The Conradian: Review
Map Lemberg

By J. H. Stape, Vancouver

Wieslaw Krajka, editor. A Return to the Roots: Conrad, Poland, and East-Central Europe. Conrad Eastern and Western Perspectives, Vol. 13. Boulder/Lublin: Distributed by Columbia University Press, 2004. viii + 308. $50.

Conrad's relationship to his cultural background is a story of unremitting complexity. Born in the Ukraine of Polish parents, he was from birth a figure at the margins. His parents’ life experience in what on today’s map is “Poland” was brief, as was his, growing up as he did partly in the area near Kiev, in Russian exile, then in the Austro-Hungarian city Lemberg (now in Ukraine), and leaving Eastern Europe at the age of sixteen for Marseilles and the wide world. The son of political activists, Conrad claimed that his first memory was of visiting his father in Warsaw’s citadel.

The relationship of Poland to Conrad has been no less fraught: in 1898, when he was barely scraping a living from fiction published in a couple thousand copies, a Polish novelist attacked him for writing “popular and very lucrative novels” for the English market instead of giving his talents to Polish literature. More subtle or more informed views have not always prevailed since. In the 1930s, Gustav Morf worked up a crude theory of betrayal of the fatherland on the basis of Lord Jim.

On the topic of Conrad and Poland, Conrad studies continue to suffer imbalances, erasures, and blind spots. Facts to the contrary, Conrad has been claimed for Catholicism, and Zdzislaw Najder’s 1983 biography not accidentally refers to Lemberg as Lvóv. Coded readings are something of a mini-industry: fiction set in Southeast Asia and South America is “really” about Poland and fanciful “evidence” for this presented; “Amy Foster,” whose protagonist dies in a ditch, is, after sufficient distortions, “about” Polish Messianism.

Conferences in Poland follow in “Conrad’s Polish footsteps.” Those of The Joseph Conrad Society (UK) are usually held, by longstanding arrangement, at London’s Polish Social and Cultural Centre. Polonitis, like avian flu, is catching: the word “exile” is regularly and inappropriately evoked for a man who took up British nationality and identity by choice in his maturity, and Daniel R. Schwartz can write, at the outer margins of the fantastic, of Conrad’s “life-long desire” to return to Poland.

This selection of fourteen papers from a conference held in Poland in 2001, usefully avoiding extremist positions, focuses on three main topics: Conrad’s reception by several Polish writers, the short story “Amy Foster,” and Conrad and Russian literature. It opens with Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek’s greeting to the conference (politics and writing are still deadly serious business in Eastern Europe), followed by an overview of the volume’s contents by the editor. It closes with two indices – one to non-fictional names, the other to Conrad’s work.

The first clutch of essays is mainly of specialist interest. Wieslaw Krajka focuses on Kapitan Conrad, a six-part Franco-Polish docu-drama made in 1990, presenting Conrad and his father, the poet and dramatist Apollo Korzeniowski, as “martyrs” for the Polish nationalist cause. Much of the essay inevitably describes scenes in the film, with a running commentary on their ideological biases. Krajka concludes that the writers freely lurched from fact to fiction in pursuit of their polemical aims, bolstering (although he does not say this) an emergent and newly challenged Polish identity at the period when the rusty and creaking Iron Curtain was falling.

Amar Acheraïou in “The Shadow of Poland” ranges more widely, locating a suppressed Poland in Conrad’s fiction. He deftly assays an absence-is-presence theme, but could have justifiably seen “Poland” less monolithically. (There were, in effect, various Polands or constructions of a nation that was a state of mind rather than a nation-state.) Donald W. Rude uncovers a 1919 interview with a Polish journalist, published in Chicago in 1924. He is wrong in claiming that this was Conrad’s second interview (another having occurred during his 1914 visit to Poland): a Daily Mail journalist went down to The Pent in July 1901 for just such a purpose (see CL 2: 340).

More skepticism as to the degree that Conrad shaped his comments about Polish politics for his interviewer and future audience might have been applied. Interested in the fate of Poland at the close of the First World War, Conrad systematically kept a discreet distance from Polish organizations in London. Not indifferent to public affairs generally, he did write essays on the topic and also, for instance, pronounced on women’s suffrage and dramatic censorship.

Three essays explore the responses to Conrad by figures prominent on the Polish literary scene of their day but little known to the English-speaking world: that of the dramatist and novelist “Witkacy,” the critic and drama theoretician Jan Kott, and the journalist Antoni Golubiew. These essays focus on the politico-ideological crosscurrents in the Polish reception of Conrad, ranging from Witkacy’s nuanced admiration, to Jan Kott’s rejection of a bourgeois decadent purveying despondency, to Golubiew’s brightly tinted appreciation of Catholic values in Conrad’s work.

Of the three essays marking the centenary of the publication of “Amy Foster” that by Mary Harris is the most probing. After a taut review of biographically-oriented criticism, she goes on to argue for seeing the background of Amy and the inhabitants of the Kentish setting as important as those of the exotic protagonist-outsider Yanko Goorall. Despite Conrad’s hostility to Christianity -- “I always, from the age of fourteen, disliked the Christian religion, its doctrines, ceremonies and festivals” (to Edward Garnett, 22 December 1902) -- Yannick Le Boulicault of the Université catholique d’Angers, unconvincingly acclaims Yanko a Christ figure.

Anna Brzozowska-Krajka, developing earlier work, goes for intertextuality, adducing the influence of the Polish Romantic tradition generally, and, more specifically, of Józef Korzeniowski’s 1843 play Carpathian Mountaineers on the story. The romanticization of the Carpathian highlander is found in several texts of the period, and the case seems partly to rely on Conrad’s awareness of a writer from a previous generation whose name he happened to bear.

The Central Europe of the volume’s title is hardly touched on, unless Russia, oddly, stands in for it. “Conrad and Russia” forms a focus of interest for four critics, who variously consider the writer’s relationship with the work of Dostoevsky and Turgenev. Harry Sewlall focuses on Under Western Eyes and Crime and Punishment, drawing on a large body of criticism and on the theoretical stances of Bakhtin and Julia Kristeva to place the two works into fruitful juxtaposition.

Monika Majewska expands on previous work, arguing that Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin and Nastasya Filippovna of The Idiot influenced Conrad’s Stevie and Winnie in The Secret Agent. The essays on Conrad and Turgenev -- by Katarzyna Sokolowska on images of nature in the two writers and Brygida Pudelko who adduces the influence of The Sportsman’s Sketches (here called The Sportsman’s Notebooks) on the loose structure of The Mirror of the Sea -- necessarily make less than watertight cases as influence studies often do, although both contain interesting individual observations.

The conference seems to have generated surprisingly little in the way of biographical or other “hard” scholarship, where linguistic skills and matchless proximity to sources otherwise difficult of access allow native Polish speakers to make particular contributions. One assumes that despite the four decades of Zdzislaw Najder’s meticulous and richly rewarded efforts and the patchy survival of archives in a country plagued by strife there are still things to turn up. Like most collections of conference papers, and like conferences themselves, this is an occasion of mixed pleasures.

© 2005 J. H. Stape






last updated: Sunday, September 30, 2012 11:22 PM
website design by Linda Fenton Malloy