The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad
by John Stape
Pantheon, 400 pp., $30
Unlike Vladimir Nabokov, an established Russian writer who became an American writer, Joseph Conrad emerged as an English writer with the publication of his first novel in 1895. Born in 1857 in a part of the Ukraine that had once been Poland, and named Theodor Jozef Konrad Korzeniowski, he went to sea, first with the French and then with the British. After two decades of travel to Africa, India, and the Pacific rim, he rose to the top of his chosen profession by passing his examination for Master in the British Merchant Service.
Then he reinvented himself as a great modernist writer.
Conrad spoke English with a heavy Polish accent and wrote it as no one before him ever had. Although he called his first book "an inexplicable event," he believed that writing in English came as naturally to him as "any other aptitude" with which he might have been born. He identified his point of view, at sea and on land, as "English," but described himself as "Homo duplex" rather than "an Englishman." "Homo complex" might have been more precise: There was hardly anything about which he did not feel more than two things at the same time.
Irony was the primary strain of Conrad's being. It inspired E.M. Forster's remark that "the secret casket of his genius contains a vapor rather than a jewel." That Conrad's beliefs are so much foggier than his doubts may account for the relatively small number of biographies since 1960. The best is still Zdzislaw Najder's, published in 1983, and the most substantial achievement of Conrad scholarship is the nine-volume Cambridge edition of his letters, completed in 2008. John Stape, the author of this new biography, has edited or coedited two volumes of the letters as well as a long list of other Conrad publications. He knows the facts of Conrad's life as well as anybody does.
Stape flushes out many facts we've not seen before. He sets various records straight, debunking myths about Conrad and making sure not to create any himself. But in avoiding the temptation to fictionalize Conrad's life, Stape runs into difficulties just as profound. Most readers are interested in Conrad's life because they are interested in his fiction, but there is more information in this biography than is pertinent to an understanding of the man who wrote Conrad's works. There is also less information than we want about Conrad's several lives as a husband, father, friend, reader, writer among writers, and inhabitant of his own time and place.
Conrad's writing life was always a stop-and-go event. His usual practice was to commit himself to a novel and then interrupt work on it to take up a short story. The short story would grow into a larger project that kept him from meeting his deadline. John Batchelor, another Conrad biographer, describes this pattern as a sort of seesawing between responsible and irresponsible behavior. The tension between high ambition and an ordinary, even sordid, reality (a Romantic theme that shows up often in Conrad's fiction) strengthened the appeal a new story always had for him. There it was, beckoning from a distance and still in the offing. And here was the condition from which he wanted relief.
"I write in doubt over every line," he says in one of his letters. "I ask myself--is it right?--is it true?--do I feel it so? do I express all my feeling? And I ask it at every sentence--I perspire in incertitude over every word!"
Conrad's bouts of despair were persistent, along with gout and dental problems. He was 39 when he asked Jessie George to marry him, and although he would live to be 66, he told her they had to move quickly because he had so little time left. Ironically, Jessie, 16 years younger than her husband, was violently ill on their honeymoon and struggled for the rest of her life with obesity, neuralgia, a defective heart valve, and a leg so painful that her doctors considered amputating it.
Financial difficulties haunted Conrad, even after he had gained considerable fame, and Stape provides a scrupulous account of his earnings and expenditures. With the help of the Economic History Services website (www.eh.net) he gives "pound sterling equivalents in terms of today's values," using "the average earnings index as the most effective indicator of relative value."
The figures, about which Stape is precise, are meant to give us more information but end up giving us less. What does it mean that Conrad was paid £126 for a short story (a figure Stape puts as equivalent to £47,000 today) or that an annual average wage was £100 ("roughly £38,200 today")? Can we put Conrad's assertion that "life on £600 a year" was "impossible" into clearer perspective because the "equivalent" income in 2005 would be £218,000?