Joseph Conrad

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Readers of the works of Joseph Conrad are impressed by the linguistic ability of this man who learned to speak English after reaching adulthood, and who used his adopted language as the vehicle for a voluminous lifetime production of prose works of fiction and nonfiction. Conrad had a genius for narrative, fortuitously yoked to a superb sensitivity to language. Developing and exploiting these gifts, he utilized them to give shape and dimension to his insights about human nature and to his philosophy of existence in a series of novels, novellas, and short stories which received very favorable critical acclaim, but minimal popular acceptance during his lifetime.

The canon of Conrad’s work is extensive, the result of a dedication to writing which occupied many years of his adult life and which supplanted but used as subject matter his career as a seafaring man. In the years since his death, a natural sifting process has occurred, with those works which for one reason or another have the greatest popular appeal acquiring the status of “classics” of English literature. A revival of interest in Conrad’s works in the 1940’s and 1950’s has established his merit as a writer far more solidly than was the case during his lifetime.

Young people today are likely to be introduced to Conrad’s works in high school literature classes; Youth, Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, The Secret Sharer, and Typhoon are frequently chosen for class analysis, book reports, and for viewing on film or tapes. For most readers, one or more of this small group of works will probably be all they ever know of Conrad; this is likely to be the case more because they are awed by the complexity and the powerful psychological significance of the works than because they find any lack of interest or action in the tales. The singular and bizarre feature of Conrad’s career—that he was a Pole who became one of the foremost English writers—is proffered as a curiosity rather than as an explanation of the content of the style of his works.

For the occasional reader who becomes hooked on Conrad, and for the scholar who seeks explanations and sources for the powerful and highly original content of his works, biographical material has been superficial and patently inadequate. The reasons for this are multiple: Conrad lived and worked in many settings; documents relevant to Conrad may be in any of several languages; and Conrad quietly pursued a highly improbable life while remaining a resolutely private person.

Frederick Karl, a noted scholar of both the novel and of Joseph Conrad, has taken on the prodigious task of researching, analyzing, and formulating a truly comprehensive biography of this leading English novelist. There can be no question that he has succeeded; moreover, he has succeeded brilliantly. His thoroughgoing research into literally thousands of letters and other documents and his sensitive and knowledgeable explications of the influences of Conrad’s early years on his later life and especially on his writings is handled with a sure skill and appropriately documented supporting material.

The task undertaken by Karl is to reveal the events of Conrad’s life, to establish the impact of these events upon the psychological development of the young man, and to demonstrate the relationship of both the events and the psychological effects to the writings of Conrad’s later years. Karl traces the early years in as much detail as he can establish or reasonably infer, while recognizing that “Uprootedness, transience, death of parents, lack of continuity—these were the conditions of a life of wandering or a life of intense inner activity in which the imagination could follow its own pattern and not that of a system.” Karl repeatedly turns to Freudian and Jungian psychology to identify and interpret episodes in Conrad’s life experiences which later appear transformed into fictional episodes—often forming the basis or the material for several quite separate pieces of writing.

An important aspect of the biography is the identification of Conrad’s thought processes as romantic, realistic, visionary, pessimistic, idealistic, and occasionally patriotic. The complexity of the man is continually demonstrated through Karl’s probing insights; and the intensity and variety of Conrad’s emotional experiences form the basis for the development of many fictional characters. The extraordinary conditions of Conrad’s childhood—the political situation, the personal relationships, and the precarious social situation in which the status and perquisites of hereditary gentry were undermined by ebbing financial resources—provide a dramatic and vivid scenario for the development of this gifted, nervous, complex, and sometimes unstable personality.

Karl writes clearly and evenhandedly about the political situation and the complex involvement of the members of Conrad’s father’s and mother’s families. He discusses the impact of this political involvement upon the impressionable young child, especially the imprisonment of Apollo, his father, and the enforced travels with the consequent ill effects on the health of all members of the family. Karl makes a most plausible case that the political attitudes and ideas of the writer Conrad had firm roots and origins in the experiences of these early years; he then confirms his thesis with quotations from both letters and fiction by Conrad.

The political activism and sometimes incompatible political stances of his various relatives led to a strong preoccupation with politics in Conrad’s thinking. It also made him acutely aware of the effect of political change on the lives and fortunes of the citizenry. Karl demonstrates how the early impact of politics was transmuted later into such works as Nostromo.

The procedural method in this biography is to narrate an event or period in the life of Conrad, then discuss the psychological significance of the event on his life, as well as the relationship of this event to other conditions or events which seem to have some relevance. Finally, the event is discussed in terms of its impact upon Conrad’s writings or its embodiment therein. Karl finds that certain seminal events were used repeatedly as sources in various writings by Conrad. The biographer has carefully researched the writings for traces, transformations, and evocations of Conrad’s own past as they surface in fictionalized form.

Moreover, this method is followed not only with respect to events in Conrad’s life but also with respect to people who influenced him or whom he knew either casually or well. The biographer considers that even Conrad’s mother, who died when the child was very young, was of major significance in forming his character and personality; and he suggests that her memory is evoked in Conrad’s writings in the person of several of his female characters. Karl suggests that the memories and attitudes toward his mother which were instilled in the boy by his father and by his uncle were highly influential in Conrad’s emotional development and artistic imagination. Subsequently, traces of this influence can be found in the writings of Conrad as reshaped or transformed embodiments of this idealized woman in some of his fictional females.

Karl is often able to show how the actual event is transformed in various ways through Conrad’s emotional interpretation and also how he transforms material to become a part of a larger theme or to aid in the development of a more complex fictional structure. This description of movement from...

(The entire section is 3110 words.)