THE SEVERAL LIVES OF JOSEPH CONRAD
By John Stape
Pantheon, 369 pages, $30
Asked by Ford Maddox Ford to contribute to a memorial supplement to the Transatlantic Review in honor of the recently deceased Joseph Conrad, Ernest Hemingway groused about friends who disparaged Conrad; he complained that most of the people he knew thought Conrad a bad writer and T. S. Eliot a good one. Papa disagreed: “If I knew that by grinding Mr. Eliot into a fine dry powder and sprinkling that powder over Mr. Conrad’s grave, Mr. Conrad would shortly appear … and commence writing, I would leave for London early tomorrow morning with a sausage grinder.”
The anecdote says more about Hemingway’s swagger than about Conrad (or Eliot), but it’s the sort of juicy morsel any generous biographer would want to serve up in his postmortem how-the-reputation-fared chapter. Not John Stape, whose new biography, The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad, is stingy in the extreme: He proudly declares his intention to stick to the facts, rigorously excluding any discussion of the work in favor of a faithful record of the life. If you’re looking for a literary biography of Conrad, or the colorful evocation of an era, look elsewhere.
You might think, knowing the rough outline of Conrad’s story, that Mr. Stape’s approach would be ideal. It’s a thrilling trajectory: A bookish Polish boy, born in 1857 and orphaned at 11, signs on as a sailor in Marseilles at 17, and for the next two decades “follows the sea,” working his way up from ordinary seaman to captain, chasing adventure all around the globe—even, at one point, quitting the high seas for a trek deep into the African jungle. And then, in 1895, at age 38, this nomad settles in England and publishes his first novel, Almayer’s Folly, written in fits and starts over several years—in his third language (after Polish and French). Within the next five years—the blink of an eye—he achieves greatness as a novelist: The Nigger of the “Narcissus” (1897), Heart of Darkness (1899), Lord Jim (1900). Eventually, with Chance (1914) and Victory (1915), he becomes a handsomely rewarded and popular literary author, rich and respected.
If those are the facts, isn’t that all we need?
The problem is, the exciting parts—basically everything before the old salt morphed into a sedentary scribbler—we know fairly little about. Sure, we can dig up the names of the ships and the ports, the dates of the voyages and sometimes the names of other sailors and officers. There are the official reports of incidents at sea, the ship’s log and the even newspaper accounts. But as for what happened—well, we have to turn to the books for that, either the fiction or Conrad’s own elusive, unreliable memoirs.
Consider one traumatic event: In 1878, the 21-year-old apprentice seaman, distraught over gambling debts incurred in Monte Carlo, attempted suicide by shooting himself in the chest. We know this thanks to the letters of Conrad’s uncle and guardian, Tadeusz Bobrowski. But Conrad himself never mentioned it; he claimed instead to have fought a duel.
Mr. Stape doesn’t seem to know what to do with this murky interlude. He leaves out the revolver and the location of the wound. (Why?) His only comment is brief, flat and hollow: “The attempt to kill himself appears an act of self-assertion and a plea for someone to manage his life.” A biographer who wasn’t intent on ignoring Conrad’s fiction would at least point to the dozens of suicides and suicidal impulses in novels and stories from every stage of the author’s career.
CONRAD’S SAILING DAYS are over by the time we reach page 75 of Mr. Stape’s biography. The rest is the static business of sitting in a room and writing, the domestic details of family life and the circle of friends and fellow writers.
And here we run into another problem: For the balance of his life, Conrad was plagued by ill health and depression; and until his late 50’s, he was very often in debt, scrambling for money, which he habitually misspent. Here’s a sentence that’s repeated, with variations, every 10 pages or so: “Anxieties, quietly accumulating, may have helped bring on ‘an attack of gouty dyspepsia’ that was, as so often, compounded by depression.” Trudging though several decades of this nervous misery is no fun—and not enlightening, either. Add one drab wife (also often unwell) and two kids, and there you have it: hearth and home.
Of course, Conrad had friends and admirers one wants to read about, among them Stephen Crane, Henry James, John Galsworthy, H. G. Wells and Ford Maddox Ford, who was also Conrad’s sometime collaborator. But though he dutifully supplies background information and evaluates the tenor of each relationship (“Conrad was reaching out, emerging from the carefully constructed carapace that surrounded his emotional centre, which Crane touched to the quick”), Mr. Stape is incapable of giving us any idea of what it was like when Conrad and one of his pals were in the same room together. He can’t sketch a scene.
MR. STAPE’S PUBLISHER claims that it’s been more than a decade since the last life of Conrad, and Mr. Stape himself explains that he’s the first biographer to have access to the whole of Conrad’s correspondence. Those two facts don’t seem to me adequate justification for a biography that can only summon this to say about Heart of Darkness: “An artistic development of singular importance, the novella displays Conrad’s mature artistic voice and method, its … title, moreover, providing a catch-phrase for the darkest sides of the modern experience.” Wikipedia could do better.
The best book about Conrad (which Mr. Stape never mentions, not even in his bibliography) is the late Ian Watt’s dazzlingly intelligent Conrad in the Nineteenth Century (1979), which not only tells the story of Conrad’s life up to and including the period of crucial interest (the transformation from man of action to artist), but also provides as clear a sense as possible of the intellectual and literary atmosphere in which the novelist lived and breathed. Watt marshals the established facts, and then goes a step further: He shows us where they came from, those early novels and stories—great modernist fiction as resonant today as it was a century ago.
Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer. He can be reached at email@example.com.