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by John Stape

Pub Date: March 11th, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-4000-4449-8
Publisher: Pantheon

The complexities of emigration and cultural adaptation, as well as the corrosive effects of an embattled career, are precisely traced in Conrad scholar Stape’s rigorously compressed biography.

The various stages in the peripatetic life of Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski (1857–1924) included his birth in Poland, upbringing there and in Russia, successful tenures as a world-traveling captain in the British Merchant Navy and residence in England, where he became a master of narrative art since renowned as one of the avatars of literary modernism. The strength of Stape’s meticulous chronicle is the clarity with which it illuminates this unhappy genius’s vanity, financial irresponsibility, hypochondria and enervating family life. (Wife Jessie was plagued by recurring grave health problems, and eldest son Borys was a profligate, weak-willed underachiever.) Stape writes convincingly of Conrad’s relationships with contemporary artists, celebrities and miscellaneous influential persons. Some, notably his encouraging editor Edward Garnett, were cherished friends; others, including novelists John Galsworthy and Conrad’s sometime collaborator Ford Madox Ford, were resources to be exploited. We learn a good deal about the provenance of such masterpieces as Lord Jim, Nostromo, Heart of Darkness and The Nigger of the “Narcissus.” But Stape’s decision to eschew analysis of these works misses opportunities to support his eloquent summary assertion that “Conrad speaks for an awareness of fragmentation so quintessentially modern that his voice…remains powerful and authoritative.” Indeed it does, but the real proof of Conrad’s importance resides in the complex structures and layered ambiguities of his portrayals of adventurers and exiles adrift in unfamiliar worlds—not in a sedulous accounting of their author’s often frantic efforts to keep his foundering career and reputation afloat.

Informative and absorbing, but it’s not the whole story.