).

His judgement of "The Black Mate" is curt and, I think, clear-sighted: "As to the Black Mate the sooner it is forgotten the better" (191). The Secret Agent naturally comes under examination when the theatrical version of the novel is hawked about and finally staged by Benrimo. Admittedly, it is the play that Conrad discusses, but he can never forget that the story and characters had been created by him in the novel. He remained attached to his "heroic old woman," Winnie's mother: "What the subject of The Secret Agent is I am not ready to state in a few words, not because I myself don't know it but because it is of the sort that does not lend itself to exact definition. All I can say is that the subject is not the murder of Mr Verloc by his wife and what subsequently happens to her. It is all a matter of feeling without which the existence of Mrs Verloc's mother as a personage in the play could not be very well justified" (297).

He is also still impressed by "The Professor" who, he assured John Galsworthy, is "quite a serious attempt to illustrate a mental and emotional state which had its weight in the affairs of this world" (298). To a friend like Galsworthy he could write intelligent and sensitive criticism of the books sent by him, but, after asserting that he had just read In Chancery several times, he still spoke of "the Forsythes" (363). He also discusses Proust intelligently (624) and the Bacon-Shakespeare controversy sensibly (526). But to a lesser star of literature named Clarence E. Andrews he could write a letter (546) deluging that correspondent with compliments of the utmost vagueness (about a book dedicated to him), without any evidence that a single page of it had impressed itself on his mind.

It is an unknown correspondent whom Conrad treats to a statement of what we might call his philosophy of literature; he asserts that his prefaces (better known to us as "Author's Notes") define his attitude to life: They (and every other page of my work) are absolutely sincere. I stand disclosed in them whole, with my innermost thoughts. They must speak for me for I myself can say no more. You can't call upon an artist to be explicit. It is not his province. His appeal is to mankind's sympathies which no argument and explanation can secure. Nobody can charge me with intentional gloom or lack of belief in mankind - and that is enough. (424) The other valuable pronouncement on his conception of fiction is the well-known letter to Curle, in which he protests against attempts to identify the originals of the real people and places his stories are based on.

Quite a few chance phrases or paragraphs throw some light on several aspects of Conrad's personality, not always familiar to all. There is, for instance, his disclosure that his "sympathies for women authors are of a much cooler kind" than for men authors (117). His occasional lack of candour with some of his correspondents is illustrated by his dealings with John Quinn: he never says to Quinn in so many words that he will henceforth sell his manuscripts to Thomas J. Wise, with whom he has found a quicker and more remunerative market, apparently forgetting that in earlier days Quinn had proved sufficiently generous to him and sent him much needed moneys. The tone of Conrad's comments about Quinn in a letter to Pinker (50) is distinctly unpleasant. He also writes obliquely and evasively to one or two people to whom he had promised the dedication of one of his books, which he eventually dedicated to someone else. (Quinn, as it happens, was one of the victims of such a last-minute change of heart, ascribed by Conrad to untoward circumstances more or less beyond his control, and Pinker was another [see 110].)

He may be less than truthful to the Polish playwright Bruno Winawer when he tells him, in order to avoid the boredom of putting him in touch with English managers or publishers: "I don't know a single actor or actress, director, or capitalist entrepreneur, nor, in fact, do I have anything to do with the theatre. I must furthermore add that I have never met my publishers either socially or in business" (300). Even to Jean-Aubry, when comparing a letter to him on page 533 with the next (to Eric Pinker) on page 535, one finds that Conrad could issue delusive statements about his agenda; he did not wish to meet Aubry in London on a certain day because he devoted more of his attention and energy to a "rough rehearsal" of The Secret Agent.

And this provides a transition to the volume's real heavyweights volume: the drama, money, and the Pinkers. Ill-health is another, but there is unfortunately nothing new in that respect: from the very first page of the present collection, Conrad moans and grumbles; often ill, he suffers from frequent attacks of his "old enemy" the gout, which disable him more or less completely, he finds that "one lives too long" (220). Yet on 30 October, 1922, he could still write three long letters. But, as the editors point out, he proudly asserts that he does not complain (142). His health simply gets perceptibly worse with the onset of old age. The number of days of suffering goes up; the number of days of fitness for work goes down. That, combined with the depressive mood induced by that physical condition as well as by serious preoccupations of various kinds, tends to create an atmosphere of sadness over Volume 7. There is not much joy in the world for Conrad during the three years it covers. He repeatedly discloses his realization that there might not be much of a future for him on this earth.

Perhaps his keen desire to become recognized as a dramatist was linked with that perception that his career as a writer of fiction was nearing its end. A successful play would in a way make him newer and, as it were, younger as an author. So he prepared a theatrical version of The Secret Agent, and, while claiming that he did not hope for acclaim in that field and did not fundamentally care for it (see 358), he tried very hard indeed to have his play performed; then, after many disappointments when manager after manager let him down, the stage version of The Secret Agent fell into the hands of J. Harry Benrimo, apparently not really a first-rate artist, and Conrad worked with him assiduously. When there were actual rehearsals, he attended them, and was distressed by the harmful hurry with which the enterprise was launched, and the poor quality of the acting (and possibly of the stage-management, despite the author's profuse advice).

The gist of the story is well known: there were only a few performances; the play was reviewed on the whole unfavourably; Conrad did not attend the première, although Jessie did and enjoyed it, and her position as author's wife, on that occasion. But reading the letters of those difficult weeks is quite an experience. Conrad no longer invokes bad health to avoid appointments in London; he is constantly going up and down between Oswalds and the theatre. And the acuteness of his disappointment, whatever he may say about it, is pathetic. He asserts that he had, in fact, foreseen the failure, but also implies that the play was too hastily withdrawn just when it began to attract audiences.

And in every letter about the play's treatment by the press he insists on the parrot-like character of the reviews; the drama critics repeat one another unintelligently. Conrad further ascribes his play's failure (with the reviewers, not the general public) to its being too unusual for those lazybones critics. In short, the play failed because it was misunderstood, and in a way too good rather than not good enough to please. The conclusion in a letter to Curle is astonishing: "Really the only person that need not feel an ass is me. I tell you this in all modesty" (585).

Probably one of the major reasons for Conrad's rashly eager attempt to become a playwright was the hope that it might bring in big money. For in those years he still needed big money. And that may well strike the reader as the most unexpected aspect of Conrad's life in the years 1920-22. He had become a commercially successful writer shortly before the First World War; one can see that he received fat cheques for his publications old and new and huge sums for film rights. Yet, one can see in Volume 7 that he was, or believed himself, perpetually short of funds. He had more or less promised his son Borys that he would help him with a gift of £1,000, but it turned out that the promise had been made with a mental proviso that Conrad would deliver the sum only when he could dispose of it. And he never could. At one point, indeed, he expressed his readiness to invest £500 in a financial venture in which Curle was taking part (24). The plan never took real shape.

And, judging from the correspondence with Pinker, the astonishing reality appears to be that Conrad did not know the precise state of his finances. The large sums that came - irregularly, of course - from his publishers went into his account at the office of Pinker, who, on the whole, husbanded them to the best of their mutual interests. When a payment had to be made by Conrad, he applied to Pinker, either for cash or a bank payment. Encouraged by the vague impression that there was plenty of money in his account, Conrad did not enquire about details (see the letter quoted in the Introduction, xxx), and he spent freely.

Only when Pinker drew his attention to the amount of his spending did Conrad realize the footing on which he had been living (253). He then treated himself as the repentant schoolboy who had misbehaved, and Pinker as the stern taskmaster that set him right. He committed himself to not exceeding a certain sum per annum, per term, per month, per week (see his elaborate and touching letter, 271-76). But he soon found himself clamouring for small, or not so small, increments to the amount fixed by himself before they had agreed about it (404, 408). There were, he pointed out, all kinds of unforeseen, perhaps unforeseeable, calls upon his purse. Taxes, among other things, had not entered into his calculations, or not to a sufficient extent.

Conrad, quite rightly, trusted Pinker almost implicitly in financial matters. After J. B.'s sudden death, he tried to transfer the responsibility for his affairs, the management of them, and the trust that went with them, on to the younger and not quite so trustworthy shoulders of the son, Eric Pinker. Meanwhile, it is true that Conrad lived on a rather lavish scale, with a whole staff, or "crew," as he preferred to call them, of servants, a car and chauffeur, entertaining friends on weekends, and also, to be fair to him, helping members of his family, like the Zagórska cousins, with gifts of money or even regular pensions. The weeks Jessie had to spend in hospitals, the many operations she had to undergo, the nurses who had to be recruited to look after her, all cost a lot of money. Still, it is puzzling and in a way disappointing to find Conrad so desperately trying to get little additional sums that would not go into the Pinker account; he did collect payments of £100 or £50, or sometimes even less, by printing as pamphlets short works by him (articles or stories) in limited private editions and consenting to the boredom of signing each copy, but mainly by selling as autographs every scrap of paper written by his own hand, or sometimes typescripts of something dictated, but bearing visible marks of his handwritten corrections (see 132).

Wise soon became his great resource in that field; he would buy practically any small thing Conrad proposed to sell him. Conrad even offered to give Wise something not yet written (495). There is something truly sad in this trade, in seeing Conrad trying to make money with almost indecent haste of anything that seemed likely to be paid for. Two examples of the consequences will suffice to illustrate this point: more than once, Conrad had sold a "manuscript" so early that he was obliged to call it back on loan from the purchaser because he had not kept a copy of a text and needed it to correct proofs. As to the manuscript of Suspense, it was sold to Wise in 1921, before it had even a provisional title and long before it was left (more or less) unfinished at the author's death (see 377). We don't know - the reader of Volume 7 doesn't find out - what Conrad did with that kind of money. All we can say is that the need for ever more money haunted Conrad, and that he may or must have been influenced by the fear of dying soon and leaving Jessie to fend for herself, with Borys not quite settled in life, and John still at school. About one of Wise's purchases, Conrad writes "God knows I wanted the cash" (72). If that is the case, perhaps God knew more about Conrad's financial plight than the novelist himself did.

It has already become obvious that by 1920 and until his own death J. B. Pinker played a considerable part in Conrad's life. The disagreements of 1910 were forgotten. In the months that had followed their violent quarrel, Conrad on the whole avoided writing to his agent and when he did used the driest and coldest possible modes of address. In the early 'twenties, he wrote to Pinker constantly, often at great length, and consulted him on all kinds of questions, not merely about the publication of his writings. His own health and Jessie's, the operations, John's schooling, Borys's jobs and the debts he made (307-11), there was no topic that appeared too intimate or too private to be discussed.

And as is well known, Pinker and his wife and daughter memorably joined the Conrads in their Ajaccio hotel and shared their Corsican holiday. That being the case, the sudden death of his old agent and friend shortly after his arrival in New York, in February 1922, appears as a tragic event for Conrad and as the great divide in Volume 7, which clearly falls into two parts: before Pinker's death, and after it. Conrad must have remembered, among other things, that he had explicitly advised his agent not to travel to the States while in such poor health (396). Admittedly, Pinker's son Eric succeeded his father in the business and Conrad gradually got into the habit of confiding in the younger man - whom he had known as a child - and asking his advice on business. But the relationship does not seem to have ever become quite so warmly affectionate as the feeling that linked the two old accomplices who had weathered so many difficulties together.

Conrad's ways of addressing his various correspondents accurately reflect the strength of his feelings for them at a given moment. From that point of view, it is interesting to examine certain variations in the present horde of Conrad letters. Before looking at the fattest sheaf, those to J. B. Pinker, let us glance at a few other sequences. The Aubry correspondence is interesting in being consistently in French; Conrad's openings in his letters to his translator vary between "Cher ami," "Cher Jean," "Très cher," "Très cher ami," and "Très cher Jean." A still greater variety of openings occurs in the letters to Richard Curle, with fairly tame forms like "Dear Dick," "My dear Curle," "[My] Dear Richard," "My dear R.C.," but also a few uses of "Dearest Dick" and "Dearest Richard"; after which a relapse into the almost icy "My dear Curle" comes as a surprise and a disappointment. One is not surprised to see similar coldness in a late letter to "My dear Ford" (whom Conrad had so long continued to call Hueffer), or in the "My dear Will" bestowed on Rothenstein.

Major Gardiner gets a little more warmth, as well as bilingualism; a letter to him begins with "My very dear friend" and includes a "mon très cher" in the body. Sidney Colvin is called "My very dear Colvin," but the correspondents treated to the "Dearest" that appears as the most enthusiastic treatment by Conrad are Edward (Garnett), Jack (Galsworthy, with the variant "Dearest Jack and Ada" when he wrote to them as a couple [282]), and Hugh Walpole. Eric Pinker, when he becomes Conrad's star correspondent after February 1922, has to go up the scale slowly before reaching the top and becoming fully qualified for "Dearest Eric" treatment, but he does get there before the year's end. In many of the letters to the young man, Conrad mentions J. B. Pinker as "father," meaning "your father," of course, as one may do with a person known as a child, even when that person has become an adult.

J. B. Pinker is addressed in no fewer than twenty ways. The differences between some of the forms are slight ("J B." or "J. B" instead of "J. B.," for instance. But it is striking that by far the most frequent opening of a letter from Conrad to Pinker in these years is "Dearest J. B." That phrase appears some time in the autumn of 1920 and soon becomes increasingly predominant over all others. "Dearest J. B." seems to combine familiarity and affection. It is used in 75 letters. To which must be added one "My dearest J. B.," a letter that begins with "My dear Pinker" but contains a "No my dearest J. B." later on; there is also one "Dearest old friend," and two letters opening with "My dearest Pinker." So that, all told, there are about eighty of those intimately affectionate addresses to Pinker in hardly over two years of correspondence. Conrad realized that his letters to Pinker were priceless (132-33).

Altogether, there is in Volume 7 of The Collected Letters so much evidence of the excellent work carried out by the editors that the indebtedness of Conrad students to their labours is immense. And the volume also brilliantly confirms that Conrad himself is a really inexhaustible source of interest and pleasure.

© 2005 Sylvère Monod






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