Joseph Conrad

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

More than one hundred books about Joseph Conrad are currently in print, and of this number at least twenty are either biographies or are essentially biographical. They range from the brief sketch to the monumental study: Frederick R. Karl’s Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives (1979) is more than one thousand pages in length. This evident fascination with Conrad and his work reflects a perceived relevance to the contemporary world: the dark mysteries of the human spirit, the uncertainties of moral choice, an existentialist awareness of the unanswerable, all are key elements in his writing and are far more characteristic of the late twentieth century than of the world that Conrad inhabited.

It is likely that little more will be discovered in the way of new, basic, firsthand information in regard to this important writer. The reminiscences of his wife, his two sons, and of those who were closely acquainted with him have all been published; what remains to be written is largely analysis, speculation, interpretation, and reinterpretation. The appearance of yet another biography would seem superfluous at this point. Roger Tennant’s new study is, however, by no means an unnecessary addition to the literature; indeed, it is an important contribution.

Tennant admits that his book will add little to current knowledge of his subject, but blazing new trails was not his intent. He acknowledges in his Preface that his motivation was primarily an obsession with Conrad, and that his purpose was to provide an accurate portrait of the man whom he considers “the greatest writer in the English language.” While there are undoubtedly those who would take issue with the superlative, there are few indeed who would deny Conrad’s place among that select group whose stature has been confirmed by an inner vision and by the perspective of time.

The real importance of Tennant’s book lies in its responsible and competent approach to biography. The author respects his subject, his sources, his readers, and his craft. The narrative is straightforward and nothing of major significance is omitted. The treatment of persons and events is even-handed and without apparent bias; human flaws are neither exploited nor glossed over. This is a full and balanced account, and Tennant does not emphasize one phase of his subject’s life at the expense of another: he gives due attention to Conrad’s life at sea, for example, but he does not concentrate primarily on it as others have done. In addition, he provides a psychological credibility without dwelling unnecessarily upon Conrad’s idiosyncrasies. The book is well written, engages the reader’s attention, and provides a well-rounded portrait; it is at the same time notable for economy and directness. It forms a splendid introduction to both the great novelist and the complex personality, for it is both manageable and easily approached.

Joseph Conrad was nervous, excitable, unpredictable. He gained inspiration by “staring at the paper,” sometimes for hours or days at a time, and, since he was not a socially oriented person, brought his characters to life through agonized exploration of his own soul. He did this by descending into what he called his private hell; the process was exhausting and he was usually in a state of emotional and physical collapse by the time a novel had been finished. The completion of Nostromo (1904) left him near madness. The stress of creation produces a corresponding effect on any serious writer, but in Conrad’s case the reaction was profound. He had curious habits and mannerisms: his fingers were restless and independent, rolling pellets of bread at the dinner table and sometimes throwing them if their owner grew excited during a conversation. Often close to paranoia, he overreacted to adverse criticism. Any interruption of his work left him demoralized.

Certainly there is much about Conrad to interest the psychologist, and this aspect of the man has already received attention, notably by Bernard C. Meyer in Joseph Conrad: A Psychoanalytic Biography (1970). Psychoanalysis at this remove is, however, a risky business and, although there are many clues and much circumstantial evidence upon which to speculate, any truly accurate assessment of Conrad’s inner self is neither likely nor provable. He was a secretive man, little understood by those who knew him best: although a few knew of his conviction that civilization was only a thin crust above a furnace, and a few were allowed to glimpse the private hell that fed and tortured him, he never allowed greater liberties. Not equipped by nature to study other people intensively, lacking the gift of social empathy, he depended almost entirely upon introspection: his plot might be based upon a simple anecdote, tale, or episode in his experience, his principal character upon one striking glimpse of an arresting figure; all else came from within himself, and the depths to which he probed are astonishing. In this way he did reveal something of the inner Conrad, which gave him reason for concern later on.

Conrad was an artist in advance of his time, and recognition was slow in coming to him. He baffled readers accustomed to the sea stories of William Clark Russell or to the adventure tales of...

(The entire section is 2156 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

The Atlantic Monthly. CCXLVIII, August, 1981, p. 88.

Best Sellers. XLI, September, 1981, p. 220.

Booklist. LXXII, July 15, 1981, p. 1431.

Choice. XIX, November, 1981, p. 385.

Library Journal. CVI, July, 1981, p. 1422.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, July 5, 1981, p. 10.

Time. CXVIII, August 24, 1981, p. 68.