The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad
Seaman and writer, public figure and family man, native of Poland and adopted son of England, Joseph Conrad, in a letter to a fellow émigré, aptly described himself as “homo duplex.” As the third volume in his collected letters reveals, this complex dualism tormented his life while it enriched his writings. During this period, from 1903 to 1907, Conrad’s letters show him struggling with the difficulties of considering himself always an outsider while coming to appreciate the advantages of his unique double angle of vision. These letters, always interesting but sometimes enigmatic, are made to shed much light on their author through the superb scholarship of the editors, Frederick R. Karl and Laurence Davies, who provide many helpful tools, including full and excellent annotation, a fine introduction, an alphabetical list and description of all Conrad’s correspondents, and a chronology of these years of Conrad’s life.
Conrad’s acute awareness of his dual allegiance to Poland and England largely accounts for the odd defensiveness, even touchiness, which he exhibits in many of these letters. On the one hand, he attempts to answer the generally unvoiced accusation of disloyalty to his country of origin. In a letter to a fellow Polish émigré, he asserts, “During the course of all my travels round the world I never, in mind and heart, separated myself from my country”; he therefore urges, “I may surely be accepted there as a compatriot, in spite of my writing in English.” In the same vein, he maintains, “Both at sea and on land my point of view is English, from which the conclusion should not be drawn that I have become an Englishman. That is not the case.” On another occasion, he amplifies this point when he states: “I feel the laziness common to all Poles. I’d rather dream a novel than write it. . . . And then, English is still for me a foreign language whose handling demands a fearful effort.” With the same self-consciousness of the outsider, he worries that in leveling any criticism against his adoptive country, he will be misunderstood: “I don’t think my word will have any weight at all. I’ve been so cried up of late as a sort of freak, an amazing bloody foreigner writing in English . . . that anything I say will be discounted on that ground by the public.”
Yet it is this very difference or foreignness which initially helped to establish Conrad’s unique place among his literary contemporaries. As his friend Edward Garnett notes, “It is good for us English to have Mr. Conrad in our midst visualising for us aspects of life we are constitutionally unable to perceive.” Nor was Conrad himself averse to capitalizing upon his foreignness or exotic background to promote his works. In fact, it was he who suggested to his agent, J. B. Pinker, that they package The Mirror of the Sea (1906), his reminiscences of his life as a seaman, together in a single volume with his writings on literature (which he proposed to call “The Mirror of Life”), because Conrad believed that the rarity of the combination would help to sell the volume.
Despite Conrad’s touchiness on the subject, it was during this period that Conrad came to a sharpened sense of his distinctiveness as a writer, so that he describes Nostromo (1904) as “a very genuine Conrad.” With this same cool awareness, he writes to Pinker, “One may read everybody and yet in the end want to read me. . . . For I don’t resemble anybody. . . . There is nothing in me but a turn of mind which whether valuable or worthless can not be imitated.”
As unusual a component in Conrad’s work as his Polish origin is his twenty years’ experience as a merchant seaman, which, as this volume of letters reveals, provided him not only with a vast quantity of material throughout his literary career but also with the attributes he valued in himself and in his characters. He states that he takes equal pride in having his friend Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham dedicate his book to him as he took in “that long ago moment, in another existence” when he was praised by his commanding officer as a seaman for “sobriety and trustworthiness.” Repeatedly he describes his circumstances as a writer by using metaphors of his previous career: “I will have to pump till the handle breaks or the ship goes down under me.” Perhaps, too, it is Conrad’s equal valuation of his experiences at sea with his work as a writer that accounts for his puzzling overestimation of the literary achievement of The Mirror of the Sea, a work that modern critics consider much slighter than his fiction of this period.
Perhaps the most interesting duality of Conrad’s life appears in this volume in the twin personages of Conrad the public figure and Conrad the private man. Seldom does he fully let down his guard, even with fellow writers and intimate friends. Accordingly, the Conrad who appears in most of this correspondence is extremely polite, even courtly; punctilious to observe good form; tactful and generous with praise in response to the works of fellow writers; and extremely reticent in discussing his individual writings and his own artistic methods. This characteristic guardedness points up all the more strongly the occasional letter in which he drops his public mask—or what he calls “my polite ’letter writer’ which expresses...
(The entire section is 2197 words.)