The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad Analysis

Joseph Conrad

The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

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...

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The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

When complete, the Cambridge edition of Joseph Conrad’s letters will mark the first time that all available letters from Joseph Conrad have been collected into one edition: 3,500 pieces of Conrad’s correspondence, including telegrams, postcards, and brief notes, some fifteen hundred of which have never appeared before, will have been collected into eight volumes.

The only other attempt at a comprehensive edition of Conrad’s letter was G. Jean-Aubry’s Joseph Conrad: Life and Letters (1927). As Frederick R. Karl points out in his general editor’s introduction to the Cambridge edition, however, Jean-Aubry’s edition contains silent deletions of the text of letters, sometimes for reasons of delicacy, sometimes for no apparent reason. Nevertheless, even for the Cambridge edition, the editors have had to rely often on Jean-Aubry’s printed text for letters now lost. Other editions of Conrad’s letters have focused on particular correspondents but have generally complemented the earlier work of Jean-Aubry: Edward Garnett’s Letters from Joseph Conrad, 1895-1924 (1928); John A. Gee and Paul J. Sturm’s Letters of Joseph Conrad to Marguerite Poradowska, 1890-1920 (1940); William Blackburn’s Joseph Conrad: Letters to William Blackwood and David S. Meldrum (1958); Zdzislaw Najder’s Conrad’s Polish Background: Letters to and from Polish Friends (1964); and C. T. Watt’s Joseph Conrad’s Letters to R. B. Cunninghame Graham (1969).

Karl’s general editor’s introduction describes some of the difficulties remaining even to the editor of a modern novelist’s letters. Many important letters are lost, notably many Polish originals destroyed in Warsaw in 1944. In these cases, the editors have had to rely on already published texts, with little to guide their editorial decisions except Jean-Aubry’s unreliable English-printed text and his manuscript which he translated into French from the Polish. Nevertheless, the editors have vigilantly tried to avoid repeating the editorial errors of the past. Whenever possible—and this was done with the majority of the letters—the originals have been transcribed and, in the case of French or Polish letters, newly translated. For example, volume 1 contains many letters in French to Marguerite Poradowska, whom Conrad referred to as “Aunt” (they were distantly related). All of the original texts of their letters were available at Yale University, allowing for fresh translations of the text rather than relying on previously published English translations.

The general editor’s aim “has been to furnish texts and notes useful to the scholar which, at the same time, do not discourage the general reader.” For the scholar, this edition will be indispensable; the appeal of the letters to the general reader may not be so evident. However, for the scholar and indeed for any general reader interested in letters of this kind, Karl and Davies have provided a layout that is both pleasing in its clarity and complete in its annotations. The layout for each letter welcomes rather than thwarts the reader. Each letter’s correspondent is indicated clearly in bold type, and below the correspondent’s name is the source of the text. From this brief but important annotation, the scholar recognizes at a glance whether the text is from a manuscript at Yale, for example, or is a text based on a collation of Jean-Aubry’s published English text of a letter with a French translation of the original. Similarly, notes concerning the dating of a letter are indicated clearly as footnotes, with the evidence for assigning a date to an undated or unclearly dated letter given.

Finally, the text itself reflects Conrad’s hand, complete with capitalized “You” and “Vous.” Occasional lapses of penmanship are corrected by means of square brackets in the text of the letter, as are obviously missing words and the occasional slip of the pen. Any Conradian spellings are left as they appear with an unobtrusive asterisk to note the spelling as such. For the scholar, the text as Conrad wrote it is easily appreciated; for the general reader, the text is clear, offering uninterrupted reading.

With an edition of this kind, one expects copious annotations. The editors have keenly kept both scholarly and general readers in mind by supplying appropriate footnotes to various points in the text, even to the extent of repeating a similar note in a later letter. Although this results in some duplication, it answers the needs of the general reader who may not read the letters in order. For the scholar, the repeated notes clarify vague points. The only shortcoming to the editors’ style in this regard is that notes to those letters in French appear only below the French text, not below the English translation as well, so that readers unfamiliar with French may have some small trouble assigning a footnote to a place in the translated...

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The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

If the greatest potential pleasure in reading the letters of a great writer during a particularly fertile period in his life is to gain insight into the creative process, then this second volume of Joseph Conrad’s letters is a disappointment. Although in this four-year period Conrad wrote much of his finest fiction, including “Youth,” “Typhoon,” “The End of the Tether,” Lord Jim (1900), and Heart of Darkness (1902), he says little in his letters about these works except to disparage them, while making clear that he considers them minor in comparison to the novel The Rescue (1920), which he was having great difficulty finishing (and which he did not in fact complete until 1919). Indeed, these...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

The Economist. CCXC, October 22, 1983, p. 99.

The Economist. CCCVI, March 19, 1988, p. 96.

Harper’s. CCLXVII, November 1983, p. 60.

Library Journal. CVIII, August, 1983, p. 1483.

London Review of Books. X, September 15, 1988, p. 9.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 25, 1983, p. 40.

The New York Times. July 26, 1988, p. C17.

The New Yorker. LIX, January 9, 1984, p. 106.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIV, August 26, 1983, p. 379.

The Times Literary Supplement. September 2, 1988, p. 954.