By A. M. Purssell, Royal Holloway College
Tim Middleton's Routledge Guide Joseph
Conrad. London: Routledge, 2006. 224 pp. hardback £50
paper £14.99 and John G. Peters Cambridge
Introduction to Joseph Conrad. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press. 156 pp. hardback £35 paper £10.99
of Conrad often expressed bafflement at Conrad’s organization
of narrative, which, as Marcus Wood more recently put it, “works
through glorious indirection” (2000: 304). This certainly
cannot be said of the new introduction from Routledge to Conrad’s
life, work, and critical heritage. Entitled simply, Joseph Conrad,
Tim Middleton’s book is consummately, and comprehensively,
organized. It comes complete with detailed cross-referencing, a
thematic index, and a full bibliography, allowing readers to pick
out and follow whichever threads they choose. While it also invites
to be read from cover to cover, it can therefore be put to productive
use as a general reference text.
chosen to divide the text into three main parts, covering “Life
and Contexts,” “Works,” and “Criticism,”
buttressed by brief final section dealing with “Chronology.”
There is an apt symmetry to this triple structure. As the Introduction
to this introduction points out, “Conrad famously lived ‘three
lives’ – as the son of Polish revolutionaries, as a
British merchant seaman, and as one of the greatest novelists of
the twentieth century” (xiv).
Part One, “Life
and Contexts,” is subdivided into three sections dealing with
each of these “three lives.” Part Two, “Works,”
stays fruitfully keyed to this triple pattern, tracing Conrad’s
novels and short fiction across three linked contexts: the writing
of, early reviews on, and later critical responses to, each work.
Threading through this section are Middleton’s own fine analyses
of each work, while our sense of context is thickened by sustained
reference to The Collected Letters.
on “Criticism,” presents a “selective overview
of main currents” (137) in Conrad studies, concluding with
a look at the interfaces between Conrad and recent theory. While
this therefore reaches toward reproducing the current critical consensus,
past consensuses are questioned on the way.
the book's expansive and inclusive nature, as it responds to prior
value judgements that have beset Conrad studies with what in effect
is a revaluation of its own. In giving equal coverage to “the
often maligned late fiction” (xiv), the book acts as a mild
corrective to the familiar achievement-and-decline trajectory mapped
onto Conrad’s work by the North American academy in the late
1950s. In so doing, Joseph Conrad reflects a more recent strain
of critical opinion, one that has led to the recuperation –
through some of the most innovative and insightful scholarship on
Conrad yet – of his neglected late phase.
undertaking such as this is nothing if not a piece of compression.
So the occasional reference – such as that to “Marlovian
‘surface truth’” (89) – might baffle the
uninitiated; might, indeed, smack of a secret-sharing, of sorts,
between Middleton and those already familiar with Conrad. But this
is by no means a complaint. Rather, this reference merely suggests
the vast range of critical materials through which Joseph Conrad
necessarily – and quite brilliantly – sifts.
Introduction to Joseph Conrad, by John G. Peters, at 156 pages
is much slimmer but no less indispensable. While there are inevitable
overlaps in content between this and Middleton’s Joseph Conrad,
there are also interesting divergences, not least in the very specific
sorts of audience each is aimed at. Middleton’s book speaks
from and back to an unmistakeably academic context. John G. Peters’s
book, meanwhile, is aimed squarely at those coming to Conrad’s
life and work for what might be the first time.
to Conrad is one in a series of Introductions to Literature
from Cambridge, the central tenet of which appears to be accessibility.
(This series is aimed – so the flyleaf has it – as much
at the general reader wanting “to broaden their understanding
of books and authors they enjoy,” as at students and teachers).
As his Preface suggests, Peters’s intended audience includes
not just new students of Conrad, but also “the interested
As such, and
unlike Middleton, Peters is set the difficult task of speaking across
audiences both inside and outside the academy. Peters is attentive
to the undergraduate element of this academic audience, which can
be as new as “the interested non-specialist” to the
language of literary criticism. Indeed, the disarmingly simple register
that Peters adopts makes this an extremely accessible and eminently
readable work, for both of these audiences.
of this book is equally simple, arranged under six chapter headings
discussing Conrad’s: life, context, early, middle, and later
periods, and criticism. At the end is a guide to further reading.
This concise, select bibliography lists other, useful critical bibliographies
on Conrad (including those compiled by Owen Knowles and Bruce Teets)
for those wishing to take things further.
There is no
system of cross-reference, as with Middleton’s Joseph Conrad.
Similarly, the index is comparatively a pared-down affair. Again,
this arrangement indicates the kind of readership anticipated: one
not likely to be interested in uncollected works, such as the plays
Laughing Anne and One Day More. The fragments
Suspense (1925) and The Sisters (1928), however,
do get a mention. These, incidentally, are all covered by Middleton,
though neither he nor Peters examine the collaborations with Ford
Madox Ford (The Inheritors, Romance, and The
Nature of the Crime) because, as Peters puts it, “these
books were largely Ford’s work” (viii).
in his Preface that the breadth and inclusiveness of his book make
it “unlike most overviews” (viii). Where his Introduction
to Joseph Conrad differs from “most overviews of Conrad’s
works,” however, is precisely where it is similar to Middleton’s
Joseph Conrad – especially in giving equal weight
to Conrad’s “less studied stories and novels.”
same time” Peters has, he writes, “spent the bulk of
[his] effort on the work of Conrad’s middle period”
(viii). Where he differs from Middleton, then, is in his fairly
conventional presentation of his materials. So while Middleton seems
to eschew, Peters seems to retain the value judgements of Moser
et al. Peters, though, does not reproduce this “familiar”
view of Conrad uncritically, but uses it for purposes of structure.
Thus in the section on “Conrad criticism,” Peters turns
the periodizing, evaluative trend of Conrad criticism back on itself,
by situating it in an historical, evaluative framework.
come with “the pitfalls of praise without analysis,”
while John Dozier Gordan’s Joseph Conrad: The Making of
a Novelist (1940) “really marks the beginning of modern
criticism on Conrad” (122). Just as F. R. Leavis effectively
ended the debate on Conrad’s place in English letters, so
Peters sets about examining the place of Conrad’s critics
in Conrad criticism, from Leavis and before to Achebe and beyond.
Serving as much an introduction to Conrad criticism as to Conrad’s
life and work, this approach will be of immense value to “students
coming to” the author “for the first time.”
There are one
or two confusing factual inaccuracies that a keener editorial eye
might have picked out (and that any reprint will no doubt clean
up). For instance, page 2 inexplicably dates “July 1876”
to be “Conrad’s only experience in the new world.”
Inexplicable because, by contrast, page 18 describes another, much
later encounter between Conrad and the New World (the image of which
will be familiar to readers of The Conradian): Conrad arriving
in New York in “early May” 1923.
is the tendency in the three sections on works to discuss primary
texts without reference to when they were published, though this
could be an in-house styling quirk on the part of the publishers.
Given the text’s introductory purpose, it is a curious oversight.
All things considered,
however, these are minor reservations against a book which otherwise
has much to recommend it. Conrad, as J. H. Stape’s new biography
The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad aptly surmises, was
unmistakeably “a writer of ‘difficult’ fiction.”
Any introduction to Conrad, then, necessarily has to negotiate,
on the reader’s behalf, the “difficulty” of reading
Conrad. Peters’s Introduction to Joseph Conrad might
not make reading Conrad easy but, highly readable itself, certainly
makes it easier.
Karl (also in a review) memorably once recommended a moratorium
on further studies devoted to Conrad, “about whom very little
remains to be said” (1977: 326-27). The co-presence on the
literary scene of two books that ostensibly share the same subject
might therefore be taken to reflect what has long been the congested
state of Conrad scholarship.
however – as both make perfectly clear – purports to
say anything new. Rather, as introductory works they are meant more
as navigational aids. Indeed, by marshalling what already has been
said, to adapt Karl, these excellent works will no doubt stimulate
further, and in some cases new, critical discussion on Conrad, helping,
as Middleton puts it, to “shape a Conrad for the twenty-first
Karl, "Conrad Studies," Studies in the Novel
9.3 (1977): 326-32.
Blind Memory: Representations of Slavery in England and America,
1780-1865 (New York: Routledge, 2000).
© 2007 Andrew Purssell