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Joseph Conrad: Ten Years After

ISSUE:  Summer 1934

Joseph Conrad will have been dead ten years on August third, and now, faced by this arbitrary date, it seems fitting to recall the personality and achievements of this extraordinary man. And I would like to emphasise at once that even if he had never written a line the adjective “extraordinary” would still apply. He impressed everybody who met him by a quality of greatness it is hard to define, and there was something so magnetic and vital about him that after all these years it is difficult to believe that he is not sitting in his study at Oswalds or walking slowly round his walled garden.

And yet, though time only seems to make Conrad’s figure stand out more clearly, nevertheless I am very certain that no one really understood him. In some ways he was simple, as all natures must be that have a few deep roots in life, but in other ways he was highly complex. And those two sides of him intermingled to such an extent that in the midst of the most ordinary conversation a note of irony might creep into his voice and the whole tone of the discussion imperceptibly change. His regard for such words as honour, fidelity, and duty was perhaps the only final justification he found for existence, and he was, I am inclined to think, essentially pessimistic at heart.

But, indeed, it was almost impossible to gather what Conrad truly thought about most things, for his mind was composed of numerous layers and he was not given to expressing himself fully on any one occasion. At different times he would approach a subject from different angles and his utterances were not infrequently enigmatic in their apparent contradictoriness. I have heard him declare that some people gained success by a policy of never apologising and never explaining, and though it would not have occurred to Conrad to adopt such an attitude, yet he was instinctively a man of many reserves and silences. Prolonged association gave one a sort of intuitive perception of him, but even that was very limited and one always felt that beyond a certain point one would be left guessing. But if there was in Conrad a deep region of inner solitude, he was far from being a hermit, and he needed the companionship of a friend like myself who did not create nervous tension or react infavour-ably to his moods. He once said to me, “On the surface you and I are very different, but au fond we are alike—” and in these words lies the explanation of our friendship.

But, truly, he threw over all his friends a kind of protective mantle. They were immune from his irony and they brought out the simplest side of his complex nature. Conrad, who did not value possessions in the least and whose elaborate politeness often concealed boredom and scepticism, did value his friends. Of them he would hear nothing ill, and their visits were a perennial pleasure. After twelve years of friendship almost the only thing about Conrad’s attitude towards myself of which I was sure was that he liked me and relied on me, and curiously enough, he remarked to me not long before he died, “I don’t understand you, but I do trust you.” One could scarcely have hoped for finer praise.

Conrad had the most astonishing memory for books or events that interested him, and to hear him discuss, for example, the intricate European politics of the Napoleonic eras —either First or Second Empire—was to listen to a masterly and detailed survey. As to his own strange and varied experiences, fascinating glimpses of them would emerge in those intimate soliloquies in which, without warning, he would sometimes indulge when sitting with one companion in his study late at night. I learnt to keep very quiet when this retrospective stream was flowing, because then he would gather one, so to speak, into the fabric of his recollections and tell of his adventures as though his listener had also participated in them. Events never before described, places and people never before mentioned, were unrolled before one without a word of explanation, while, seemingly half-unconscious of another’s presence, Conrad wound into the past. At such times his very expression changed, as if his mind were, indeed, far away, and his voice had a singular low-pitched note which spoke of the concentration of his thought. It was as easy to break the sequence by a question as it was sometimes difficult to keep abreast of the narrative, but nothing so yielded one an insight not alone into the amazing background on which he had built his novels, but into the exciting and incalculable range of his own mentality.

Talking of this background, I would wish to stress here the autobiographical basis of so much of his work. It is not only “The Mirror of the Sea” and “A Personal Record,” but such novels as “The Nigger of the Narcissus,” “The Shadow-Line,” and “The Arrow of Gold,” such short stories as “Youth,” “Heart of Darkness,” and “A Smile of Fortune” that have the very note of personal reminiscence in them. And in many of his other novels and stories the scenery and characters were developed creatively from his own observation. He used to say that he was not inventive and that his ideas came to him unbidden—the hint for a tale from something he had seen or heard or read. And I have sometimes wondered whether it be this foundation of reality which helps to give so convincing an air to his writings and makes one feel their inevitable truth.

And Conrad’s memory was vivified by strong sentiment, When he thought of his days at sea or of the many friends, alive and dead, he had taken to his heart, he thought of them with a sort of conquering tenderness. And his was not a passive friendship: he was always trying to help and encourage those he cared for. His generosity was only too boundless. He had no money sense and was open-handed to an incredible degree. And sometimes, I am afraid, he was taken advantage of. On one occasion I induced him to send only fifty pounds to an acquaintance who had stated that unless he received two hundred and fifty pounds ruin stared him in the face. However, he managed to evade destruction, though I never heard that he either acknowledged or returned the fifty pounds. But Conrad, who had had bitter experience of financial want, was always ready to give or lend on the slightest provocation, I could cite instance after instance.

Which leads me to say that he got on easily with all sorts of diverse types and was not always, in my opinion, a good judge of character. But he liked to have people about him and was compassionate to those who were down in their luck. In fact, if not bored or irritated he was remarkably lenient in his opinions of others. And he derived amusement from some of his visitors and even from some of the more fantastic letters he received. Conrad had a marked sense of humour, though I admit it was not always of the English variety— I can never understand why critics assert that his books are lacking in humour—and odd incidents or personalities would arouse his mirth for days afterwards. The ludicrous affected him rather as an anodyne and he was momentarily able to escape from his own sombre brooding by a kind of hilarious gaiety.

When Conrad felt well he was the most enchanting of companions. The richness of his mind and personality played about one like a flame, evoking, beyond the spoken words, an indescribable sense of his genius. Yet brilliant as he was, he never thrust himself forward. More than anybody I have known he entered into the interests of others and drew his friends out by sympathy and tact. The sardonic and melancholy tinge of his thought might lie there beneath the surface, but he obtruded it as little as possible and always listened with an attentive ear to what others had to say.

But when gout was on him he seemed to recede into gloomy and inaccessible depths and to be the victim of an overwhelming darkness. Then, indeed, all one could do was to stay silently by, aware that one’s mere presence gave him something to hold on to. He would sit hunched in his chair, crossing and uncrossing his legs and nervously tapping the table by his side. An occasional explosive “damn!” would burst from his lips and his expression wear a sort of haggard fierceness as if he were facing alone a crowd of demons.

Somebody asked me recently whether Conrad wrote because he had gout. The question, as put, sounded naive, but one may fairly argue that if he had not suffered from gout-it all began with his desperate illness in the Congo in 1890— he would very probably have remained at sea and not been forced to take up writing as a career. And though gout caused him endless tortures, he always used to argue, citing the case of Lord Chatham in the eighteenth century, that it was a preserver of the intellect. But if it was—and Conrad’s intellect certainly was preserved—he paid dear for the privilege. It cost him untold anguish and it shortened his life. But he was not unwilling to die, as he intimated to me in so many words, and he passed away at the very height of his renown and prosperity. Perhaps it is as well. The changes of the last ten years would have brought him little happiness. His work was done, he was tired out, and death came to him swiftly. It was the kind of end which he himself would have desired.

By the exigencies of his calling Conrad had been a world traveller in his day, sailing to such distant places as Venezuela, India, Siam, the Dutch East Indies, Australia, South Africa, and the Congo, but he always insisted that he travelled because he had to, and latterly, at any rate, he appeared to dislike the very idea of the tropics and of far counr tries. He infinitely preferred his home in Kent to all the splendour of the Orient, and he had practically no wish to wander any more. I recall that when he told me the actual name of the island in “Youth” where the crew of the burned Judea land and the narrator describes, in language of unsurpassed magnificence and with the very glow of romance, his first sight of the East, he made me promise never to reveal it, because it was, in reality, a “beastly hole” and because anyhow to pin the story down to facts would rob it of its glamour.

In the literary sense of the word, Conrad was not a nature-lover or one of those writers inspired by what Theodore Watts-Dunton called the renaissance of wonder. Historic association meant more to him than beauty, and perhaps the part of the globe which attracted him most was the shores of the Mediterranean. He came more and more to ignore those passages in his earlier volumes in which scenery is painted with such eloquence, and the distaste he had for anthologies of his work was bound up with the feeling that its importance had nothing to do with individual extracts but depended entirely on the total achievement of each book.

I am not sure that Conrad had any particular affection for the sea, though he did have an affection for sailing ships. He wrote and spoke about them with real warmth, but how often does he emphasise in his books the heartless cruelty and indifference of the sea. But while he loved to expound the points of ships and was quick to resent the inaccurate use of technical phrases concerning them, yet nothing annoyed him more than to be called, as he so frequently was, “a novelist of the sea.” And when on his voyage to America in 1923 he was addressed as “Captain Conrad,” the compliment irritated rather than flattered him.

All such things, he held, tended to distort the main purport of his work, and he used to assure me with considerable emphasis that no matter where he placed his settings, his concern was with people. It is true that he had an admiration for the sea stories of Captain Marryat and Fenimore Cooper, but that, undoubtedly, was because they pictured with graphic accuracy the kind of seaman’s life he had himself experienced. And there was something about that life, with its need of precise mastery and its call for loyalty and fortitude, which appealed to the deepest instincts of his nature.

Even after his first book was published late in 1894 he was still trying to return to the sea, and he went to Glasgow to interview a shipowner, to whom, I believe, R. B. Cunning-hame Graham had given him a letter of introduction. Certainly it had not occurred to him then that he could make a livelihood out of writing—he told me that when he posted the manuscript of “Almayer’s Folly” to the publishers he never expected anything to happen, and, indeed, he sold the copyright for about twenty-five pounds—but behind all that there was a nostalgia for the life itself.

When he first left the sea for good and had a house in Essex he would sometimes go yachting in the estuary of the Thames, as though loath to cut himself off altogether from his old existence. A friend of his amusingly described to me one of those expeditions. The sailing boat was trying to make the shore, which was only a few yards away, and the landlubber guest innocently suggested to Conrad that he should grasp one of the overhanging branches and pull the boat in. But Conrad, who was acting the part of Chief Mate on that occasion and obeying orders with nautical promptitude, turned on him a look of withering indignation, and the elaborate tacking continued.

But even so trifling an incident was typical of Conrad’s insistence that things should be done right. His record as a seaman—he always cherished his various “discharges”—was one of honourable efficiency, and it was a similar spirit which inspired his work as a novelist. He never slurred over a line, he never allowed himself to fall short of his own ideal of artistic integrity. In brief, he never took the easy road. Slovenliness was abhorrent to him, and his work was invariably inspired by a feeling for ultimate values.

In later years Conrad composed very slowly, dictating maybe three hundred and fifty words a day and then re-writing over the typescript, but he told me that he had written “Heart of Darkness,” which is forty thousand words in length, in a month, and when he had the strength for it he would slave over his work as did Flaubert. I think that “Nostromo” and “Under Western Eyes” cost him the most toil of all his books, while his own favourites were “The Nigger of the Narcissus” and “The Mirror of the Sea.” He did not regard them as his greatest books, but he had a peculiar affection for them. In my copy of “The Nigger” he wrote, “By these pages I stand or fall”; and in my copy of “The Mirror,” “I have a special feeling for these pages. Twenty best years of my life went to the making of them.”

Conrad was the least egotistic of authors and had no wish to discuss his work unless the subject was brought up naturally. Then he would speak freely enough, though with an underlying restraint typical of his wisdom and good feeling. Informed appreciation gratified him, but there were only a few critics, such as Arthur Marwood and Edward Garnett, whose opinions he really valued. He was rather fond of poking fun at some of his own characters, like Verloc and Jacobus, but he had a distaste for comparing one book with another, and it was very easy to rub him up the wrong way by unintelligent praise. And, being human, he was apt to belittle the books most people admired and to find points about those that were not so popular. He thought well of “Nostromo” and of “A Set of Six”—”I consider this a collection of no mean tricks,” he wrote in my copy of the latter—, which were rather neglected; but he did not give “Lord Jim” the place it had in public esteem: “When I began this story, which some people think my best—personally I don’t—I formed the resolve to cram as much character and episode into it as it could hold. This explains its great length, which the tale itself does not justify,” was his comment in my copy. And he believed that “Chance,” the first book of his to bring him wide recognition, had received an undue share of praise.

However, this rule of contraries was by no means universal. He agreed with the public in thinking but little of “An Outcast of the Islands” and “Within the Tides,” while “Victory,” an outstanding success, was one of his own favourites. Indeed, it was from this book that he gave the one semi-public reading of his life, and that was in a private house in New York in May, 1923. As he wrote me at the time, “I gave a talk and readings from ‘Victory.’ One hour and a quarter with an ovation at the end. They were most attentive. Laughs at proper places and snuffles at the last when I read the whole chapter of Lena’s death.”

Conrad felt that his time was short and that “Suspense” would be his last novel. A few hours before he was seized with his fatal illness he told me that he saw five different ways of finishing it; and though an American weekly, subsequent to his death, offered a prize for the most satisfactory solution of that problem, I can only say that Conrad himself had come to no decision. Another American publication offered the Trustees a large sum of money for the serial rights of “Suspense,” provided permission were given to have it completed by any one of about fifteen submitted names. I have not kept the list, but if I remember aright one of the names on it was that of Rex Beach. The offer was declined. Later on, Sir A. Conan Doyle announced that he had had a spirit message from Conrad asking him to finish the novel. But as I doubt whether Conrad had read any of Doyle’s books and as during his lifetime he had suggested that I should finish any novel he left uncompleted, that project also fell on deaf ears. Needless to add, “Suspense” has never been finished. Had there been, say, half a chapter left to write, I might have attempted to comply with Conrad’s wish; but as it was, the only thing to do was to leave it the gigantic fragment that it is.

Many myths have sprung up around Conrad. Most of them are of the type that carries its own contradiction and are not worth mentioning. But there is one which, though constantly exposed, is almost universally believed. I refer to the story which says, with varying embellishments, that it was to John Galsworthy that Conrad, an officer in the sailing ship in which the former was a passenger, showed the uncompleted manuscript of “Almayer’s Folly.” It is totally untrue. Galsworthy did sail in the Torrens with Conrad in 1893; but his voyage was from Adelaide to Cape Town, whereas it was on the voyage out to Australia that Conrad showed those chapters to a passenger, and his name was W. H. Jacques. Galsworthy himself, in an article entitled “Reminiscences of Conrad,” gave the lie to the story by remarking, “On that ship he talked of life, not literature; and it is not true that I introduced him to the life of letters,” but it is next door to impossible to overtake a falsehood, especially a romantic one. But surely it was strange enough that they should have met at all in such a manner, particularly when we learn that Galsworthy had gone to Australia with the intention of sailing thence to the South Sea Islands to meet Robert Louis Stevenson, but failing in that plan had happened to take ship with Conrad instead. A romantic trick of chance, if you choose!

Conrad had pronounced likes and antipathies, and while he was more than just to his friends, who, in his sight, as I have hinted, could scarcely do wrong, he was at times extremely quick to take offence at people who, more often than not, meant no harm but were merely thoughtless or stupid. In his anger he was terrible and unapproachable, his deep-set eyes literally blazing and his voice cutting as a whip, but unless deliberately insulted, the flurry soon subsided. I have known him furious at such seeming trivialities as a business letter accidentally left unsigned, the denseness of a waiter in an hotel, a muddle about meeting some one at a station, but such outbursts were purely the result of his high-strung temperament and frayed nervous system. Before the real blows of fate Conrad was dignified and heroic, though he informed me that once, on hearing a devastating piece of news, he was quite unconscious of his movements during the next few minutes and knew nothing more until he found himself in his bedroom. His was an intense nature, and the more one knew him, the more one discounted his flashes of annoyance. For at heart he was just and magnanimous, and though he had his prejudices he allowed for the prejudices of others. Once, I recall, when he was about to abuse Dostoevski (one of his pet aversions) before some guests, he first turned to me, who admired that Russian, and apologised for what he was going to say.

Conrad had, in truth, the manners of a Grand Seigneur, and it was charming to watch the way he would raise his wife’s hand to his lips. He was not angular, as so many creative writers are, and he never condescended in the least to even the simplest of persons. His understanding courtesy was such that children, who are quick to grasp shades, were captivated by him and immediately felt at their ease. And that is a sound test of unassuming graciousness.

One of the most marked characteristics of Conrad was his tenacity of purpose. When he had made up his mind to anything he finally achieved it. As a boy he had determined to go to sea—an almost unheard of act for a Pole—and against all persuasions and obstacles he did go to sea; he had placed his finger on the blank map of Central Africa and said he would go there one day—and at last he did. And the same with his work: sooner or later he accomplished what he set out to accomplish. He told me that he had resolved to finish “The Nigger of the Narcissus” with words about a gale, as the calmness of the ending in comparison with the actual language had caught his imagination, and, behold, “westerly gale” are the last words of the book; he put “The Rescue” aside for twenty years because he could not get on with it, but finally he took it up again and rounded it off superbly; he promised to write a preface for a volume of mine and, though the writing of “The Rover” delayed him month after month, yet he had not forgotten and at last it was written. But these concrete examples do not really convey the measure of his tenacity. It is when one considers how he triumphed over poverty and ill health, never yielding an inch or allowing his mind to wander from the goal, that one is forcibly struck by the tremendous resolution and perseverance of his character.

Apart from talk, reading was Conrad’s principal relaxation. True, he was rather fond of motoring, but he took little exercise, collected nothing, was not really much interested in music or painting, and cared not a bit about sport. But he was an omnivorous and very fast reader and, within broad limits, a critic of depth and discrimination. He loved old memoirs and travels—I think Wallace’s “Malay Anch-ipelago” was his favourite bedside book—and he never tired of picking up the books of such authors as Turgenev, Flaubert, Maupassant, Anatole France, Henry James, and W. H, Hudson. But, indeed, his reading was vast and desultory and was not confined to one group of authors or to a few chosen subjects. In fact, it was not even confined to one book at a time. When he was in bed he would have, perhaps, half a dozen volumes turned down open on the coverlet, glancing at them in haphazard order as the fancy took him. Against that boredom or weariness with life which so frequently descended upon Conrad, books, and especially the tried books whose savor he had often tasted, were his unfailing standby.

Some surprise has been felt at Conrad’s political conservatism, particularly as his own father played a prominent part in the last Polish uprising against Russia in the early ‘sixties. But Conrad always maintained that that was not a revolutionary movement but a fight for freedom, and to the end of his days he had the profoundest distrust of radical policies and an utter contempt for internationalism. Once when I was out of England a friend of mine, an ardent admirer of his work, wrote to Conrad, introducing herself and asking permission to bring down a Polish artist who was anxious to make a sketch of him. Conrad, with his usual politeness, invited them both to lunch, but when at the table the lady impulsively exclaimed, “Oh, Mr. Conrad, you of all men ought to be an internationalist!” it would appear, from what she told me, that he flew into a rage and declared that he would not have such conversation in his house. And it does not astonish me: I could have warned her that she was on dangerous ground.

To what extent Conrad had faith in the established order of things I am not sure—his opinions might look simple when the reasoning behind them was extremely subtle—but there was something idealistic in his sense of patriotism. For Poland, the downtrodden, and for England, the home of liberty, he had a close and personal devotion. Indeed, in his philosophic attitude towards England he was in some respects more English than the English, and his conservatism may have been partially due to a foreigner’s conception of that historic role England has played in the affairs of Europe.

And again, his seaman’s upbringing, with its insistence on discipline for the safety of all, may have helped to mould the tenor of his thought. There is no room at sea for social or other experiments, and Conrad, while he hated tyranny and autocracy, was a believer in tradition and efficiency.

But, after all, I am certain that these suggested reasons for Conrad’s political views would have annoyed him excessively. He was not one of those people who hold that intelligence and political extremism must of necessity go hand in hand—one has only to read “A Personal Record” and “The Secret Agent” to perceive his scorn for the self-satisfied assurance of revolutionaries—and he invariably had swiftly cogent and convincing arguments for his opinions, Indeed, nobody could pounce on an opponent as could Conrad when he was in the vein.

I have said that in some respects Conrad was more English than the English, but I must add that in others he remained very un-English. He spoke with a foreign accent, he never really accustomed himself to many English habits—I may name, as small instances, his dislike of draughty open windows and of English mustard, the use of which he compared to swallowing a poultice—and he would at times feel the irritation at our insular smugness which is very typical of the cultivated stranger. I have heard it maintained that Conrad’s literary reputation may ultimately suffer because, though dwelling and writing in England, he was not by birth an Englishman. I cannot believe it in Conrad’s case, his unique and powerful genius being grand enough to rise above all general rules, but by and large it is unwise for a writer to expatriate himself. Poland, of course, was part of Russia when he became naturalised in the ‘eighties, but even so he felt the disabilities of his position. For that very reason he would never accept Honorary Degrees, and he declined the Knighthood (though he would probably have declined that in any case) which was offered him by the Prime Minister towards the close of his life.

Nevertheless, he was bound to England by a spiritual affinity that went to the very core of his being. He wrote to me from Boston in 1923, “In the midst of New England my thoughts are fixed on England (tout court), where my affections for my family and my friends dwell immovably.” And has he not put it on record that he could have written in no other language than English! I am aware that it has been asserted that he also thought of writing in French, but even if we discredit his own words, the fact remains that he did write in English, did become a British subject, and did live in England. Polish, of course, he wrote and spoke as a Pole; his French, I have been assured by a Frenchman, was perfect, and as for his English—well, we all know what his English was! His only trouble seems to have been with “will” and “shall,” and I remember correcting many of these misuses when his collected edition was being prepared.

Conrad had a habit of voicing momentary fancies, not taken seriously by himself, that floated through his brain; and if he ever made the remark about writing in French I suggest that that was one of them. And I suggest it also of the statement, which has been put forward, that, if he had survived, he had intended to go to Poland to finish his days. For I am sure he would never have left England for long. It was his permanent home, the only place where he felt really comfortable, and he was actually just about to move into a new house along the Dover road, some eight miles from Oswalds, when death overtook him. Indeed, it was when he was driving with me on August second, 1924, to show me this house that the constriction in his chest became alarming and I begged him to turn back. He died at eight-thirty the next morning.

But though he would never have abandoned England for Poland, he did retain for his natal country a devotion as instinctive as second nature. He carried on a considerable correspondence with Poles, he visited the country with his wife and children, he translated a Polish comedy to oblige the author (the English version has been neither played nor published), he gave, I believe, thousands of pounds to Polish charities after the War, and he presented the Polish rights in his works to one of his Polish relatives, a rather remote cousin. And that is not, by a big margin, a complete summary of all he did. But truth to say, he was not unduly elated at Poland’s recovered freedom. He feared that it would not last and that once again Poland would become a storm centre and be divided up. The Poles themselves had an exalted regard for Conrad both as author and patriot. A delegation of Poles met him when he reached New York, he lunched with the Polish Minister in London only a month before his death, and a member of the Polish Government sent an official message of condolence to the British Minister of Education when he died. He was, indeed, a great son of Poland and a great adopted son of England, but the two loyalties never clashed, because they were on different planes.

Conrad’s fame has not escaped that belittling process which is the lot of all creative artists within a few years of their death and lasts until the prejudices of the moment have been forgotten and time begins to sift the immortal reputations from the ephemeral. The younger generation is always anxious to throw off the influence of the overshadowing figures and to prove its independence by an entirely new approach. And as the literary opinions of the world run in fashions, it is not at all startling that Conrad, being dead, has suffered a temporary eclipse. All this could have been foretold precisely and is of no significance. A novelist such as Miss Rose Macaulay may declare that “Conrad’s ship is already sinking below the horizon,” but, as a friend of mine puts it, “It will circumnavigate the globe and reappear before Miss Macaulay’s astonished eyes.”

It most assuredly will! Probably it is correct to say that genius, in its very nature, arouses antagonism as well as admiration, but one thing is certain and that is that it cannot be ignored. The author of “The Nigger of the Narcissus,” of “Lord Jim,” of “Youth,” of “Typhoon,” of “Nostromo,” of “The Secret Agent,” of “Twixt Land and Sea,” of “Chance,” and of “Victory,” which, without dogmatism, I would call his greatest books, though others may think differently, is, I maintain, one of the supreme novelists. Already these works appear classical in their agelessness and the noble beauty of their presentation, and when most of the clever writers of this era and the last are fading names Conrad will emerge in his true stature, towering like a beacon far above them all.


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