The Conradian: Review

By Andrew Purssell, Royal Holloway, University of London

The Selected Letters of Joseph Conrad, edited by Laurence Davies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015) xxxvii + 553 pp. £30.99.

Letters frequently play a vital role in Conrad’s fiction. As well as performing one of the authenticating gestures common to realism, they are sometimes the vehicle not just of news between characters, but also of narrative itself. In Conrad’s early great novel Lord Jim (1900), for instance, the privileged reader is surely a surrogate for the reader outside the text, who is just as intrigued as he is to find out what has happened to the eponymous hero. Conrad’s letters have played an equally vital role in the study of his life and works. To this end, the publication of The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad (9 vols, 1983–2009) stands as one of the major interventions in Conrad scholarship since the study of his works began in earnest following the Second World War. The letters also possess a literary importance all of their own. As Laurence Davies argues in his engaging introduction to The Selected Letters of Joseph Conrad, the letters are not just a resource for scholars to pore over in search of commentary on, or clues to, the literary works. They should be seen as a rightful extension of those works, not merely as a biographical adjunct or point of hermeneutical entry or leverage.

The first volumes of The Collected Letters appeared during the early years of the so-called canon wars, which saw the resuscitation the figure of the author whose death had only recently been announced by poststructuralism in the preceding decades. More recently, the Cambridge Edition of the Works of Joseph Conrad (1990–) has again led to questions about the singularity of the author versus the sociality of the text. Arguably, the idea of the author as a single, unitary subject is interrogated by Conrad himself, whose autobiographical writings and private correspondence suggest less a single self than a range of critical selves, each adapted to a particular context of reception, be it the individual recipient or the imagined expectations of his reading public. Yet, as Conrad was only too aware, such expectations could also have little to do with the author’s intentions. As the introduction to The Selected Letters reaffirms, the early identification of Conrad with the sea tended to overshadow his great political novels: Nostromo (1904), The Secret Agent (1907), and Under Western Eyes (1911). Towards the end of his life, Conrad can be found still railing at this reductive categorization, as in this letter to G. Jean-Aubry from 14 July 1923: “in the body of my work barely one tenth is what may be called sea stuff.” (If the title of his 1947 biography of Conrad, The Sea Dreamer, is any measure, Jean-Aubry appeared not to have been listening.) Perhaps there is something of this in William Rothenstein’s pastel portrait of Conrad from 1903, which adorns the dust jacket of the present volume: as an image, it hovers somewhere between the author as he was seen by others, and as he sought to project himself.

Conrad was a prodigious writer of letters, yet few survive from the first thirty years of his life. This paucity is driven home in the first section of The Selected Letters, covering the years 1861–93. The earliest letter is from 23 May 1861; the next earliest, to his former guardian Stefan Buszczynski, is dated 14 August 1883, by which time Conrad had already nearly been blown up on the Palestine. The first of these letters, addressed to his father Apollo, and written when “Konradek” was, according to the annotation, a barely credible three and a half years old, reveals an early precocity: “Daddy, I am fine here, I run about the garden – but I don’t like it much when the mosquitos bite. As soon as the rain stops I will come to you … Have you been to see this Bozia, which Granny [told me about]?” According to the accompanying gloss, “Bozia,” meaning “little God,” probably refers to a famous crucifix in Warsaw’s John the Baptist Cathedral. It also comprises one of the very few references to religion across The Selected Letters, gesturing to Conrad’s agnosticism in later years.

By contrast, Conrad’s letters from the 1890s onwards are abundant, and only a fraction of what he is known to have written. They show Conrad taking full advantage of modern telecommunications, as he sought to assert a degree of control over the preparation and transmission of his literary works. At Pent Farm, for instance, there were two deliveries and collections on a weekday, while central London had up to five; this meant that Conrad was able to write to his agent twice in a single day, or send serial copy to London or Edinburgh. Later letters reveal Conrad preparing to intervene in how he might be received by posterity. A letter to J. B. Pinker from 19 February 1919, for instance, finds Conrad instructing his agent to destroy some of their correspondence, especially “letters about other people,” because “letters do get into strange hands”: “As between you and me I want all the world to know what you have done for me. But there is one period that might be pruned.” Robert Hampson’s Conrad’s Secrets (2012) pointed out that there are numerous tantalizing gaps in the Conrad archive. As The Selected Letters demonstrates, some of these gaps are inevitable, whereas others are deliberate.

There are also numerous intriguing “what ifs” – for instance, a late exchange with Ford Madox Ford from 23 October 1923. Ford was then making plans for the transatlantic review, and had asked Conrad if he might pick up the autobiographical thread of A Personal Record, which had been serialized in Ford’s earlier magazine venture the English Review. Although Conrad declines (“I am afraid the source of the Personal Record fount is dried up”), the letter stimulates his memories of writing the original work, if not the memories that stimulated its writing in the first place:

I shall never forget the cold of that night, the black grates, the guttering candles, the dimmed lamps and the desperate stillness of that house, where women and children were innocently sleeping, when you sought me out at 2 a.m. in my dismal study to make me concentrate suddenly on a two-page notice of the “Ile des Ping[o]uins.” A marvellously successful instance of editorial tyranny!

Conrad alludes here to his strained relationship with his former collaborator, another likely, albeit veiled, reason for his polite refusal. With its emphasis on writing as gothic suffering, the letter offers a reminder that, throughout his career, Conrad found literary composition hugely challenging. As with countless other examples included in this volume, it also demonstrates he often paid almost as much attention to crafting his letters as he did his literary works. This in turn seems to underscore the deeper importance to Conrad of letter-writing as a means of cultivating and maintaining the circles of relations – familial, friendly, professional – which sustained him.

The Selected Letters offers a carefully curated selection from The Collected Letters. The introduction begins by mentioning that readers already acquainted with Conrad’s history may care to skip to the letters themselves. This points to the volume’s likely audiences, as well as the delicate straddling it is required to perform, between those already ensconced in Conrad Studies (and therefore probably familiar with The Collected Letters), and those newer to his life and works. The volume is laid out in nine sections, mirroring the chronology of The Collected Letters: the first covers the period 1861–93; the last, the years 1923–24. Accompanying each section is a list of key dates outlining important events in Conrad’s life or directly impacting on it (the deaths of friends and contemporaries, for instance, such as Edward Thomas or Henry James). Running heads identify the month and year, for ease of reference. Conrad’s correspondents, meanwhile, together with brief biographical sketches, are given alphabetically in the back matter. These range from Elbridge Adams, the New York lawyer with whom Conrad briefly stayed during his visit to the United States in 1923; to Aniela Zagórski, the daughter of his maternal cousin Karol, and a vital figure in terms of his European translation and reception as the driving force behind the first Polish collected edition of his works. Entries for some of Conrad’s more widely known correspondents, such as J. M. Barrie, are justifiably slight. There are two indexes, the one enabling readers to locate a letter or series of letters to a particular recipient, the other addressing a particular topic or theme.

A short section on editorial conventions briefly enumerates some of the difficulties faced in producing The Selected Letters. For example, the complexities of language in relation to Conrad are especially evident when it comes to place names. For instance, in Berdyczów, where Conrad was born, Polish was spoken by the professional and landowning classes, with Ukrainian and Yiddish being the majority languages, and Russian the language of officialdom. Similarly, Lemberg, where Conrad spent part of his childhood, was then part of Austrian Poland, but is now present-day Lwów. To get around this, place names are given in Polish and, were relevant, Ukrainian – using the English forms – rather than their Austro-Hungarian or Russian imperial equivalents. Several of the letters included are English translations of the originals. Some of the letters have been abridged: the editorial policy is to select from certain of the Collected Letters, rather than reproduce selections in their entirety. Where a letter has been abridged, this is flagged by an ellipsis.

The letters are accompanied by several good-quality gloss plates. The first pictures a young Conrad on horseback in Chernikhov, aged roughly seven or eight, in what appears to be a Ukrainian costume (the caption does not say). The last is a signed publicity shot, showing Conrad at his desk enjoying the kind of contemplative tranquility belied by many of the letters included here. For example, whether by design or coincidence, the letter reproduced on the adjoining page finds Conrad “fighting with” the composition of a new novel (probably Chance, given the date): “I can’t come to grips with the thing. No combination of words seems worth putting down on paper.” There is also a facsimile of a letter to R. B. Cunninghame Graham from early February 1899, responding to Graham’s praise for “Heart of Darkness,” offering a reminder that Conrad was, from the outset, keen to make sure he made an impression on those whom he called the “right people.” This particular plate also offers graphic evidence of Conrad’s characteristically “difficult” handwriting, which would test the readers of his letters as well as the transcribers of his literary manuscripts, not to mention those working in the Conrad archives a century later.

The foundations for The Collected Letters were laid in the letters projects that preceded it: these range from the early attempts to shore up and preserve Conrad’s posthumous reputation, notably Jean-Aubry’s Lettres Françaises (1927), Jessie Conrad’s Joseph Conrad’s Letters to his Wife (1927), and Edward Garnett’s Letters from Conrad (1928), to more recent interventions such as Cedric Watts’s Joseph Conrad’s Letters to R. B. Cunninghame Graham (1969). These and other key sources (including various supplementary bits and corrigenda to The Collected Letters) are identified at the beginning of the present volume. The Selected Letters also contains two newer discoveries. The later of the two is a letter to Sir Sidney Colvin from July 1924, in which Conrad expresses his “affection” and “admiration” for the dying Lady Colvin: “she always was the embodiment of all that is kind and gracious and lovable on earth.” These were, it turns out, probably the last words he ever committed to paper: Conrad died soon after, on 3 August 1924. As part of the continuing monumentalization of his life and works, The Selected Letters is an admirable distillation of The Collected Letters. This volume is an invaluable point of reference for anyone with interests in Conrad or nineteenth- and early twentieth-century British literature.

© 2019 Andrew Purssell

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