The Conradian: Review

By Jeremy Hawthorn, Norwegian University of Technology, Trondheim

J. H. Stape (ed.). The New Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp. xxiv + 206. Paperback £17.99, hardback £50.00, e-book $22.00.

The New Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad complements rather than replaces the 1996 Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad, also published by Cambridge University Press and edited by J. H. Stape, which remains available as an e-book. As Stape comments, “The New Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad complements its predecessor; it brings to the fore areas of concern that have opened up in the nearly twenty years since its publication, aiming to take into account theoretical and hermeneutic perspectives that have come into clearer focus” (xii).

This shift in emphasis can be seen from the table of contents. Whereas the earlier collection had individual essays on Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, Nostromo, The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes, the title of an individual work by Conrad occurs in only two essays in the new volume, and then in the context of specific “theoretical and hermeneutic perspectives.” Thus there is an essay on Heart of Darkness, by Allan Simmons, but entitled “Reading Heart of Darkness.” And Douglas Kerr’s essay is entitled “Approaching Conrad through Theory: ‘The Secret Sharer’.”

Titles do not tell the whole tale, of course, and Richard Niland’s essay on “The Political Novels” does devote the sort of close attention to Nostromo, The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes that would have satisfied the demands of any New Critic. The remaining essays, however, are concerned not merely to offer detailed and extended verbal analyses of individual fictional texts, but also to explore Conrad’s fiction and non-fiction in some ways that the New Critics would have felt less at home with.

A number of essays can be subsumed under the general rubric of “publishing circumstances and history.” These include Andrew Purssell’s essay “Making the Conrad Canon,” Stephen’s Donovan’s essay “Serialization,” Peter Lancelot Mallios’s essay “Conrad’s Reception” and, more loosely, J. H. Stape’s essay “Texts.”

Andrew Purssell’s essay argues that the “establishment of Conrad’s ‘literary value’, self-evident today […] might therefore be traced back to the placing of his early short fiction in literary journals rather than popular magazines, and to his early promotion by editors such as W. E. Henley, whose serialization of The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ (1897) in the prestigious New Review announced Conrad as an author for a ‘select, coterie audience’” (2). This is an argument repeated in similar terms by Stephen Donovan in his essay:

Were it not for his prolific contributions to newspapers and magazines, Joseph Conrad might well be unknown today. Periodicals enabled him to maintain himself by writing after he lost his inheritance on an ill-fortuned gold-mining venture at the start of his career in 1896. Commissions and invitations from editors inspired him to submit essays on topical subjects, reviews of new books and personal memoirs, and the instalment schedules and space requirements of periodical publishing played midwife to almost all of his major fictions as they evolved from short story to novella or full-length novel. (73)

Were we tempted to assume that the way in which Conrad’s fictional works were serialized was typical for writers of his day, Donovan insists that this is not the case: “Conrad was serialized to an extraordinary extent” (73). He backs up his case by providing a list of the periodicals in which Conrad’s work appeared in serial form. Donovan’s rôle as founder of the Conrad First website ( makes him the ideal person to write about Conrad’s “massive reliance on serials” (74). And he provides too a number of surprises: how many Conradians would have guessed that Conrad’s most widely reprinted short story was “The Brute,” published in The Ocean Wireless News in 1912?

Andrew Purssell’s essay includes interesting discussion of the rôle of the Canadian Northrop Frye and the English F. R. Leavis in establishing Conrad’s canonicity. It is striking that Leavis is mentioned in four essays in the volume, and his importance with regard to Conrad’s growing reputation in the twentieth century is impossible to ignore. Conradians have generally had a somewhat qualified view of Leavis’s criticism of Conrad. On the one hand it is clear that the inclusion of Conrad in Leavis’s “great tradition” was enormously influential so far as Conrad’s acceptance into the canon was concerned, but on the other hand his judgements on Conrad’s works – like his judgements of the work of many writers – have in some cases seemed odd. Purssell suggests that Leavis’s dislike of Heart of Darkness “betrays the mistrust of the empiricist […] of the impressionistic aspects of Conrad’s narrative method” (6), and he notes that Leavis’s preference for the novel over the short story “perhaps would not have been recognized by Conrad, all of whose long fictions – apart from The Sisters and The Rescue – originated as short stories and who believed, moreover, that the ‘intrinsic value of a work’ had ‘nothing to do with its length’” (7).

Writing about “Conrad’s Reception” Peter Lancelot Mallios notes:

Reception, moreover, is built into the foundations of his art of fiction. When the frame narrator of Heart of Darkness famously describes Marlow’s mode of storytelling as one in which ‘the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze’[…], this is in part a commentary on Conrad’s own experimental fiction, whose meaning so significantly depends upon the outside and enveloping presence and power of the reader. Similarly, reception is a central concern raised by many other signature aspects of Conrad’s writing, including dramatized relations between narrators and audiences and impressionistic and otherwise indeterminate registers of language foregrounding the need for the reader’s interpretive collaboration to make meaning. (116–17)

Mallios useful divides his essay into four sections, a division taken from Terry Collitts’s view of the “moments” of Conrad’s reception: the original moment, the humanist moment post 1940, the postcolonial moment post 1960, and the present moment 21st century. Taking one of Conrad’s most-quoted lines from the Preface to The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ – “by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, before all, to make you see” – Mallios argues that in spite of the italicization of “see,” “the true underlying emphasis falls upon ‘you’” (117). Perhaps. I half recall myself arguing that the most interesting word in the comment is “make,” a word with a coercive edge to it that is in a certain tension with Conrad’s comment in an 1897 letter to Cunninghame Graham: “One writes only half the book: the other half is with the reader.” Mallios uses this comment as epigraph to his article, and it is a sentiment repeated elsewhere in the letters. Perhaps we can agree that Conrad’s fiction does sometimes try to make the reader see things, while on occasions it also invites him or her to participate as an equal in the writing of the book.

Allan Simmons’s essay on Heart of Darkness is a virtuoso performance. Perfectly accessible to the undergraduate fresh to Conrad, it does full justice to this “generically multi-faceted fiction – part travelogue, part colonial adventure, a modern psychological drama and political satire, and an autobiography and Gothic fantasy” (15). Close attention is paid to the text of Conrad’s most-studied work, while the student is given important information about its sources and influences, both contemporary-historical and literary, and helped to explore its “narrating style, with its stress on suggestiveness and indirection, [which] is a polyphony of competing voices capable of sustaining a range of attitudes” (23).

“Style” returns as the main focus of Michael Greaney’s essay “Conrad’s Style.” Greaney has much of interest to offer in original comments about “Conrad’s tendency to hover between languages” (103), arguing that “Working in a complex inter-linguistic space, Conrad achieved something far more impressive than mere competence in English; he acquired, with astonishing rapidity, a powerful and sometimes overpowering command of his adopted tongue, which in his hands became a curiously defamiliarized medium, capable of all sorts of rich and strange literary effects, and every bit as stylistically distinctive as the language of great Modernist contemporaries such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf” (103). Greaney is particularly good at isolating tensions in Conrad’s style, suggesting that it “is typically divided between its commitment to the virtues of monosyllabic understatement and its appetite for expansive loquacity; it is tugged between a fascination with the immediacy of the human voice and its inescapable involvement in the impersonality of writing” (105).

In his Introduction J. H. Stape notes that since the publication of the first Cambridge Companion, publication of the nine volumes of the Letters and several volumes of the Works has been completed – also by that Conrad-friendly publisher Cambridge University Press. As senior editor of the Cambridge edition of the works, Stape himself has ensured that generations of Conrad scholars will remain forever indebted to him. As he points out in the opening words of his own contribution to the volume, “With rare exception, critical work on Conrad has been built upon surprisingly unstable foundations” (88) – in other words, on unreliable and often significantly corrupt texts. Stape’s essay provides a brief history of the detachment of the texts from authorial reliability, while providing a useful account of some of the issues and debates within the field of modern textual editing that students (and some lecturers) will benefit from reading. As Stape points out, Conrad himself was not guiltless here: not only did he allow corrupt texts to be published, but on occasions he bestowed on them a seal of authorial accuracy that was not merited. Cruces of wording, punctuation, and division (paragraphs, sections and chapters) are all scrutinized in the new collected edition, so that critics can be confident that the details on which they are commenting are as near to what Conrad actually wrote as it is possible to get. One of the paradoxes about the New Criticism was the relative lack of interest those who insisted upon close attention to the words on the page had in the processes whereby those words ended up on the page. Even F. R. Leavis, often, although misleadingly, associated with the New Criticism, was capable of making mildly dismissive comments about scholarly editing. Stape ends his article with the possibilities opening up for Conrad’s texts in the digital domain, and the factors obstructing such an opening up, including those of copyright and the ownership and location of unpublished material. Thanks to his own work, and the labours of fellow editors, such possibilities are more capable of being realized than they were two decades ago.

Incidentally: the decision in this volume to use the Cambridge texts, where they exist, for reference purposes, means not just that quotations are as reliable as is possible, but that authors can cite both page and line numbers, making for much easier tracing of quoted passages.

Richard Niland’s “The Political Novels” has useful things to say about Nostromo, The Secret Agent, and Under Western Eyes. I liked his observation that the seven years of Winnie’s marriage finds echo in Inspector Heat’s reference to “seven years hard” (38), and the following linking of the same novel to other art forms is also illuminating:

Stevie’s mutilated body, a ‘heap of mixed things’, evokes a Cubist painting, a broken ‘heap of nameless fragments’ […] while the materiality of London becomes obscured through elemental impenetrability. The novel’s burgeoning Modernism explores the ‘sudden holes in space and time’ […] that characterize both the topography of the novel’s London and the chronological jumps and ironic foreshadowings of its narrative structure. (36)

Niland argues that “in a reversal of the Marxist formula that ‘explains the formation of ideas from material practice’ rather than explaining ‘practice from the idea’, Conrad is interested in the ‘descent’ of political ideas into the arena of practical political application” (29), but this claim is in some tension with the observation that “Sophia Antonovna becomes a revolutionist because of her familial experience of state politics and the experience of her father, who was a victim of ‘the great social iniquity of the system resting on unrequited toil and unpitied sufferings’” (40). The two claims are not irreconcilable, it is true, but they do suggest more of a two-way process in which ideas are as much produced by experience as imposed upon it – as much bottom-up as top-down.

In his essay on “Conrad and Theory” Douglas Kerr is good on the comparable two-way, reciprocal processes involved in a successful bringing together of specific critical theories and a particular text. As he puts it: “The reader has a duty to be responsible to the text, and sometimes this will require us to wait patiently for the text to reveal what kinds of critical attention it will respond to (willingly or not)” (45). His essay is a model for students needing help in the application of theories to texts, one that respects the text, but is prepared to counter the text’s unwillingness with the illumination that can be brought to it by a particular body of theory. Kerr’s main sub-sections are those of “Author,” “Textuality,” and “History.” He manages to surprise us with the sparks drawn from “The Secret Sharer” by a sharp application of Lacanian theory, and to write a quite impassioned defence of Captain Archbold that impresses while (in my case at any rate) not quite succeeding in convincing.

In his essay on “Postcolonial Conrad,” Andrew Francis argues that the “way in which Conrad’s writings disturb Western ideas of empire anticipates postcolonial concerns, even though he wrote regarding the British Empire to his relative Aniela Zagórska of ‘the idea of liberty, which can only be found under the English flag all over the world’” (150). He focuses on a single text – “Karain” – which, he claims, “is an example of Conrad’s enabling the empire to ‘write back’” (153). This is a perceptive treatment of a fascinating Conrad tale. In his discussion of the Jubilee sixpence, however, attention might have been drawn to the fact that the coin is “gilt” – i.e. has been coloured gold, either in order to use it as a decorative item (it has a hole punched in it), or so as to make it possible to pass it as a half-sovereign, thus fraudulently increasing its value by a factor of 20. Francis ends his discussion of “Karain” by quoting the narrator’s “I wonder what they thought; what he thought … what the reader thinks?” – thus taking us back to Conrad’s recognition that the reader writes half of the work.

Debra Romanick Baldwin writes on “Conrad and Gender.” This is a measured essay, one that warns against the sort of ahistorical reading of Conrad that fails to recognize, for example, that words such as “man” and “mankind” had a different purchase in Conrad’s day from what they have today. Baldwin points out that “the absence of a female narrator does not preclude exploring feminine subjectivity. Indeed, the very narrative distance provided by a multiplicity of voices or gendered perspectives can even deepen the effect of conveying a character’s internal experience” (137). This comes in a section of her essay entitled “Gender and the Problem of Voice,” in which she makes some important observations about the way in which issues of gender are not simply to be read off Conrad’s narrative through an identification of the gender of characters or narrators.

Leaving the fiction aside, Andrew Glazzard’s essay focuses on “Letters and Autobiographical Writings.” He is good on the differences between The Mirror of the Sea and A Personal Record, seeking to explain why the former found favour with most readers while the latter did not. He suggests that The Mirror of the Sea “as some of its reviewers realized, reflects its author working across boundaries – of genre, of memory and imagination, of fact and fiction” (61). While readers seem to have been unfazed by this, they found, and perhaps continue to find, the discursiveness of A Personal Record harder to take.

The volume closes with what could be termed “Conrad as inspiration”: “Conrad and Contemporary Writers” by David Miller and “Conrad Adapted” by Richard J. Hand. Together these two essays provide very useful information on those writers, directors and works that in some way or another build on Conrad’s achievement. I was pleased to see Miller’s mention of Timothy Findlay’s 1993 novel Headhunter – in many ways my favourite offshoot from Conrad’s novella, along with Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now. Hand’s decision to adopt a tripartite structure encompassing “Conrad on screen,” “Conrad on stage,” and a final section “From Conrad to the Conradesque” works well. We all know that Conrad’s work has produced only a handful or good, and many more poor adaptations, and Hand’s comment on Alastair Reid’s 1996 TV Nostromo may go some way to explain why this is.

The problems with the series reveal issues with the processes of adaptation as a whole. In other words, although Conrad’s longest novel has narrative coherence, this becomes sprawling when translated to the screen; the integrity of characterization on the page becomes fractured on television, and Conrad’s exploration of enigma and irony can become confusing when dramatized. (175)

Reviewing the first Cambridge Companion for The Conradian in 2001 (vol 26, no1), I regretted that more had not been made of the fact – reported by Donald Spoto in his biography of Alfred Hitchcock – that Hitchcock actually attended a performance of The Secret Agent during its short London run. I repeat the regret in 2015. Another small regret is that Hand does not mention Howard Brenton’s 1975 TV play The Saliva Milkshake, which is based on, and modernizes the first part of Under Western Eyes. I count it as one of the more successful adaptations of Conrad’s fiction.

Miller’s and Hand’s essays ensure an element of built-in obsolescence for the volume; even in the short space of time since the book went to the printer, Peter Fudakowski’s Secret Sharer (2014) has been added to the list of full-length film adaptations of Conrad.

In addition to the baker’s dozen of essays the book contains a useful chronology of Conrad’s life, a very comprehensive (all of 13 printed pages) section on “Further Reading,” and a comprehensive index of works and names.

One of my wife’s Christmas presents to me in December was Leonard Maltin’s 2015 Movie Guide: The Modern Era. Maltin’s Introduction opens with something of a shock: “This is the final edition of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide.” Sales, it appears, have been hit so hard by the competition offered by the internet that it no longer makes good business sense to publish any further editions. In the light of such news, what chance have printed academic books to survive? I suspect that even the much reduced sales of Maltin’s book would seem like a dream of plenty to the academic publisher.

I feel confident that books of the quality of The New Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad will be able to find buyers. Finding 13 articles of this scholarly excellence and topicality on the internet is not an easy task even for the seasoned academic. For the student, lecturer, or general reader it will still make sense to have these articles in the handy and accessible form of a book. The first Conrad Companion to Joseph Conrad set a very high standard. Its successor has lived up to that standard – both in terms of the quality of its articles and also in terms of the impeccable editing skills of J. H. Stape. This is a book that can be recommended warmly and without reservation. Order it for the library and buy an extra copy for your own bookshelf: you will want to refer to it in the days that come.

© 2015 Jeremy Hawthorn






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