The Conradian: Review

By Peter Lancelot Mallios, University of Maryland

Victory, edited by J. H. Stape and Alexandre Fachard, with the Assistance of Aaron Zacks and an Introduction by Richard Niland, Cambridge Edition of the Works of Joseph Conrad (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016). lv + 919 pp. £90.

There is, as every reader knows in this textual age, a very close generative relation between editing and literary interpretation. It is the reason, I believe, why some people are attracted to the alchemy of scholarly and critical editions. Both of these activities, the editorial and the interpretive, represent value; but the former, even under current digital conditions, requires much less portable forms of property. There is, from that point of view, a deplorable lack of concentration in serious editing. Now, if all of the original editions and textual antecedents of a given work could be put into a single volume – but it turns out, they can! At the same time, there is a fascination in contradiction, in incommensurate texts and plural textual meaning, still the supreme commodities of a profession in which we are camped, like bewildered travellers in a garish, unrestful habitus. And I suppose these two considerations, the aspirational and the irresolvable, underlie the immense provocation of the new Cambridge Scholarly Edition of Joseph Conrad’s Victory.

Victory, of course, has an unusual capacity for provocation among Conrad’s novels. As Richard Niland details in his excellent introduction, this novel, even by Conrad’s standards, is a remarkably “composite Conradian fiction,” exciting the imagination through its integration of broad, heterogeneous, and even contradictory dimensions of source and resource (Victory, p. xxxii). Reaching far back to Conrad’s earliest merchant marine experiences in the Caribbean and Far East, and even further to his Polish childhood and relationship with his father, the Polish Romantic Apollo Korzeniowski, Victory also is emphatically of the present – engaging in cutting-edge issues of science, technology, progress, and modernity, and even glimpsing its period’s imminent future in anticipating key aspects of the Great War. The novel also draws, in the manner of Nostromo, on Conrad’s wide non-fictional reading in areas of history, geography, anthropology, and the politics and ethnography of different colonial cultures. But it equally capaciously incorporates different literary and philosophical traditions – from Shakespeare to Stevenson, Maupassant to Anatole France, Polish Romanticism to contemporary Polish fiction, and Ibsen to Nietzsche to Schopenhauer.

Perhaps the most “composite” aspect of Victory may trace back to Conrad’s writing itself, as this novel, appearing at a key moment in his rise to popularity, seems self-consciously to telescope – allusively to incorporate and panoramically re-introduce – not only Conrad’s life and life-knowledge, but also the wide arc of his fiction and even some of his prior “company” of characters. This sense that a comprehensive understanding of “Conrad” is crucially at issue in Victory – with the corollary, as Niland astutely notes, that competing accounts of “the idea of a definite, recognizable Conrad appears throughout the initial reception of Victory” (xlviii) – then gives rise to what Niland explains has been the defining and more sensational frame of the novel’s claims to “provocation” ever since: divisive controversy. For, if for some, Victory is the consummate, exemplary, and most comprehensively composite novel of all Conrad – the work, in F. R. Leavis’s phrase in The Great Tradition (1948), that “answers most nearly to the stock notion of his genius” – for others, in Albert Guerard’s rejoinder in Conrad the Novelist (1958), it is “one of the worst novels for which high claims have ever been made by critics of standing” (qtd. in Victory, pp. liii, liv). With Victory, the ambit of controversy seems to extend far beyond the usual flashpoint political questions (race, gender, imperialistic politics) that attach to Conrad’s works generally, to incorporate as well, particularly at the level of the novel’s “popular” aspects, fundamental challenges to the novel’s claims to any aesthetic and literary value at all. Here, Niland deftly demonstrates that one of the signature academic debates that has framed criticism not only of Victory but of Conrad’s works as a whole is the question, in Thomas Moser’s famous formulation, of whether Victory marks a moment of high “achievement” or rather conspicuous “decline” in ways that implicate our comprehensive understanding of his career as a writer. This critical gulf, which has always contained social and political as well as aesthetic dimensions, is one that has only widened, deepened, and expanded in its grounding terms of controversy on into the present. No other Conrad work has demonstrated quite this comprehensive degree of provocational capacity.

But until now, we have never had an edition of the novel whose textual aspects are as provocative as the “content” that has been presumed of it. Simply put – and I write this as someone who has edited Victory myself – this Cambridge Edition is an astonishing and important accomplishment: a tour de force of scholarly expertise and execution by the editors J. H. Stape and Alexandre Fachard, assisted by Aaron Sacks. Its full value includes the unprecedented scholarly resource it offers for study of the novel, but it also extends to the radical re-orientation of thinking it catalyzes about the very textual essence of Victory, with implications for every interpretive lens and critical approach.

To take the scholarly accomplishments of this edition first: this mammoth, nearly 1,000-page scholarly edition – which, as the editors point out, could easily have been much longer, were it not for their important discretionary decisions of priority – reveals a treasure trove of generally unavailable and unusually recalcitrant material. With Victory, the editors have taken a Conrad work of notoriously vexed, sprawling, defaced, lacunae-ridden, multi-handed, labyrinthine textual history, and they have not only plausibly resolved, as a matter of clear-sighted textual history, crucial questions that have loomed over the editing of this work for some time; they have also gathered and deciphered, in the “portable” confines of one convenient and actually usable book, a maximally comprehensive compilation of every textual variant from every pre-print and relevant contemporary published edition of the novel. These efforts, which complement and subtend a new critical text of the novel, are rendered through reader-friendly essays, apparatus materials, and appendices comprehending all aspects of Victory’s various textual iterations (i.e., content, format, variation and accidentals, physical condition and idiosyncrasies of pre-print documents, transmission history, identification of the multiple hands, pens, typists involved, etc.). Further supplementary materials include concise, informative textual and explanatory notes, glossaries, a catalogue of borrowings and echoes of French writers, and a contemporary map.

I would emphasize the qualities of discretion and discernment built into this edition. Though the heft of this tome may suggest a volume bursting at the seams, its true quality is economy. A laser-sharp efficiency of expression and tabulation, and a deeply reflected sense of what belongs and needs elaboration in this text and what doesn’t, makes it possible to feel like it has achieved – and in fact come as close to incarnating as may be possible – the essentially impossible ideal of a truly comprehensive, single-volume book edition of Victory.

Four major textual discoveries and achievements are evinced in these efforts, as the editors describe in their Essay on the Texts. The first is their recognition, based on historical and internal textual evidence, that there must have been a now-missing partial clean typescript between the earliest phases of the novel – that is, its manuscript and first (“Philadelphia”) typescript forms – and the second (“Berg”) typescript. The second is their convincing and pellucid deciphering of the “battle-scarred” Berg typescript and its history (385); this typescript’s many editorial hands, cross-outs, cuttings, and other puzzles and mutilations have baffled editorial commentators since Grant Overton first wrote an article addressing the subject in 1923.[1] The third is their demonstration that the American serialization of Victory in Munsey’s Magazine, itself set from the magazine’s own heavy interventions on the Berg typescript, significantly informs all later historical published editions. And the fourth is their primary decision, drawing on all of the above factors and more, that the Philadelphia typescript, subject to collations with other texts as they manifest Conrad’s own considered efforts, is the best copy-text from which to proceed in producing a critical text expressing Conrad’s unimpeded and self-authorized intentions. As with the qualities of economy and discernment emphasized in the local textual recoveries and supplementary materials noted above, these major achievements and insights are predicated on life-cultivated expertise in Conrad, without which the decoding of the vexed skein of texts and their situating players and histories would not be possible.

Far from mere technical concerns, the textual recoveries in this edition are unusually consequential. Some 26,000 excised words from the novel’s various pre-print texts (that is, more than one-fifth of the novel’s ultimate length) become readily available here for the first time. These words offer substantial opportunity for re-evaluation and re-contextualization of a “symbolic” novel so self-consciously composed by Conrad through a process of revisionary excision: that is, the elision of concretely grounding terms and descriptions tending toward an “exclusive meaning” and “definite conclusion” (CL5, 211). Those interested in Mr. Jones’s sexuality, Wang’s background and the Orientalism informing his presentation, Heyst’s status as an erstwhile avatar of global capitalism, and Conrad’s general engagements with class and religion, among many other concerns, will find ample provocative materials here. Also revealed are a wide array of genetic details, including provisional titles for the novel (including “Smouldering Fire,” “An Episode of Dollars”) and evolving character names (Heyst’s original names included Augustus and Gustavus Berg, Lind, and possibly Bergström and Stromberg; Mr. Jones was Mr. John Smith; Martin Ricardo was Ricard and Ricards; and Pedro on at least one occasion was Peter.)

Perhaps even more significantly, at least from the perspective of the editors, this edition inaugurates something of a sea-change in our sense of the basic text we have come to know and read as Victory. As noted above, one of the major claims foregrounded in this edition is that all historically published versions of Victory have descended in significant ways from the work-up of what has long been considered the novel’s least respectful and reliable source – the Munsey’s American serial of February 1915, a text whose aggressive editing Conrad described as “more than I can stand,” and one which the Cambridge editors – who nonetheless teach us much about the skill and erudition of at least one of the Munsey’s editors, the Harvard-educated Bulgarian Svetozar Ivanoff Tonjoroff – describe as introducing “several thousands of instances” of unauthorized changes to the novel (Victory, pp. 397, 395). Many of these changes were preserved in later British and American books editions of the novel, each of which introduces its own emendations. In the “new” critical text on offer in the Cambridge Edition, a primary strategy is to reach back beyond the Munsey’s threshold to recover Conrad’s true authorized and considered textual intentions, in effect dramatically revising and destabilizing the authority of the entire post-Munsey’s continuum of texts that, in one form or another, every one of us has been accustomed to reading as Victory. The result is that, in the Cambridge critical text thus presented, “in many hundreds of instances Conrad’s work appears in print here for the first time” (409). This “new text” – this “deliberately eclectic text” – differs not only radically from any historical published edition of Victory; it “differs more radically than any other in the Cambridge Edition from those that circulated during Conrad’s lifetime and after it” (425–26). “Victory may finally be read, then,” the editors boldly declare, “a century after its first appearance, shorn … of editorial, compositorial, and typists’ interventions” and other corruptions; “this new text at last replaces a defective and at points highly unreliable one that for several generations of readers has shaped attitudes towards Conrad’s achievement in the later stages of his career” (426).

And it is here that a different kind of provocation, more akin to controversy per se, begins to arise. Proponents of “social text” theories of editing may question a text’s abstraction from the actual social players and conditions and the actual verbal terms in which the text was concretely produced, read, and engaged; they may hesitate at the editors’ strong appeals to an objective vocabulary of “flawed” and “defective” texts, as opposed to more plural vocabularies of describing and evaluating different textual forms and manifestations; and there is certainly a tension between this volume’s analytic attention to Victory’s historical reception and meaning for “several generations of readers,” and the language by which it sometimes seems categorically to dispatch the value and legitimacy of the very historical editions fundamental to those domains of inquiry.

But the editors have two ready responses. The first is that they do not need to be lectured to about social history. In fact, this edition arguably recovers more social history, and more powerfully facilitates and inspires future social recoveries, than any prior treatment of Victory – precisely through its deeply-researched essays addressing all aspects of the various historical texts concerned, including their social players; and also through the Apparatus’s capacious accounting of all the novel’s textual variations, as these changes were quite contingently (i.e., not abstractly) generated from different locational and institutional settings. The second response – and this is the response that truly interests me, so far as the less obvious and more radical ultimate provocative stakes of this edition are concerned – is that notwithstanding the editors’ sometimes strongly objectivizing and polarizing vocabulary, and, indeed, perhaps precisely through the note of irreconcilable oppositionality conveyed in it, the critical text in this edition is not at all, at least in its effect and in my reading, a simple repudiation of prior and plural forms of Victory’s text. Rather, this new critical text, even in its strong claims to its own priority, effectively incites and mobilizes radical reconsideration and contemplation of all those “other” texts – with a new introduced element of capacious uncertainty and irresolvable plurality that I believe forever changes our sense of the textual foundations of what we know as Victory, and the analytic possibilities of how we go on to interpret it.

Because this claim is somewhat counter-intuitive, indeed, arguably running against the grain of what might seem the editorial priorities of the Cambridge Edition, I want to explain clearly what I mean, with reference to the “new” opening paragraph of Victory presented in the Cambridge critical text. Here it is, followed by the opening sentence of the second paragraph:

There is, as every schoolboy knows in this scientific age, a very close chemical relation between coals and diamonds. It is the reason, I believe, why some people allude to coal as black diamonds. Mankind is prone to exaggeration of language. Both these commodities represent wealth. But coals are a much less portable form of property. There is from that point of view a deplorable lack of concentration in coals. Now if a coal mine could be put into one’s waistcoat pocket – but it can’t. At the same time there is a fascination in coals, the supreme commodity of the age we are camped in, like bewildered travellers in a garish, unrestful hotel. And I suppose those two considerations, the practical and the mystical, prevented Heyst, Axel Heyst, from going away. The Tropical Belt Coal syndicate went into liquidation . . . (Victory, p. 19)

There are textual variations at issue in almost every line here, heavily revised or emended at every stage from its manuscript to its published forms. However, two major changes will leap out to readers who have come to know Victory through any previous published edition. The first is the alternation between “coals” and “coal” as opposed to the consistent use of the singular “coal” in all prior published editions, a patterned change that affects the reading experience and also raises interesting issues of technical and historical usage. The second is the inclusion of the sentence, “Mankind is prone to exaggeration of language,” which does not appear in any previous published edition. This sentence, I would propose, is both highly suggestive – in its meta-linguistic appeal; in its subtle recall of the similarly positioned meditation on “a wilderness of words” at the opening of Under Western Eyes – and also abrasive, startling, to readers of previous initiation in Victory through any of the novel’s prior published forms, in ways that begin with, but are not reducible to, the kind of distancing and defamiliarizing experience one may associate with Brecht’s alienation effect. Spectacularly unexpected, the sentence breaks the flow of the previously initiated reader’s expected and smoothly absorbed reading experience – and in a way, we may add, that will be recurrent and symptomatic of the reading experience of this “new” Cambridge critical text as a whole, precisely because it has so much new and unusually rich, provocative materials to offer. The initiated reader is constantly pulled out of the illusion of the story-world itself to reflect upon the spectacle of new textual dimension.

But at the same time the newly restored sentence, “Mankind is prone to exaggeration of language,” occasions the startled attention of the reader, he or she may also note that the sentence arguably breaks the flow, not only of her own experience as a previously initiated reader, but of the smooth parallelism and intelligibility connecting the sentence immediately before and the one immediately after it. This reader, indeed, precisely in contemplating this new arguably interruptive effect of restoring the key sentence in question, may even come to entertain the heretical thought that perhaps the editors at Munsey’s – the agents originally responsible for the deletion –were right to cut the sentence, as an editorial improvement to the paragraph’s power of readability and overall literary quality (whatever that may mean). Facilitated by the Cambridge Edition and its comprehensive apparatus (and perhaps with a subsequent turn to Steven Donovan’s Conrad First website too), the initiated reader may contemplate the full scope of the Munsey’s editors’ changes to the opening of the novel, and its literary effects and relation to that text’s social and historical contexts of production. Readers may in fact be led to wonder why it was that all of Conrad’s subsequent publishing-house editors – knowingly, in the case of his American editor at Doubleday (Eugene Saxton); and unknowingly but complacently in the other cases – effectively embraced Munsey’s cutting of the sentence, and may be provoked to contemplate their larger texts and contexts toward considerations of questions of value and meaning as well. They may wonder, in light of these cross-correlations with other published editions made so tantalizingly easy by this Cambridge Edition, about whether the benefits of editorial corrective in helping Conrad to achieve the full power of his vision should factor into editorial decisions. (The Cambridge editors ironically explicitly raise this issue in acknowledging, in their restoration of Conrad’s “Tropical Belt Coal syndicate” for “Tropical Coal Belt Company” (another Munsey’s emendation) in the opening sentence of the second paragraph of the novel, that the Munsey’s emendation is in fact technically correct. The Cambridge editors simply know too much, about textuality and about Conrad, to be truly constrained by any one dogmatic position, even as they recognize the necessity and endorse a particular protocol of choices. And they pass this power of large contemplation onto readers.)

Or is the point that Conrad, to some degree at least, actually did tacitly approve (that is, beyond his explicit and informed corrections) at least some of the changes made to Victory in any of its post-Munsey’s states? But here we find the Cambridge Edition provoking the reader to open the very comprehensive Pandora’s Box of editorial questions that the editors, having already considered and transparently presented their thinking-process as concerns such things, have decided to execute pursuant to a highly principled editorial philosophy.

And this, I believe gets us to the core of the provocational genius of this volume: its capacity to provoke and facilitate the elaboration of a comprehensive field of ultimately contradictory concerns and questions. One restored sentence leads, not simply to the creation of an unusually rich and meaningful critical text, but as well to the contemplation of the entire universe of Victory’s textual forms, meanings, and contexts. One superbly executed critical philosophy, in the context of a novel radically affected by it, provokes the contemplation of all Victory’s editorial forms and philosophies. One critical text – pitched at the level of authorial “intention” so perennially guaranteed to stimulate the largest scope of questions concerning both the infinite vexations of its pursuit and multiple provocations of alternative value and priority – instigates profound curiosity into the universe of Victory’s plural textuality. This cosmos of textual completeness is ubiquitously gestured to by a critical text and edition that nonetheless insist upon the radical multiplicity and irreducibility of any of the novel’s textual forms. Victory here becomes both the choice of a particular text and the awareness of a network of adjacent and intersecting texts – from which no future work of interpretation of this novel, regardless of critical method, will remain unaffected, because this tension is the very condition of the text itself.

“‘Miracles do happen,’ thought the awe-struck Morrison” (28). Perhaps that might be the best way to sum up my reaction to this edition – or at least to provoke you, in the spirit of Victory’s legacy generally, to read and consider it for yourself.

© 2017 Peter Lancelot Mallios

[1] See Grant Overton, “In the Kingdom of Conrad,” Bookman 57 (May 1923): 275-84 [278].






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