The Conradian: Review

By Véronique Pauly, Université de Versailles

Allan H. Simmons, Joseph Conrad. Palgrave Critical Issues Series. London: Palgrave, 2006. 256 pp. £52.50 paper £17.50

Allan H. Simmons’s book makes good on the promise on its dust-jacket: to “provide first-time readers with in-depth contexts for appreciating a writer whose work is often challenging, while readers already familiar with Conrad’s fiction will find new perspectives with which to view it.”

Simmons certainly does both in this monograph, which is not so much a how-to-study-Conrad guide as an invitation to plunge into Conradian complexities. Conrad’s fiction is never simplified for the sake of the first-time reader, but is relocated in its biographical, historical, and cultural contexts. It is thus presented in a way that enables him or her to form a balanced view of Conrad’s complex negotiations of the concerns of his age and of his own subject-position as insider and outsider.

The first chapter, “Introduction: Life and Letters”, provides biographical and cultural background but does more than just this, for in his presentations of historical landmarks, Simmons usefully espouses Conrad’s “penchant for opening dual perspectives” (3). Britain’s imperialism is thus presented as based on an economic necessity as much as on ideology, and the “Conservative imperialism [that] dominates British politics at this period” is counterbalanced by “portents of imperial disintegration” and “strains of old hierarchies of authority and power and an incipient democracy” (14).

To mention but one instance of Simmons’s method, Conrad’s exile is related to “the 3.6 million people who emigrated permanently from Poland in the half century before 1914” (5), which establishes “unrest” as the central experience of the modern condition and introduces the emphasis on “alienation, exile, homelessness and homesickness” that characterizes Modernist literature.

The subsequent chapters are studies of Conrad’s works “broadly follow[ing] the chronology of Conrad’s career, identifying its various phases and grouping the fiction according to shared concerns” (viii). The second chapter is devoted to Almayer’s Folly and An Outcast of the Islands, with references to their-companion piece, The Rescue, which is dealt with at greater length in the final chapter (“Late Novels and the Growth of a Reputation”). Viewed as “consecutive stages of the same narrative of European exploitation of the Archipelago,” the three novels that form this “Malay trilogy-in-reverse” (210) gain historical depth and find their rightful place in the Conrad canon as instances of Conrad’s “sustained focus on the dissolution of the European self in the face of cross-cultural encounters” (29).

Without engaging in a theoretical discussion of exoticism and Orientalism, Simmons offers stimulating perspectives, reminding the reader, for instance, that at the turn of century, the “appropriation of foreign settings … extend[ed] to the other arts” (38), with Gauguin leaving Europe for Polynesia in 1895. His suggestion that “the Malay islanders become, simultaneously, symbols of Conrad’s own strangeness and the means by which he can smuggle in his own view of Western Europeans” (38) is one of the constant reminders in the book that in Conrad narrative instability and perspectival reversals – now shorthand for literary Modernism and the modern experience of fragmentation – always introduce frictions and tensions whereby positions of supremacy and claims of superiority are challenged.

In Chapter 3, “Conrad and the Sea: The Nigger of the "Narcissus" and Typhoon”, Simmons’s readings of these two texts are remarkably detailed and comprehensive given the few pages allotted to them. Combining scholarship and pedagogical clarity, they delineate Conrad’s “irreconcilable antagonisms”: “the clash between the creed of individualism that typifies nineteenth-century liberalism and the pressures for social organization and regulation deemed necessary for communal as well as individual survival (60).

This chapter, in particular, offers a stylistic analysis of a section of the storm sequence in Typhoon in which, with “impressionist vividness” (69), “the havoc wreaked by the storm extends to the grammar used to describe it” (70). The texture of Conrad’s prose is thus made palpable, enabling the reader to hear, to feel, and to see.

In Chapter 4, “The Marlow Trilogy: "Youth," "Heart of Darkness," and Lord Jim,” the emphasis is laid on the fact that Conrad’s engagement with Britishness, through Marlow, is co-extensive with an awareness that “for every Western narrative of colonial adventure a parallel narrative exists in which it is the Westerner who is perceived as “Other” (85). Thus, “Youth” is presented as simultaneously a tribute to the British Merchant Service and a paradoxical story of initiation in which the young Marlow’s experience of the East can never amount to any true “knowledge” of it.

The discussion of “Heart of Darkness” usefully places the text “within its own historical moment” (91), and does not give undue credence to Achebe’s critique of Conrad’s alleged racism (only mentioned in the final chapter devoted to the critical reception of Conrad’s works). Racist clichés and paternalistic turns of phrase are duly identified and contextualized, with reference to Roslyn Poignant’s Professional Savages: Captive Lives and Western Spectacle (Yale University Press, 2004), and textual analyses enable the readers to understand the use to which they are put in “Heart of Darkness.”

A balanced study of the question must then conclude, as Simmons does, that while the text presents a European view of the jungle, it is one that is “both threatened and reformulated by contact with Africa” (91) and one in which the Europeans do not come out favourably. Similar emphasis is laid in the pages on Lord Jim in which the novel’s juxtaposition of Modernism born fully grown and “stereotypical and formulaic representation of exotic space in colonial fiction” (110) is viewed less as a flaw than as the means whereby the very logic of colonial fiction is undermined.

Simmons’s approach is refreshingly no-nonsense at times, which, in the pages on Nostromo (Chapter 5: “The Political Novels”) leads him, for instance, to offer a less flattering reading of Mrs Gould than customary, stressing that, having “benefited nicely from the exploitation of Costaguana … she can afford not to be as materialistic as her husband” (129). Like Marlow, whose “sympathy with Africans coexists with his racism that marks him out as a product of the ‘Scramble for Africa,’ Mrs Gould appreciates the picturesque culture that her husband is changing forever” (129).

Equally useful is the literary perspective from which The Secret Agent is viewed, which extends from Dickens, of course, through Henry James’s Princess Casamassima (1886) in which London was already linked with anarchism, to Thomas Mann and his description of The Secret Agent as an illustration of the recourse to tragic-comedy, and its resultant grotesque style, which characterizes modern art.

The overall impression that emerges from the pages on Under Western Eyes is that the novel raises more questions than it answers, as a consequence of Conrad’s systematic hollowing out of everything that could have provided stability. As Simmons demonstrates, the Teacher of Languages is no Marlow, and his presence does not provide the “us” community from which value-judgements can be passed.

His confrontation with the issue of language offers no valid counterpoint to the novel’s pitting of the language of faith that paradoxically characterizes the revolutionaries against Razumov’s language of reason which itself leads the character to the “unsustainable” “designation of his pre-Haldin life as ‘truth’” (154). One may also see some irony in the unfortunate misprint that transforms the Hôtel-Pension de la Roseraie into the Hôtel-Pension de la Roserie. Likewise Michael Ignatieff’s The Needs of Strangers becomes The Language of Strangers, which confirms that undoubtedly, as in Under Western Eyes, language is of the essence.

It is an index of this book’s comprehensiveness that it includes Conrad’s shorter fiction (dealt with in Chapter 6, which isolates five of the most frequently anthologized pieces: “Karain: A Memory,” “Amy Foster,” “Falk: A Reminiscence,” “Il Conde,” and “The Secret Sharer”) as well as Conrad’s reputedly worst novel, The Arrow of Gold (glossed in the final chapter “Late Novels and the Growth of a Reputation”) about which Simmons stresses the construction of Rita as both an art-object and a woman constituted by male discourse. The rigid prose and stilted modes of representation only confirm Conrad’s uneasiness with the “woman question” with which he had experimented in Chance.

That Conrad should have got with Chance (Chapter 7: “Conrad at the Crossroads: Chance, Victory, and The Shadow-Line”) the much-desired popularity that his earlier fiction failed to achieve will always remain a matter of wonder. For if, as Simmons demonstrates, Conrad’s intention was ‘to expose outmoded patriarchal attitudes” (178), it does so with such ambiguity that one would see it as more likely to baffle or even irritate the female/feminist reading public that it consciously targeted. And while, in true Conradian fashion, that novel “rejects any easy distinction between male oppression and feministic salvation” (179), Mrs Fyne’s dubious and rather unpalatable embodiment of feminism and Marlow’s misogynistic remarks require a reader competent enough to perceive the irony in Conrad’s method and fine distinctions.

Often harshly judged, Victory presents a fresh crop of interpretive problems addressed in this chapter. Simmons subscribes to Conrad’s construction of Lena’s self-sacrifice as “victory” (which should attract the wrath of feminists) and proves his point convincingly by suggesting, that while Lena’s sacrifice destroys Heyst’s scepticism, the belatedness of Heyst’s conversion to life-giving forces aligns him with other Conradian sceptics, Decoud and Razumov, who cannot “understand anything outside (themselves) except through the experience of separation” (118). The chapter closes with a discussion of The Shadow-Line in which the interplay between the sub-title, “A Confession,” and the epigraph, “worthy of my undying regard,” defines the text as a fictionalized autobiography as well as a tribute to both maritime tradition and the soldiers of the First World War.

The final chapter is devoted to both the late novels and the critical reception of Conrad’s works, which, considering the decline in Conrad’s artistic achievement is sensible. While the pages on The Rescue take up the argument developed about its two companion-pieces, highlighting again that Conrad’s return to the settings of his earlier works marks the beginning of the colonial story the triptych relates, those devoted to The Rover stress “the development in Conrad’s portrayal of the outlaw who, like Leggatt, now exists in large part to assist the law-abiding” (216) and the victims of a transgressive society. Simmons’s summary presentation of the critical literature, which includes all the major figures of Conradian scholarship, will guide the reader through successive shifts of emphasis, past and present.

The stress placed on cross-cultural encounters at times downplays other issues, in particular, the place of the visible universe in Conrad’s fiction, his fascination for the mists and fogs that led him to the suspicion that the aim of the universe might be purely spectacular. Throughout the book, numerous references are made to Conrad’s essays and letters, which enables the reader to form an adequate notion of Conrad’s psychological, philosophical, and political outlook. Allan H. Simmons’s book will undoubtedly prove a valuable reference-book.

© 2007 Véronique Pauly






last updated: Sunday, September 30, 2012 11:22 PM
website design by Linda Fenton Malloy
ody of ambitious plays” by placing them within the context of evolving theatrical traditions, including melodrama, Expressionism, Grand-Guignol, and naturalism, to argue that, despite his protestations to the contrary, Conrad’s awareness of contemporary theatre was more advanced than has hitherto been recognized.

Bringing the volume to a close, Mary Morzinski challenges the “achievement and decline” claims made by Moser et al. to provide a strident defence of Conrad’s stylistic development as one of continual growth, using the manuscript of The Rescue as evidence. A linguistic approach to Conrad, this essay’s context is Second Language Acquisition, whereby the speaker develops an “interlanguage.” Analysis of such characteristics as verb tense and word order (of adverbial modifiers and adjectives) leads into a discussion of asyndeton and synecdoche to argue that the hallmarks of Conrad’s style are simultaneously aspects of his artistic techniques, and that these continue to evolve across Conrad’s career.

The Conrad: Eastern and Western Perspectives series is proving to be a useful contribution to on-going Conradian scholarship and critical debate. Apart from occasional designated monographs, including Morzinski’s own Linguistic Influence of Polish on Conrad’s Style (Vol. 3: 1994), the series are largely composed of edited collections of essays that, if heterogeneous, are ultimately satisfyingly wide-ranging in their range and scope.