The Conradian: Review
Cover Donovan book

By Richard Niland, Oxford University

Andrzej Ciuk and Marcin Piechota, editors. Conrad's Europe. Opole: Yearbook of Conrad Studies Poland, 2005.

Elegantly produced, Conrad's Europe successfully addresses the subject of its title in most of its contributions. Dominating this publication are the questions of Conrad's views of nationality and Europe, along with the presence of the work of Edward Said, to whom this conference, held in Poland in September 2004, became, in effect, a tribute. As with the Ugo Mursia Memorial Lectures (2005), this volume is not wholly free from typographical errors, with Conrad's last work, in the volume's Table of Abbreviations, becoming Suspence, and Najder's seminal study of Conrad's youth doubling as a study of classical music as Conrad's Polish Bachground.

Such minor problems aside, many of the essays collected here take a broad view of Conrad's career and his ideas on and understanding of Europe. As Sylvère Monod points out in his fine "Conrad and European Politics," even to begin to examine this subject one needs not only a lifetime of varied reading but also of re-reading. With that caveat in mind, it is not surprising that the most accomplished and persuasive essays here are by senior Conradians.

Andrzej Busza offers a geographical survey of nineteenth-century literary Europe, placing Conrad between Flaubert and Dostoevsky, convincingly presenting Conrad as a self-consciously European writer. While a reader without any national claims to Conrad must, it seems clear, easily accept Conrad's essentially European temperament, an interesting feature of this volume is the attempt to align Conrad with a number of specific national viewpoints.

Grażyna Branny's paper on Conrad's time in Kraków concurs with yet confronts Addison Bross's view that Conrad failed to treat in his work the central philosophical debate between the declining Polish Romantic view of the nation after the 1863 Insurrection and the emerging thought of the Positivist movement. Branny indicates that the painful circumstances of Conrad's family history explain his refusal to engage with this polarization of views of the struggle for the Polish nation and that Bross rather callously failed to note this. However, it would seem that both Bross and Branny are mistaken: this conflict is evident throughout Conrad's writing in many forms from time-worn arguments over the presence of the romantic and the realistic in his writing to the focus in The Nigger of the "Narcissus" on the co-existence of both the "work" of the younger crew and the attentive presence of a romantic, older generation, represented by Singleton, in the guiding the ship of state.

Branny's essay is regrettably marred by a few quirky details that ultimately make one question the objectivity of this attempt to study aspects of Conrad's Europe. First, there are repeated references to the author generally known as Joseph Conrad as "Konradek" and "little Konradek," which, when coming from anyone other than a member of Conrad's immediate family circle in the late 1850s or 1860s, set alarm-bells ringing. Such an approach to Conrad usually indicates, in addition to a fixation with the photograph of the young Conrad with riding-whip, a protective ownership of this European and trans-national writer that belies specific national(ist) intentions and preconceptions.

These tendencies are further evidenced by Branny's overtly polemical comments: that Conrad, for instance, was "well aware of the British aloofness towards foreigners as well as England's reluctance to act on Poland's behalf at the expense of the propriety of their relations with Russia, whether tsarist or Soviet, the attitude which has unfortunately hardly become outdated over the period of 80 years that have elapsed since Conrad's death" (38).

The essay also claims, quite outrageously, that Józef Retinger can be considered the "founder of the modern idea of United Europe" (41), which argument, if only considering Stefan Buszczyński's promotion of some degree of European unification in La Décadence de l'Europe (1867), is unsustainable. Finally, Retinger is here held up to be the "Paine of Europe" (44), an assertion that, if it refers to the same Tom Paine of Rights of Man, calls for immediate administration of a strong dose of "common sense."

While Conrad's European artistic achievement is celebrated here, the fraught question as to which of the nations of Europe has the greatest claim to him inevitably rears its head. Allan H. Simmons in his "Conrad and English Politics and Culture" begins to present a balanced examination of the complexities inherent in the idea of Englishness at the period of Conrad's literary apprenticeship.

For Simmons, Conrad's situation and the position represented by characters such as Marlow allows this European author to analyze the conflicting forces, whether pro- or anti-imperialism or preconceived notions of class, then, and still, existing within a national identity renegotiating its position in the wider world. Simmons's work can ultimately be seen to direct attention to a relatively neglected but important part of Conrad's immediate historical context: What exactly is this Englishness that appears to be taken for granted? Conrad wrote his most philosophical letters – in French – to a then-latent Scottish nationalist at a time when the Irish national independence movement (with its own claims to orthodoxy being challenged by Ulster unionism) was preparing for another of its abortive climaxes.

His fictional crews are not only filled with Europeans of every description but also with carefully and consciously delineated characters of every shade from the British Isles. He lived at a period into which were born a new generation of writers, such as David Jones, who would later articulate the fundamentally fractured nature of Britishness. It seems that as much as Conrad should not be definitively and exclusively claimed for any one version of the Polish idea, nor should he be so for England or particular interpretations of Englishness, as he had a clear idea that this England was only part of a multifarious yet possibly chimerical Britain that incorporated varied and actively differentiating voices.

Simmons's essay is all the more important in its questioning of this understanding of nationality as it is a concept rather blindly accepted as a fixed idea in many of the volume's essays. Keith Carabine's otherwise detailed, convincing, and comprehensive look at the circumstances surrounding the publication of the essay written for the Trafalgar celebrations of 1905 (later "The Heroic Age") posits that Conrad was "foregrounding his English credentials: and writing on the most national of all Great Britain's celebrations may well have appeared to him as an ideal opportunity to emphasise his English lineage" (78).

Such confusion over the terms of debate and what actually is meant by the nation, nationality, and nationalism, English, British, or otherwise, requires Conradian criticism to pause and engage with theoretical work, even if early influential studies such as those by Carlton Hayes, Ernest Gellner, and Eric Hobsbawm, or later works by Benedict Anderson and Linda Colley, particularly her Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837, which itself struggles with the complexity of this debate on the actual question of such an elusive national identity.

This lack of clarity in the terms of the argument also taints Fiona Tomkinson's "Spectral Nationalism in Conrad's Last Novels." What is meant by "nationalism" here? "Autocracy and War" is obviously the central text in this rich field of discussion, as Conrad is overtly aware of the existence of conflicting versions of what he calls the "doctrine of nationalities" in Europe (Notes on Life and Letters, 86), from benign (if such a thing is in fact possible) to aggressively expansionist. "Autocracy and War" also sees Conrad at his most contemporarily "English," if one must use this term, and it is a point where his inherited Polish attitude to Germany coincides with the then-current climate of his adopted nation.

In its quite frantic condemnation of Germany – especially considering the views that appeared in the later months of 1905 in The Fortnightly Review, such as those by J. A. Spender, condemning the rash, vitriolic anti-Germanism of the type represented in "Autocracy and War" – Conrad's essay can be placed firmly in the tradition of "nationalistic" pieces that contributed to the excitable atmosphere of suspicion concerning the arms race with Germany in the years before the Great War.

Elsewhere in this volume, Tanya Gokulsing perceptively speculates on the extent of Conrad's possibly conscious use of both Polish and French linguistic constructions in the development of his literary style, while Christopher Cairney's essay on Byronic influences in Conrad's writing interestingly explores the European literary heritage on Conrad's work – if, perhaps, tending overmuch to locate Byronic motifs almost everywhere.

Jakob Lothe's fine essay on narrative technique in "Heart of Darkness" and Lord Jim nicely aligns Conrad's work with that of W. G. Sebald, particularly the compelling Austerlitz. The volume closes with tributes to Edward Said, including extracts from his final interview with Peter Lancelot Mallios, in which Said's final, but always intriguing, views on Conrad are laid out.

One drawback of this volume is, like The Ugo Mursia Memorial Lectures, it cannot convey the sometimes sparkling performative aspects of the speakers. Sylvère Monod's wide-ranging survey of Conrad's views on European politics reads magnificently, but if one has had the pleasure of observing his inimitably entertaining delivery, one must longingly, even dejectedly, await the day when such volumes are accompanied by a recording of conference highlights. Until then, and with stoicism, it must be accepted that life is not all beer and skittles.

© 2006 Richard Niland






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