The Conradian: Review

By Richard Niland, Oxford University

Mario Curreli, editor. The Ugo Mursia Memorial Lectures: Volume 2. Pisa: Edizione ETS, 2004. 30€

This handsomely presented volume, which does, however, contain some recurring typographical errors, brings together papers delivered at the Second International Conrad Conference, held in Pisa in September 2004, to commemorate the eminent Italian Conradian Ugo Mursia (1916-82).

Reflecting their emergence from conference proceedings, the essays collected here are, somewhat expectedly, a mixture of well-presented original research alongside more conventional observations on Conrad and his work. The Conference focus was "Conrad and Italy," but the book roughly splits into four sections, focussing on Conrad and the Classical world, Conrad and history, Conrad's Italian reception, and a final miscellaneous section on various aspects of Conrad's work.

The volume opens with essays by respected Conradians Zdzislaw Najder and Andrzej Busza on the intersections between Conrad's work and Classical literature. As Najder notes, "In the whole immense critical literature on Conrad there is not a single general study dealing with the presence of Greek and Latin traditions in his work" (19). Najder's survey of classical influences on Conrad from his probable encounter with Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics in his schooldays to the pervasive presence of Virgil and Dante in his work sets the ground for Busza's interesting reading of the still neglected The Rover, in which Peyrol's final adventure is interpreted as Conrad's artistic representation of the classical nostos or homecoming.

Importantly, Busza also understands The Rover as Conrad's means of engaging with contemporary European history at the end of his life, as Conrad "offers reflections on the effects of political violence and social upheaval on the individual and the community - a topic obviously relevant in the years immediately following the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution" (39). Thus, along with recent work by Hugh Epstein, Busza helps to save The Rover from being regarded as a straightforward retreat into Napoleonic history in Conrad's last years.

David Lucking and Yannick Le Boulicaut analyze the presence of Classical and biblical myths and fables in The Nigger of the "Narcissus" and The Rescue, respectively. Lucking's reading of The Nigger offers a convincing case for the presence of echoes of both the stories of Narcissus and Orpheus as symbolic of the philosophical dilemmas inherent in Conrad's depiction of the crew's relationship with James Wait, but rather unfortunately for Le Boulicaut, his conjectures on Captain Lingard and the Catholic concept of limbo have been prematurely dated by Pope Benedict XVI's recent decision to put that peculiar suspended state of theological torment to bed. However, ultimately, according to Le Boulicaut, "since language is deceptive, since it deforms experience," for Conrad, classical and biblical motifs, myths, and fables "help better express such experiences" (64).

These papers, then, offer some nice speculations on Conrad's use of the Classical literary heritage. Unfortunately, however, they fail to consider some more obvious Classical influences, such as Herodotus, who, for this reviewer, represents one of Conrad's most important Classical models not only in his method of assembling various oral and written testimonies in order to produce his own written history (as does Marlow in Lord Jim, and indeed does Conrad in his fiction generally) but also in the clear affinities between Lord Jim and the story of Adrastus in Book I of The Histories, in which a young man "under a cloud" comes in shame to the Lydia of King Croesus only to cause the death of Croesus' son and ultimately submit to a ritualistic death by suicide.

The second group of essays focus on questions of history, primarily in Nostromo. Sylvère Monod examines the power of the three Viola women in Nostromo over the Capataz, labelling them "the three witches" in acknowledgement of Conrad's short story "The Inn of the Two Witches," which Monod refreshingly judges to be Conrad's "feeblest piece of fiction" (66). Laurence Davies's essay is a fine examination of the relationship between Conrad and the work of Lily Voynich, author of The Gadfly (1897). Davies contrasts Conrad's avowed dislike of that novel with the thematic, political, and geographical correspondences between it and Nostromo, with his essay offering an example of the potentially infinite possibilities for research lying dormant in Conrad's correspondence.

Jean M. Szczypien's essay on Nostromo and its supposed treatment of specific aspects of Polish cultural history - in this case the red boots of Polish noblemen and the literature of Mickiewicz, Slowacki, and Krasinski - offers a textbook example of one of the weaknesses of many critical approaches to Conrad's Polish background. While it is evident that Conrad's complex relationship with Poland and the many manifestations of the idea of Poland inform his work to a degree of almost incalculable importance, there is a tendency in Conrad criticism to ignore the larger philosophical and cultural manifestations of the Polish idea in Conrad's writing in the effort to locate minor borrowings from Polish literature and history.

The rigidity of this approach is reflected in overdependence for historical evidence and support on Norman Davies's God's Playground, which, admittedly seminal, none the less remains a general and popular study of Polish history. This strange co-habitation of a need to stress the infinite complexities and minutiae of Polish history with an obdurate reliance on a single source for this history is even more puzzling in the criticism of an author whose writings encourage myriad interpretations and competing voices. In place of such particular studies of Conrad's past, criticism that focuses on the Polish aspects of Conrad's writings needs to find a more philosophical base and engage with the output of other historians of Poland, particularly nineteenth-century Poland, such as the influential studies of Andrzej Walicki or the recent work of Brian Porter.

This search for minor, specific Polish influences in Conrad's work can also lead to a distortion of Conrad's major treatments of Polish history. Szczypien claims that in A Personal Record, Conrad "aggrandized his ancestors delineating them with mythic stature" (84), yet the case of the luckless Nicholas B., whose experiences both evoke and simultaneously undermine the grandeur of Napoleon's Grande Armée, surely indicates the "irreconcilable antagonisms" in Conrad view of his Polish background.

Cedric Watts "Reflections on Giorgio Viola" and Mario Curelli's "Intertextuality and Myth in Nostromo" offer enlightening readings of Conrad's masterpiece. Watts again highlights the importance of Cunninghame Graham's works in Conrad's creative process, reminding us that Graham's influence extends far beyond the evidence of the extant correspondence. Watts importantly closes by reinforcing that "Conrad made his living as an entertainer, not as a preacher; and Nostromo is not a political tract but a work of intelligent entertainment. . The value of a literary text lies not in its paraphrasable messages, however worthy they may be, but in our experience of the work's totality" (118-19).

The volume's central essays treat the Italian connection with Conrad's works, offering papers on Conrad's influence on later Italian writers and on his broader critical reception in Italy in the twentieth century. Some of these essays, while interesting, strike one as rather subjective in their quite random approach to the sometimes tenuous relationship claimed by the authors to exist between Conrad and chosen Italian literati, such as Ennio Flaiano, Dacia Maraini, Carlo Levi, Alberto Moravia, Cesare Pavese, and Guiseppe Berto.

Papers by Mario Domenichelli on Flaiano's Tempo di uccidere, Michel Arouimi on Levi's Cristo si è fermato a Eboli, and Laura Giovannelli on Moravia, Pavese, and Berto, draw attention to Conradian echoes in the works of the Italian authors mentioned. However, there is something superfluous in the extended treatment of broad Conradian motifs in writers following Conrad, when anyone familiar with Conrad's oeuvre can detect his influence throughout twentieth-century literature without needing fully to investigate intertextual echoes that may have merely made one pause for a few seconds' thought whilst reading.

The exception to this criticism is in the essays dealing with Conrad's influence on Dacia Maraini, particularly in the explorations of her 1996 translation of "The Secret Sharer." Elena Paruolo presents a transcription of an interview with the author in which one can read of Maraini's appreciation of Conrad's works and the difficulties of translation, along with the persistence of more stereotypical and hard-to-kill attitudes such as the belief that Conrad "betrayed" his homeland and his language (155).

Both Gian Mario Benzing and Fausto Ciompi's contributions on the critical reception of Conrad in Italy are valuable surveys for the English reader based on solid research. Benzing offers a brief biographical and bibliographical note on Mario Benzing (1896-1958), an early Italian translator of Conrad. Ciompi's essay here is one of the volume's highlights. It importantly notes the work done by Conrad scholars in Italy and the tendency amongst English-speaking critics to overlook scholarship not Anglophone in origin. Discussing early appreciations of Conrad's writing, such as those by Carlo Placcidi in Il marzocco in 1911 and by Emilio Cecchi in Il convegno in 1924, Ciompi also draws attention to a 1992 article by Carlo Pagetti noting the appearance in Blackwood's Magazine in October 1892 of a piece by Edward Braddon entitled Tasmania and its Silver-Fields, which discussed a government geologist named Charles Gould "who explores Tasmania's mines and silver fields" (227).

Gene M. Moore, examining Suspense, looks at the tangled question of Conrad's intentions in his last work and the influence, or lack of it, of Richard Curle on the published version. He concludes, presumably in anticipation of his Cambridge Edition of the novel, that Conrad was closer to completing it than is indicated by the "great legend" of the mighty, unfinished fragment. As noted elsewhere, however, Volume 7 of The Collected Letters (2005) reveals that Conrad felt Suspense to be about half completed in December 1922, with scant work done after that date.

Such understandable and necessary interest in establishing a reliable critical text has certainly been the cause of critics' relative failure to treat the subjects that did occupy Conrad in his last years, namely Napoleon and French history. Anne Luyat on The Arrow of Gold and Suspense goes some way towards redressing this imbalance, offering a reading of Conrad's last works that draws from French literature, particularly Balzac, and history, an approach that uses a still fruitful method of illuminating Conrad's writing, adding to work by Paul Kirschner, Yves Hervouet, Owen Knowles, and J. H. Stape.

Amongst the volume's concluding papers is an informative discussion by Phillip Olleson of Richard Rodney Bennett's operatic version of Victory, produced and staged in London and Berlin in the early 1970s. Olleson notes, quite correctly, that the importance of music in Conrad's work has yet to be fully explored. Finally, Robert G. Hampson looks at The Secret Agent and "The Informer" in the context of Conrad's familiarity with anarchist literature. Some of Hampson's observations, such as the incongruous case of the founders of the anarchist journal The Torch, Olive, Arthur, and Helen Rosetti, quite daintily having tea with the notorious anarchist Peter Kropotkin in The British Museum, help one better understand the origins of Conrad's ironic and subversive treatment of this particular fin de siècle "threat" to Western society.

Thus, considering the diversity of the papers included here, this volume can be regarded overall as a worthy successor to the original Ugo Mursia Memorial Lectures (1983), revealing Conrad's continuing power to appeal to readers adopting a wide range of critical perspectives, yet his graceful refusal to ultimately lie in the arms of any one of these scholarly embraces.

© 2006 Richard Niland






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