The Conradian: Review

By Jay Parker, Hang Seng University of Hong Kong

Robert Hampson. Joseph Conrad. Critical Lives. (London: Reaktion Books, 2020), pp. 208. Paperback, £11.99.

In Chance (1913), Conrad’s narrator Marlow advances a characteristically (at least for the Marlow of Chance) glib theory of biography: “Dark and, so to speak, inscrutable spaces being met with in life, there must be such places in any statement dealing with life”. About such a space, he asserts “we may conjecture what we like”.1

Robert Hampson’s Joseph Conrad, in Reaktion Books’ Critical Lives series does not adopt Marlow’s stance towards life-narrative. Yet in a sense biography both requires and resists conjecture. To create a narrative, it fills in gaps in its subject’s history, and explores “inscrutable spots” in their psyche to satisfy our urge to understand character and motivation. Conversely, it seeks to sort fact from fantasy to establish true accounts of subjects and their lives, reconciling conflicting accounts and identifying gossip, dissimulation, and errors of memory.

Marlow’s conjectural life-narrative provides a way into thinking about Conrad’s biography. He names this conjecture “confabulation”, a term that denotes the casual, conversational form of the novel’s narrative, but which also describes the fabrication of imaginary experiences to compensate for lost memory. Conrad’s life offers plenty of dark, inscrutable spaces, and Marlow’s free conjecture echoes the at times cavalier attitude towards reality in Conrad’s autobiographical writing and letters.

Confabulation was coined as a psychological concept by Karl Bonhoeffer 1901. He offered two forms. The first involves a patient inventing a “momentary confabulation” to account for a gap in memory. Whilst this form is autobiographical, and involves a true memory displaced in its time context, the second, “spontaneous confabulation”, describes a situation where “the patient describes spontaneously adventurous experiences of a fantastic nature”.2

Zdzisław Najder discusses the contradictory impulses of biography in the second edition preface to his magisterial Joseph Conrad: A Life, which continues in many ways to set the standard. Najder concludes that in the face of the “many obscure patches” in Conrad’s life, “the proper study of a biography is the study of culture … not, as is often assumed, of psychology, which must remain a sphere of speculations”.3

Yet despite his best intentions, Najder succumbs to the desire to delve into Conrad’s psyche, to “confabulate” in Marlow’s sense, and thus be able to account for his character and its relation to his writing. He reads Conrad’s fiction as “a struggle with problems that preyed on his mind; an attempt to come to terms with the magma of his own personality”.4 What emerges is a particular vision of Conrad, coloured strongly by his anxieties and recurrent depression, as much as by Najder’s insights into his cultural milieux.

In contrast, Hampson’s Joseph Conrad provides a study of Conrad that, though it delves occasionally into Conrad’s hidden inner life, allows itself only occasional moments of speculation rather than larger narrative arcs. It achieves more consistently Najder’s sense of biography as the study of culture.

This is enhanced by the book’s structure, which though it follows a roughly chronological order, is organised also around broad biographical themes. After an introduction that outlines Conrad’s reputation and significance up to and including Ngũgĩ’s re-evaluation of Conrad “as a victim of empire”,5 the first two chapters address Conrad’s Polish background and maritime career, until Conrad’s marriage to Jessie George in 1896.

This relatively brief engagement with Conrad’s life before he became a writer means that it complements rather than competes with another recent biography of Conrad, Maya Jasanoff’s The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World.6 Jasanoff’s work also engages with a study of culture and history, tracing Conrad’s experiences as a Pole and then a seaman into his fiction to read his life in relation to globalisation, to whose inception Conrad bore witness as he criss-crossed from one side of the earth to the other. Unlike Jasanoff’s, Hampson’s book is targeted more at a scholarly rather than casual reader.

Though it moves quickly through the first half of his biography, it does, however, not neglect Conrad before he began to write. Rather, Hampson addresses key elements later, in more thematically organised chapters, which centred on productive readings of Conrad’s work, circle around the events, characters and conditions of Conrad’s earlier and later life.

The first of these examines “The Malay Fiction” highlighting in particular these texts’ shared anti-racism and critique of imperialism, alongside details of the their production and reception. The next two chapters describe Conrad’s production context in more detail, particularly his navigation of the changing literary marketplace and the various periodicals for which he wrote, of whose editors and audiences, Hampson reminds us, Conrad was acutely aware.

The biography then includes chapters that revolve around Conrad’s major novels of the next decade. A sustained reading of each novel is accompanied by key contexts, particularly nationalism, empire, linked societal anxieties around terrorism and immigration, and Conrad’s relationship to Poland. It then moves on to further chapters that engage with Conrad’s relationships with and representations of women, his American audience alongside late-career success, and connections to France, French culture, and French literature.

As a leading Conradian, Hampson draws on his own substantial knowledge as well as a wealth of Conrad scholarship, mostly from the last two decades. The biography is also scrupulous in its consideration of Conrad’s shorter fiction, which is woven throughout the book, highlighting thematic and stylistic connections with his novels. What emerges is an impressively clear and comprehensive account of relations within Conrad’s body of work, and across the sometimes indistinct boundaries between his fiction, autobiography, letters, and life.

More than in much longer works such as Najder’s, an accessible, short biography of this type contains gaps. For example there is little time devoted to correcting some of the more dubious accounts from Conrad’s autobiography, such as the report of his formative encounter with an “unforgettable Englishman” in A Personal Record.7 The extent to which our impression suffers will depend in part on the priorities and interests of the reader. Nevertheless, this book provides an excellent overview of Conrad’s life that would also serve well those looking for a critical introduction to Conrad’s oeuvre. Perhaps, ironically, the most glaring omission is elements that would fit Marlow’s understanding of biography as conjecture: as Hampson proceeds swiftly through details of Conrad’s life and through critical observations on his work, there is little time for speculation.

There is a danger that when we strip out confabulation, we sacrifice the possibility of romance and controversy. Hampson does not go quite so far, however. He regards, for example, Conrad’s tales of youthful gun running as quite likely and dabbles in a brief rumination about his potential sexual anxieties. It is also worth noting that for those looking for more extensive excavations, Joseph Conrad complements Hampson’s more developed historical and biographical expositions in Conrad’s Secrets.8

Yet what is most tantalising, glimpsed at this book’s close, is a view of an emerging, less sceptical Conrad, in whom, as Hampson puts it (quoting Kaoru Yamamoto), we can experience a sense of “promise and hope”.9 In his footnote to this quotation, Hampson expands by referencing Yamamoto’s assertion (herself quoting Derrida) that “one must leave an empty place, always, in memory of hope”.10 The emphasis is on the recollection of hope, implying loss as well as preservation. But as much as biography must involve the past, this biography also hints at an opening for a Conrad yet to come. We might wonder how such an “empty place” can become a gap in memory through which hope might enter, and how this relates to Conrad’s “inscrutable spaces”.

Hampson’s achievement in this remarkable short biography is to overturn concisely and conclusively a host of outmoded views of Conrad (not least as a racist who was uncomfortable writing about women) that frequently persist outside the circle of Conradians. As such it constitutes an important contribution as essential reading for those preparing to teach or study Conrad, as well as for those delving into his work from across literary and cultural studies.

  1. Joseph Conrad, Chance: A Tale in Two Parts (London: J. M. Dent, 1923), 101.
  2. N. Berlyne, “Confabulation”. British Journal of Psychiatry 120 (1972): 31.
  3. Zdzisław Najder, Joseph Conrad: A Life, 2th ed. Camden House, 2007, ix.
  4. Ibid., 578.
  5. Robert Hampson, Joseph Conrad. Critical Lives (London: Reaktion Books, 2020), 14.
  6. Maya Jasanoff, The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World (London: William Collins, 2017).
  7. Joseph Conrad, A Personal Record (London: J. M. Dent, 1919), 88.
  8. Robert Hampson, Conrad’s Secrets (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
  9. Kaoru Yamamoto, Rethinking Joseph Conrad’s Concepts of Community (London: Bloomsbury, 2017), 161, quoted in  Hampson, Joseph Conrad, 180.
  10. Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx (London: Routledge, 1994), 65, quoted in Hampson, Joseph Conrad, 201.

© 2021 Jay Parker

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