The Conradian: Review

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

Early reviews 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.

Middleton has 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.

Part Three 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.

This reflects 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.

A wide-ranging 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.

The Cambridge 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.

This Introduction 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 non-specialist” (viii).

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.

The structure 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).

Peters outlines 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.”

“At the 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.

Early studies 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.

Similarly frustrating 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.

Frederick R. 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.

Neither work, 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 century” (167).

Works cited

Frederick R. Karl, "Conrad Studies," Studies in the Novel 9.3 (1977): 326-32.

Marcus Wood, Blind Memory: Representations of Slavery in England and America, 1780-1865 (New York: Routledge, 2000).

© 2007 Andrew Purssell






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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.