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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Joseph Conrad (1857–1924)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Leland Hall (1883–1957)
 
AMONG the English novelists of the present day Joseph Conrad is outstanding by reason of his extraordinary breadth of vision, intellectual power, and artistic sincerity. It would be perhaps more cynical than true to say that these qualities have stood in the way of his general popularity; but the fact remains that he is not a popular writer in the sense that Kipling, Wells, and Bennett are popular. A comparison between his work and theirs can hardly suggest itself, except in the momentary consideration that he, like Kipling, has written of life in the far East. As a creative artist he belongs in the company of Meredith, Hardy, and Henry James; but here, too, his conception of his function as a novelist, as well as what may be called the outlandish character of much of his material, makes a comparison unlikely. Finally, although he writes in English, and although he is a loyal British subject, he is by birth and character a Pole; and his novels are unique because they are unmistakably cosmopolitan.  1
  His life has been extraordinarily varied. He was born in the Ukraine, and he grew up in Poland and Russia amid the changes and uncertainties which it has been the unhappy fate of Poland to undergo. After the death of his parents, for which the sufferings of disappointment and exile were largely responsible, he was affectionately cared for by an uncle, his mother’s brother. He was put in charge of an excellent tutor to be prepared for the University of Kraców; but he had been obsessed from childhood by an unaccountable desire to go to sea,—a desire which neither the incredulous amazement of his relatives, nor the reasoning of his tutor served to abate. Eventually, at the age of seventeen, just as he was ready to matriculate, he left Poland, having won his uncle’s consent to do so, and shipped on a sailing vessel out of Marseilles,—an incorrigible Don Quixote. From then on for more than twenty years he led the life of a deep-water sailor. In 1884 he became a naturalized British subject, and in the same year was admitted to the rank of Master Mariner in the British Merchant Marine. Some ten years later the effects of a tropical fever compelled him to give up his seafaring; and at this crucial time in his life, almost by chance, he submitted to a publisher the manuscript of a novel, ‘Almayer’s Folly,’ which he had been writing at odd moments during several years, for no reason he can think of. To his surprise it was accepted and published in 1895. Since then he has led in England the quiet life of a writer, a life of which nothing in his experience up to the time he adopted it had given the slightest prediction. Two things Conrad himself finds inexplicable: that there should have stirred in the breast of Teodor Jozef Konrad Korzeniowski, a Polish youth remote from any suggestion of the sea, the irresistible desire to be a sailor; and that Joseph Conrad, Master Mariner, should have turned writer of prose tales and romances.  2
  Conrad has written nine novels: ‘Almayer’s Folly’ (1895); ‘An Outcast of the Islands’ (1896); ‘The Nigger of the Narcissus’ (1898); ‘Under Western Eyes’ (1911); ‘Chance’ (1914); and ‘Victory’ (1915). Besides these he has written several sets of short stories, some of which, such as ‘Youth,’ ‘Typhoon,’ ‘Falk,’ and ‘The Partner,’ are hardly a less complete revelation of his genius than the novels. With Ford M. Hueffer he has collaborated in two rather rambling tales: ‘The Inheritors’ (1901), and ‘Romance’ (1903). He has written as well two books of reminiscences: ‘A Personal Record’ (published in England as ‘Some Reminiscences’), and ‘The Mirror of the Sea.’  3
  The success of Conrad’s first novel, written under such extraordinary conditions, was in itself sufficiently remarkable; but even more astonishing was his almost immediate mastery of the principles and methods of the art he came to practice late in life and in a language not his own. The preface he wrote for ‘The Nigger of the Narcissus,’ may be classed with de Maupassant’s preface to ‘Pierre et Jean’ among the permanent contributions to literary theory, especially as it affects the art of modern fiction, and nothing else throws so much light on Conrad’s own work—the aims he has in view and the means by which he strives to accomplish them. He begins with a very clear definition of art, contrasting it with philosophy, which deals with ideas, and science, which deals with facts and theories, and leads up to the conclusion that
        “the artist appeals to that part of our being which is not dependent on wisdom; to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition—and, therefore, more permanently enduring. He speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives: to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain: to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation: and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity—the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.”
He then goes on to justify fiction as an art:
          “Fiction—if it at all aspires to be art—appeals to temperament. And in truth it must be, like painting, like music, like all art, the appeal of one temperament to all the other innumerable temperaments whose subtle and resistless power endows passing events with their true meaning, and creates the moral, the emotional atmosphere of the place and time. Such an appeal to be effective must be an impression conveyed through the senses; and, in fact, it cannot be made in any other way, because temperament, whether individual or collective, is not amenable to persuasion. All art, therefore, appeals primarily to the senses, and the artistic aim when expressing itself in written words must also make its appeal through the senses, if its high desire is to reach the secret spring of responsive emotions. It must strenuously aspire to the plasticity of sculpture, to the color of painting, and to the magic suggestiveness of music—which is the art of arts. And it is only through complete unswerving devotion to the perfect blending of form and substance; it is only through an unremitting never-discouraged care for the shape and ring of sentences that an approach can be made to plasticity, to color; and the light of magic suggestiveness may be brought to play for an evanescent instant over the commonplace surface of words: of the old, old words, worn thin, defaced by ages of careless usage.
  “The sincere endeavor to accomplish that creative task, to go as far on that road as his strength will carry him, to go undeterred by faltering, weariness, or reproach, is the only valid justification for the worker in prose. And if his conscience is clear, his answer to those who, in the fulness of a wisdom that looks for immediate profit, demand specifically to be edified, consoled, amused; who demand to be promptly improved or encouraged, or frightened, or shocked, or charmed, must run thus:—My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm—all you demand and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.”
  4
  Every one of Conrad’s novels and stories shows a fidelity to the ideal thus eloquently set forth. Books so conceived and executed do not fail to have definite and rather unusual characteristics, some of which are at first reading disconcerting. In the earlier works his style, for instance, is too consciously sonorous. It must be said, however, that this is due not so much to an excess of “care for the shape and ring of sentences” as to the fact that he has yet to realize that English prose has not the crystal resonance of French. Obviously this early style is founded on French models. The later works do not contain such conscious profusion of rhythm and regular cadence, though even in ‘Victory’ there is often a suspicion of timbre that is not English.  5
  His desire to give to fiction as an art something of the plasticity of sculpture may account in a general way for another, and to some a more disconcerting, characteristic, which becomes more and more prominent in the novels and stories after ‘Lord Jim.’ It is an extremely complicated method of telling a story by means of several observers and narrators. From one point of view this is Conrad’s compromise with the convention of the novelist’s omniscience; for compromise it is, though in ‘Chance’ he has achieved such results with it as to raise very pressingly the question whether or not he has broken quite away from tradition and created a new art of the novel. So far as story-telling is concerned, the simple assumption by a novelist of a complete knowledge of characters, motives, causes, and effects makes easy going for both the writer and the reader, and is indeed desirable for the sake of smoothness in narration. Conrad himself has assumed such knowledge in his first three novels, in ‘The Secret Agent,’ and in many of his short stories. But for the presentation of ‘Lord Jim’ he seems to have felt the need of a method that would give more relief, that would make his characters stand out from their background, and would endow them with a movement more varied than that of a marionette pulled in a straight groove across the stage. With this aim in view he created Captain Marlow. Marlow is a man past middle age, whose wide experience of life, similar to Conrad’s own, has left him with a detached but thoroughly kind interest in human beings. He pieces the story of Jim out of what he has actually seen of him, what he has heard, and what he has thought. His tale is, of course, often straight narration, but the novel of ‘Lord Jim’ is the story of Marlow telling the story of Jim; and it is the creation of Jim out, as it were, of Marlow, and at the same time the creation of Marlow wholly apart from Jim, that give Jim all but the breath of life. Unfortunately the novel (which still preserves its undeserved fame of being Conrad’s masterpiece) suffers rather seriously from Marlow’s interminable psychological speculations. Conrad has given him much too free a rein; and all such narrators are of the kind that given an inch will take an ell. But his handling of Marlow and the like has become prodigiously skillful. In ‘Chance’ he has employed at least four narrators: Marlow, Captain Powell, and Mr. and Mrs. Fyne, and there are others besides. Three of these characters play a part in the novel quite distinct from their parts as narrators; yet Conrad has handled all the complications which such a method must occasion so smoothly that the reader hardly realizes the difficulties that the author has surmounted. They are difficulties which most authors would not choose to load themselves with. Indeed, Henry James wrote that ‘Chance’ had proved Conrad the votary of the “way to do a thing that shall undergo most doing.” But Conrad’s success is beyond question, and the vindication of the method may be found in the intricate and perfect counterfeit of reality which ‘Chance’ presents. It is a method which has given to the novel not a little of the plasticity of sculpture. ‘Chance’ as a whole is a perfectly rounded work of art, art in the abstract sense of form and structure. Moreover, the two central figures, Flora de Barrel and Captain Anthony, are molded, as it were, by the subtle touches of many pairs of hands, the source of whose single inspiration—Conrad’s high creative force—is all but concealed by the method. Of course, these characters are more than statues; they have been endowed with faculties of movement and sensation. And the greatest triumph of the method is that they move, not against a background, but in the midst of a circumfluent reality. It was perhaps as much the desire to present his characters so surrounded as the high artistic aim to give to his novels the plasticity of sculpture that impelled Conrad to devise and perfect the method of presentation of which ‘Chance’ is so splendid a result. Speaking of Marlow, who relates ‘Heart of Darkness,’ he has said:
          “To him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel, but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that are made sometimes visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.”
Such an envelopment of the chief episodes is one of the most striking characteristics of nearly all Conrad’s novels and stories.
  6
  Less rich in suggestion to fellow-craftsmen than this perfected method, but not less important in the general effect of Conrad’s work, is his incessant appeal to the senses, or rather to the sense imagination, of his readers. He has set before himself the task of making his readers feel, hear, and above all see. Therefore he is as scrupulously precise in naming a color, in tracing a line, and in describing a sound, a taste, or a smell, as Meredith in polishing an aphorism, or Henry James in analyzing a manner; and he demands of the reader as concentrated an effort to imagine as Meredith or James to comprehend. For one who has made this effort his novels are uniquely vivid. The memories retained of them are as of things actually seen and heard, and in some places even experienced. His work necessarily abounds in passages of description, and a study of his development in the mastery of this special art of writing would be interesting. The descriptions in the early works often suffer from the consciousness of style. ‘Youth,’ for example, one of the most poetic of his stories, is marred by monotonousness of rhythm and cadence. One suspects deliberateness in the heaping on of color. As his style grows more flexible his descriptions become less sensuous but more vivid, less massive but more finely brilliant. Yet it must be added that he has never written finer description than in ‘The Nigger of the Narcissus,’ or anything more vivid than the account of the passage of the “Patna” (‘Lord Jim’), or than that of Jim himself before the court of inquiry. He handles color as a painter; and adds to this such a suggestion of sound and smell as to convey to his readers in many passages the sensation of life itself.  7
  This emphasis on the sensible attributes of all he wishes to write about is a marked positive result of his conception of the function of the novelist striving for artistic expression. A negative result, not less marked, is the absence from his books of much of what most novelists have deemed suitable matter for novels. Of criticism, of doctrine, and of general philosophy his novels contain little or nothing. He suggests no reform; he champions no ideal. For the most part he withholds both commendation and blame from his characters. Indeed it would be hard to find traces of even a personal sympathy with more than two or three of the many men and women he has created. As an artist he makes no compromise with life. To this extent he is a realist; and if he were nothing more, an estimate of his work might end here with admiration for its vividness and power. But he is more.  8
  The realist deals with local actualities. The reality he portrays is circumscribed. He may achieve perfect verisimilitude, but he reveals no more than a fragment of the truth. In Conrad’s work there is no hint of such circumscription. His life upon the sea and his varied experience in many lands and among many kinds of people have given him an extraordinary breadth of vision. The fragments of truth he has chosen here and there to reveal are arranged in perspective and in relation to all life. Consequently there are in his work qualities of general understanding and of general revelation which, though not uncommon in our best poetry, produce upon the ordinary reader of modern fiction an effect of strangeness.  9
  Yet Conrad is not a visionary. He presents life as it is. His characters have nothing of the heroic, and they are extraordinarily real. Few are wholly despicable; none is idealized. It can be said of none that here is a standard bearer for the race. They bear no literary earmarks. He has drawn them without prejudice for race, color, and social caste; and they are so distinct from each other that it is impossible to generalize about them, except to say that all, being in the midst of life, are compelled to struggle against a force that is not benevolent. It is the revelation of such a force, not visionary but real, influencing the lives of men in all circumstances and in all parts of the world, that Conrad’s novels and stories have accomplished. The revelation is distinct and articulate. Conrad has not shown man miserable in conflict with the impersonal forces of nature. On the contrary, as a sailor he has seen how men in ships unite against the wind and sea when they are hostile, and become strong and noble in their union. That force which brings grief and misery upon the race rises out of man himself, out of man’s greed, which turns him against his own kind and renders him distrustful, envious, and cruel. Here is the tragedy, harshly evident to the eyes of the sailor visiting the habitations of man after months on the sea.  10
  Conrad’s novels may be divided into three groups. In the first may be placed the first four novels, which deal almost exclusively with life in the eastern archipelagoes, to which the search for profit and gold have brought the white man. The subtle disguises of western civilization have been left far behind. ‘Almayer’s Folly’ tells of the slow moral degradation of a man who quite openly sold himself, who married a savage Malay girl for the sake of the money her protector, the powerful Captain Lingard, had promised should go with her. ‘The Outcast of the Islands’ is the story of a man who resorted to treachery to get hold of a treasure he believed hidden in the interior of Borneo, and who suffered a terrible vengeance in consequence. ‘The Nigger of the Narcissus’ stands by itself as a story dealing wholly with life on the sea; but even here, the miserable Donkin, who stirred up discontent and mutiny upon the ship, Conrad has only finally branded as utterly despicable in an act of thieving from a man dying alone and helpless. ‘Lord Jim’ is the story of a man whom one act of cowardice drove farther and farther from civilization; yet that act was due to the rottenness of a steamer which but for the hidden greed of men had never sailed the seas with its crowded mass of pilgrims.  11
  In the second group there is but one novel,—‘Nostromo,’ in some ways the most remarkable of Conrad’s achievements. It has the qualities of an epic. It seems the complete expression of modern life, of life actuated by the far-reaching and powerful spirit of commercial enterprise. There are a dozen stories in it; there are a dozen sets of characters, astonishingly alive; there are success and failure, love and hate, true patriotism and selfish scheming, aspiration, defiance, tenderness, and cruelty. There is hardly a human passion but plays its part in the intricate tangle of the action; but through it all runs the dominating influence of the great San Tomé silver mine, the symbol of law and order, the cause of revolutions, the source of tragedy. Conrad has created a South American republic and has peopled it with men and women. There are the native inhabitants to whom the land belongs, of partly Spanish and partly Indian origin; there are men and women of various European nationalities who have drifted there, and there are men who have come there on purpose to develop the material possibilities of the land. The vast drama of their lives, enacting itself for the most part between the mine, back in the mountains, and the town of Sulaco on the shores of the Placid Gulf, Conrad has cast in the form of a novel for which, in the completeness of its revelation of modern life, it would be perhaps impossible to find a parallel.  12
  There are four novels after ‘Nostromo.’ In three of them, ‘The Secret Agent,’ ‘Under Western Eyes,’ and ‘Chance,’ Conrad has turned his attention to life in Europe; and in ‘Victory,’ the last, the chief characters have preserved their western subtleties. ‘The Secret Agent’ and ‘Under Western Eyes’ fill the space between ‘Nostromo’ on the one hand and ‘Chance’ on the other. Having in ‘Nostromo’ revealed once and for all, and on a scale that is truly colossal, the motive power of the spirit of avarice in human affairs, Conrad falls back for his next two novels upon the concentrated study of two brief episodes of special interest: an explosion in Greenwich, for which he imagines the anarchists in London are indirectly responsible; and a political assassination in Russia, with its effect upon a man who is essentially order-loving. The characters are, like all his characters, astonishingly definite and alive, but they are relatively few in number. The range of interest, too, is restricted, so that in spite of the brilliancy of technique and the vitality of both novels, ‘The Secret Agent’ and ‘Under Western Eyes’ may be taken as the product of a period of recuperation, that is, of spiritual recuperation, since there is no sign in either of flagging energy or mental fatigue.  13
  Having passed through this period, Conrad approaches his last novels with a changed, matured, and ever deepening interest in the mystery of human destiny. He is still the realist in method, representing life as it is. His drawing and modeling are still clear and firm; his colors still brilliant. But over both ‘Chance’ and ‘Victory’ there play shadows like those that fall upon the land from great clouds moving across the sky. Out of man’s greed has risen a cloud of Fate, as the smoke rose from the genii’s lamp. In both novels the instance of greed from which evil has grown may be found. That which first embittered Flora de Barrel, and which proved to be the source of most of the misery which she was forced to undergo, was the imprisonment of her father for dishonesty in pursuit of his financial ambitions. In ‘Victory’ that which brought evil and death to Samburan, a lonely island whither Axel Heyst had taken the girl Lena to save her from the vile persecutions of the hotel keeper, Schomberg, was a shameless lust for booty. But Conrad’s interest is here not in the corroding influence of greed upon those who have given way to it, but in the struggle of guiltless men and women against the general power of evil which love of gain has turned loose upon the world. That power has been personified. Old de Barrel, coming crazed from prison and full of murderous intent, and the utterly cold-blooded and malevolent Jones are more than standard villains in melodrama. They are symbols of all the evil in the world. Those who read ‘Chance’ and ‘Victory’ must look below the surface for their full meaning.  14
  For Conrad evil is that power which turns man against his kind, tearing that bond of fellowship, of solidarity as he has called it, in which is man’s source of comfort and strength. The tragedy of human life he finds in its loneliness, in that particular loneliness of man living in the midst of his fellows. The tragedy of Almayer’s life is not that it is passed in a remote quarter of the globe, far from men and women of his own class and race, but that he has lost the power to feel confidence, that he forever regards his fellow beings with suspicion and distrust. So it is in both ‘Chance’ and ‘Victory.’ Flora de Barrel dares trust nobody. Hence the terrible loneliness of her life which all but warps her soul. Lena, that pathetic figure of ‘Victory’ about whom alone of all his characters Conrad has allowed a radiance to shine, has from babyhood found no honest friend. In neither of these wan and helpless girls is there evil. They suffer under a malignant fate.  15
  If evil is that force which turns man against his kind, then the force to oppose it must be one that unites the members of the race. Conrad has found many types of such a force: fidelity, the sense of obligation, common need in the face of common danger, and it is almost needless to add, love. His last two novels are the story of a victory of love over fate.  16
  In neither ‘Chance’ nor ‘Victory’ does love achieve the radiant triumph of romance. The victory is not in that opposition has been wholly overcome, but in that two human beings have become united in spite of fate. Does that union, short-lived, but complete, symbolize the solidarity of the race, of which Conrad has written so eloquently in the preface to ‘The Nigger of the Narcissus’? He has promised that if he succeeds in his self-appointed task as an artist, and there seems to be no reasonable doubt that he has succeeded, we shall find in the result of his work what we look for in art: something of encouragement and hope, among other things. On first thought there seems to be nothing for comfort in the gloomy novel of ‘Chance’; and ‘Victory’ is indeed a tragedy, a match for Hamlet in general mortality. Yet there is a hint in the title of the latter which points to a deep meaning not only in that novel but in all that Conrad has written. It is a meaning felt but not easily perceived, for it envelops all life and is more vague and more vast than the act of all living. Conrad, sailor, novelist, realist, fatalist, mystic, or poet, call him what you will, stands revealed by his work as a prophet of one great truth: the solidarity of the human race, masked by social distinctions, forgotten in national prejudice, terribly rent by selfishness and greed, but eternally indestructible.  17
 
 
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