The Conradian: Review

By Dirk Van Hulle, Universiteit Antwerpen

Joseph Conrad, Notes on Life and Letters, edited by J. H. Stape with the assistance of Andrew Busza. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. liii + 449 pp. £70/ $120

The history of editing is marked by a few famous examples of late revisions by authors towards the end of their careers. For instance, when Johann Wolfgang von Goethe reread some of his early works, such as Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, he decided they had to be thoroughly rewritten to be included in his collected works. The longer an artist lives, the greater the temptation to revise early works or to adjust the image of the person he or she once was. But another tendency is equally important.

In Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu, after a few hundredf pages, the narrator suddenly discovers that the painter Elstir, whom he regards as man of genius, is in fact the same person as the ridiculous painter he had encountered many years before. Since he can hardly hide his disappointment and disbelief, Elstir tells him there is not a single man, however great and wise, who has never done anything in his earlier life of which he is not so proud, or which he would even prefer to wipe from his memory. Yet, Elstir insists, one should not repudiate this earlier version of oneself, because it is the proof that one has really lived.

In this respect, Joseph Conrad's attitude comes closer to Proust's than to Goethe's. In the "Author's Note" to his Notes on Life and Letters (first published in 1921), he addresses the matter in all frankness. Conrad compares his collection of shorter pieces to a book shelf on which perhaps not all of his pieces deserve a place. But he was not able to treat them as "removable rubbish": "All those things had a place in my life" (3). Not unlike Elstir, Conrad eventually - after numerous moments of hesitation – decided to range the old pieces on his shelf, "dusted ... but in no way polished, extending from the year '98 to the year '20": "for those pieces of writing, whatever may be the comment on their display, appertain to the character of the man" (3).

The "character of the man" is an important notion to Conrad, as is evidenced by his discussion of several authors in the collection's first part ("Letters"). In his literary essays Conrad tends to focus on the bigger picture. He prefers to discuss an author's whole oeuvre, rather than a single book, trying to find the "character of the man" behind the works, notably the personalities of Henry James, Alphonse Daudet, Anatole France, Ivan Sergeevich Turgenev, and Stephen Crane. In a single sentence Conrad summarizes, for instance, Crane's Red Badge of Courage as a story about "war, from the point of view of an individual soldier's emotions": "That individual (he remains nameless throughout) was interesting enough in himself, but on turning over the pages of that little book ... I had been even more interested in the personality of the writer" (35).

A similar concern with the way his own personality would be perceived after his death may have been one of the main reasons why Conrad eventually decided to collect the pieces. When the idea of a volume of critical essays was first suggested by Methuen as early as November 1904 Conrad initially seems to have been quite enthusiastic, though he may not have realized at the time how time-consuming this enterprise could be. Conrad came up with different suggestions to combine literary essays with his sea sketches, but he failed to convince his agent J. B. Pinker, and the idea was put aside. Fifteen years later, in October 1919 Conrad claimed (in a letter to Dent): "Personally I have a great dislike to have a collection of fragments of my prose in volume form" (xxxv). But his publisher eventually managed to convince him.

It was a "testamentary act," as the edition's exemplary Introduction elucidates. Apart from the volume's prehistory, J. H. Stape also carefully delineates its reception, pointing out that the reviews were on the whole favourable, but that "reverence and ginger treatment at times concealed or downplayed disappointment with its heterogeneous contents and occasional casualness" (xxxix).

In spite of this heterogeneity, some characteristics do form a thread that runs through this volume. As J. H. Stape convincingly argues the generalization characterizing the literary essays "evidences a loyalty to his 'brothers' in letters" (li). A similar loyalty to what Conrad called "the brotherhood of the sea" characterizes, for instance, the three pieces on the British Merchant Service. Both "brotherhoods" provided Conrad a social identity, and in that sense this collection of essays indeed brings into practice what he had already suggested to Pinker as early as 1905: "giving both sides of Conrad – seaman and artist" (xxxiii). Or to quote one of his essays: "I may fairly call myself an amphibious creature. A good half of my active existence has been passed in familiar contact with salt water" (164).

This "good half" is represented by eight essays on matters relating to shipping in the volume's second part ("Life"), which also contains several essays devoted to the land, Poland in particular. Among the essays related to navigation, Conrad's remarks on the sinking of the Titanic deserve special attention. A day after the epitome of nineteenth-century self-confidence struck an iceberg in the night of 14-15 April 1912 Conrad already offered an article on the ship's loss to Nash's Magazine; eventually the essay appeared in the May issue of the English Review, which also published a second essay by Conrad on "Certain Aspects of the Admirable Inquiry into to Loss of the Titanic" in its July number.

In the pieces on the Titanic the dark side of progress that determines the basso continuo in so many of Conrad's works is spelled out quite explicitly: "the mere increase of size is not progress. If it were, elephantiasis which causes a man's legs to become as large as tree-trunks would be a sort of progress too" (182). Even "the horror" is present, this time in the form of people drowning under deck: "Just think what it means! Nothing can approach the horror of that fate except being buried alive in a cave" (181-82).

The "big ship" is not a servant of progress but of commercialism, Conrad argues. And after these variations on "progress," Conrad concludes in the second essay by returning to the main theme: "Do not let us take a romantic view of so-called progress. A Company selling passages is a tradesman tho' from the way these people talk and behave you would think they are benefactors of mankind in some mysterious way, engaged in some lofty and amazing enterprise" (190).

In the meantime another enterprise deserves to be spotlighted. The editorial enterprise of which this volume is the beautiful result does not advertise itself as lofty or amazing, but it is all the more impressive. These two hundred pages of text by Joseph Conrad have been carefully restored and edited in a volume that – apart from the useful chronology and elucidating introduction –- also contains four samples of Conrad's manuscripts and typescripts in facsimile; a hundred pages of detailed information on the genesis and constitution of each of the texts; an apparatus recording the emendation of substantive readings; a separate list with emendations of accidentals (punctuation, spelling and word-division); three appendices with extra documents and relevant correspondence (notably regarding the loss of the Titanic); a fifty-page section with notes to the texts; and two maps, one of partitioned Poland ca. 1905, the other of the centre of Cracow ca. 1914.

The annotations are extremely useful. For instance, in the essay "Henry James: An Appreciation" Conrad notes that "if gratitude, as someone defined it, is a lively sense of favours to come it becomes very easy to be grateful to the author of the 'Ambassadors'" (16). To recognize this "someone" as François duc de La Rochefoucauld (1613-80) requires either a more than average amount of erudition, or a set of rich notes such as the ones in this volume, which provide the reader with both the French original and an English translation of the reference to the Maximes: "La reconnaissance de la plupart des hommes n'est qu'une secrète envie de recevoir de plus grands bienfaits" (394).

The sub-title of this piece on Henry James – "An Appreciation" – is a straightforward description of the text's content. In this respect it contrasts sharply with another essay with the same subtitle, written about three years later: "The Censor of Plays: An Appreciation" (1907). The resulting tension subtly reinforces the irony of the second sub-title, which differs as radically from the first as Pierre Menard's Don Quixote in Borges's famous story differs from Cervantes'.

The piece on "The Censor of Plays" is an excellent case study to appreciate the value of the excellent editorial work that underpins this volume. In 1907, Edward Garnett asked Joseph Conrad to write a letter in reaction to the Lord Chamberlain's decision to deny a licence to Garnett's play The Breaking Point. On 4 October, Conrad agreed to write an essay and only four days later he sent it to Garnett. The result of this brief writing process is a passionate appeal against the Censor of Plays.

In his essay Conrad imagines a creature "with a sort of (surely) unconscious life worthy of its distorted form" (65): "He must be obscure, insignificant and mediocre – in thought, act, speech and sympathy. He must know nothing of art, of life – and of himself. For if he did he would not dare to be what he is" (67). But the most incredible fact, according to Conrad, is that the "absurd and hollow creature of clay seems to be alive" (65). Conrad compares his power to that of the most irresponsible Roman emperors, such as Claudius or Commodus. "But this is England in the twentieth century," Conrad concludes, suggesting to knock this obsolete object off its shelf. "With an old broom handle for instance" (67).

The passionate tone of indignation seems to have surprised even the man who requested the essay in the first place, for after reading it Garnett suggested not only a few alterations, but also nine major cuts. As J. H. Stape explains in his admirable textual essay, these changes "considerably soften the essay's virulence and, cumulatively, encroach upon its rhetorical impact and meaning" (261). The adverb "cumulatively" is important as it indicates the subtle impact of censorship at the beginning of the twentieth century. The situation is quite extraordinary. A play is censored; the author asks Conrad for a reaction but subsequently censors this reaction in his turn, possibly for fear of offending the Censor.

The very first alteration is already symptomatic: Garnett toned down the title by making it less personal, changing "The Censor of Plays" into "The Censorship of Plays." Thanks to the volume editor's essays on "The Texts" it is possible to reconstruct Garnett's pruning. A couple of passages cut by Garnett suffice to realize the extent of their cumulative effect:

    He [the Censor] has the reality of a power the reflection of which, a mere dream can only be found in madhouses. (66)

    He can go out in the morning, this grotesque magistrate of a free commonwealth, catch a donkey on Hampstead Heath, lead him into his study and sit him down in his curule chair. Has not Caligula made his horse a consul? He can do that and there is no one to say him nay. Perhaps indeed no one could detect the difference. He may call his cook (Molière used to do that) from below and give her five acts to judge every morning as a matter of constant practice and still remain the unquestioned destroyer of men's honest work. He may have a glass too much. This accident has happened to persons of unimpeachable morality – to gentlemen. He may suffer from spells of imbecility like Clodius, have a special craze like Commodus. (66)

The Cambridge Edition not only restores these and the other deleted passages, but it also provides the reader with a few facsimiles of the manuscript to make Garnett's pruning more visible. As the textual notes explain, Garnett's deletions are characterized by straight lines – a large St Andrew's cross in the case of the latter passage quoted above. These straight strokes contrast sharply with Conrad's own undulating cancellations during writing or revision. The wavy strokes are not a form of (self)censorship, but the material evidence of Conrad's attempts to find le mot juste and to embed it in the most suitable grammatical constellation. In this case, after having cancelled five lines Conrad immediately reformulated them. The undulating strokes indicate that, contrary to what the text's tone of indignation might suggest, the essay was not written in a fit of blind fury, but carefully formulated. The idea to include this facsimile and show the tension created by the different cancellations characterizes this edition's subtle attention to the composition history of Conrad's texts.

This is a critical edition; its aims differ from what German editorial theorists call a historisch-kritische Ausgabe, or from the French concept of an édition génétique. But even though the present critical edition's purpose is not to provide researchers with transcriptions (and preferably facsimiles) of all the stages of the writing process, it does set great store by the genesis of the texts. In accordance with the general principles of the Cambridge Edition, the copy-texts are manuscripts, revised typescripts or, in case these documents no longer exist, "the printed texts closest to the lost originals" (307).

In the case of "The Censor of Plays" the edition adopted Conrad's final revised manuscript as copy-text, which, as Stape notes, is "angrier and wittier" than any version previously published (263). The concluding paragraph of the essay on "The Texts" duly stresses: "The Cambridge Edition publishes for the first time the text of 'The Censor of Plays' uncensored, as Conrad created it in 1907" (308). In this way, the edition does exactly what Conrad suggested in his "Author's Note": it presents his pieces of writing in the way they appertained to "the character of the man" and "had a place in [his] life" (3).

© 2006 Dirk Van Hulle






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.