The Conradian: Review

By J. H. Stape, Research Fellow in St Mary's University College, Twickenham

Tadeusz Bobrowski, A Memoir of My Life, translated and introduced by Addison Bross. Eastern European Monographs. New York: (Columbia University Press, 2008. 469 pp. £34.50/ $50.00

This generous selection – approximately a third of the whole – from Tadeusz Bobrowski memoirs, posthumously published in 1900 and republished in Polish in 1979, makes available to the non-Polish reader materials essential for understanding the ideological, cultural, and political contexts that informed Conrad’s life and values and offers insight into the “cultural space” in which he, his immediate family, and compatriots were nurtured. Najder’s extracts in Conrad Under Familial Eyes (1983) whetted the appetite for more, and Bross’s long-awaited work now makes this available.

Bross offers a signally lucid and useful account in his hundred-page “Introductory Essay” to the background of this work, a Slavic world as remote from the Western sensibility as it is in time now. The nature of the gentry class, the szlachta, to which Bobrowski and his brother-in-law, Apollo Korzeniowski, Conrad’s father, belonged comes under scrutiny and is well described here. Bross is alert to the internal tensions, insularity, and self-preoccupations of this group, the self-proclaimed bulwark of the nation, whose members shared ideals but were no monolithic grouping, differing widely in economic status.

No less well described are the remarkably tangled politics and ethnic composition of the Ukraine (then Ruthenia) where Conrad was born. Bross is most helpful on the inter-layered realities of the time and place: distant from the Polish heartland, once legally Polish but at the time of Conrad’s birth under Russian control for some two generations, the area was, in essence, an agricultural backwater where the Polish gentry held the Ukrainian majority as serfs.

Bross also offers an account of the publication history of Bobrowski's memoir, a discussion of the principles of selection used in his translation – lengthy sections representative of the work rather than thematically grouped snippets have been preferred – and a concise and useful "Chronology" (to Bobrowski's life). As to the translation itself , one would wish that the editor/translator had exercised a freer hand at points, making paragraph-breaks that would allow the reader a brief rest among the plethora of details, names, and facts.

As to these, Bobrowski’s own footnotes have mainly been cut, as have the appendices to his original. Bross’s footnotes , oddly produced within square brackets, appear at the end of each selection. They illuminate facts and also occasionally offer commentary or supplementary matter. Disconcertingly, Bobrowski’s notes and Bross’s are not distinguished, although the reader can generally sort out ownership fairly rapidly.

Bobrowski, who insisted upon a gradualist and non-violent approach to the end of Russian domination, in contrast to his fiery brother-in-law, comes across as balanced and even-handed. The memoir is shot through with deep conviction, and the anecdotes, family memories, and reflections allow glimpses of a complex personality, one sometimes markedly at odds with other modes of being in its time and place.

The highly detailed history of the Bobrowski family will not raise the pulse of most readers, but after this obligatory section, the pace of these selections picks up, and the patient reader is rewarded with a portrait of a strange world where ethnic passions, family loyalties, and strongly held beliefs collide. Particularly interesting are Bobrowski’s memories of his years as a law student at St Petersburg University, whereby it becomes clear that he (and others like him) provided elements for Razumov in Under Western Eyes.

Nor does this section lack an antagonist resembling Haldin: Bobrowski enjoyed an uneasy friendship with Zygmunt Sierakowski (1826–63), whom he had known in the Ukraine and who was a close friend of his brother Stefan. Involved in liberal and patriotic causes and a leader in political discussion groups whilst at St Petersburg University – which Bobrowski pointedly avoided – Sierakowski afterwards made a career in the Russian army. A participant in the 1863 Insurrection, he was hanged even though dying from wounds sustained in action.

A controversial figure in Conrad studies, Bobrowski, Conrad’s maternal uncle and guardian, has had both his ardent champions and detractors, and the debate over his influence over his ward has at times been vivid. From these pages, he emerges as a man completely of his time, issue of a conservative and nostalgic tradition, but, in his case, pragmatism and a stern sense of realism offered a counterbalance to patriotic ideals.

The volume provides an index to Bross’s prefatory essay, but none to the work itself, making searching out references and connections difficult. Missing, too, is a map of the mid-nineteenth-century Ukraine and family trees, both of which would have proved most helpful to the non-specialist. Canny editorial advice on these matters would obviously have been welcome and made the volume more user friendly.

That said, this is a major contribution to the documents about Conrad’s early life, and along with the “Bobrowski Memoir” and the varied pieces in Conrad Under Familial Eyes will allow Conrad scholars and enthusiasts alike to discover or explore this territory anew.

© 2011 J H Stape






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