Joseph Conrad’s exotic life has attracted many biographers. Polish childhood and youth (he was born Jozef Korzeniowski), twenty years at sea, self-transformation in midlife to a man of letters writing in a foreign language: The story is rich and improbable enough to sustain multiple retellings. Add the enduring value of his fiction, and the mass of biographical literature on Conrad becomes comprehensible.
Jeffrey Meyers enters this crowded field with many previous biographies to his credit; his subjects have included Katherine Mansfield, Wyndham Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Lowell, and D. H. Lawrence. Meyers has made a reputation for himself as a resourceful researcher who uncovers new material even when—as with Hemingway, for example—his subject has been exhaustively treated by earlier biographers. He combines these skills with a vulgarity of mind that a reporter for the NATIONAL ENQUIRER might envy. To get the inimitable Meyers flavor it’s sufficient to read his captions for the many photographs of figures from Conrad’s circle, almost all of which are devoted to the physical appearance of the person pictured. A late photo of Conrad’s wife Jessie is captioned thus: “Jessie Conrad, Grotesquely obese and loaded, like a gypsy fortune-teller, with heavy beads.” Of Gerard Jean-Aubrey: “He had a high forehead, small, widely spaced eyes, sharp nose and full lips beneath a broad mustache”—all this appearing right next to a photograph which the reader is perfectly capable of assessing without assistance.
There is worse to come, though, for Meyers’ chief “discovery”—which he virtually presents as the raison d’etre of this biography—is his allegation that, in 1916, at the age of fifty-eight, Conrad had a love affair with a beautiful, flamboyant young American journalist, Jane Anderson. Meyers’ literary judgments, which diverge from received opinion only for the sake of stunning irrelevancies, are commensurate with his handling of Conrad’s infatuation with the red-haired Anderson: an elaborate construction of conjecture and innuendo that adds up, finally, to a wink and a leer.