An exhaustive, many-angled, probing, scholarly psychological/critical biography--it has everything, everything but the...


JOSEPH CONRAD: The Three Lives

An exhaustive, many-angled, probing, scholarly psychological/critical biography--it has everything, everything but the breath of life. For Prof. Karl, Conrad's ""three lives"" were his years as an international seaman, his career as an English writer, and his eternal torment as a Polish son--running away, with subsequent guilt, from early memories of his dying parents, especially a patriot-father whose failures Conrad was terrified of repeating. ""An exile, a drifter, a marginal man,"" then, choosing directions that would force him to relive childhood traumas while at the same time seeking liberation from the ""burdens of the past."" Thus--his name changes and Anglicization, his seagoing and his suicide attempt, his breakdowns and ambivalence toward fatherhood: ""the irreconcilables of his background became the irreconcilables of his fiction."" Accordingly, Karl maintains a constant dialogue between the life and the work, trying to ""diagnose the way his imagination performed,"" discerning patterns and parallels. This, of course, is the approach that has given us the greatest modern literary biographies--Painter's Proust, Edel's James, Ellman's Joyce, Bate's Johnson. Why then does it never quite work here? Few of Karl's speculations seem absurd, yet he's too anxious for conclusions, always injecting the literary parallels into the life too early, before we've gotten a feel for the experience itself. Life and work are both robbed of their natural dramatic growth--a problem of momentum that is compounded by unwieldy detail and an inexpressive prose style. And Karl's eclectic approach to interpretation often seems more wishy-washy than scrupulous, turning from Jung to Erikson to Freud, from literary history--best on Conrad's relation to the French symbolists--to aesthetic theory. Only once does Karl, to use Conrad's credo phrase, ""make you see""--when he suggests that ""a man who spent twenty years staring at the sea has noted how intensity of observation can change an object into new shapes."" Most everywhere else--marriage, collaborative friendship with Ford Madox Ford, the development of the Marlow persona, health and money problems--the material is there in full, but a thematic clutter. Karl has definitely burrowed in all the right places (except for a comparative timidity about sex), and much of the time he is probably right. But he is never beautifully right or passionately right--so this remains an awesome feat of scholarship that is neither an absorbing narrative nor a stirring source of illumination for readers of the novels.

Pub Date: Dec. 1, 1978


Page Count: -

Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 1978