JOSEPH CONRAD by Roger Tennant


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In 1975 Tennant wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on ""the relation of Conrad's experience to his art""; and all too often this uneven biography reads like a filled-out version of just such a paper, quoting heavily from the works themselves and relying to a great extent on secondary sources (noted, distractingly, throughout the text). The book's first third is especially turgid, since Tennant weighs down the story of Polish-born Joseph's early seagoing experiences with non-stop analysis of how Conrad went on to use those experiences in his fiction. And though some of the fact/fiction distinctions are perceptive, they're equally often pedantic or inane. The narrative does pick up some momentum, happily, when Conrad turns to England and writing--though the prose remains fiat and ponderous (""The loneliness and isolation not only of his childhood, but of all his subsequent life at sea, implies a balancing intensity of inner life that must have forced him to begin to write with something of that same compulsion with which, at certain seasons, birds begin to build nests""). And some of Tennant's arguments--largely in reaction against Frederick R. Karl's massive Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives and other biographies--are worthwhile. But his attempt to dispute the view of Conrad as ""psychologically crippled"" is weak indeed: Tennant, though emphasizing the British social pressures on alien Conrad, himself acknowledges that JC was ""never far from the edge of paranoia."" And his discussions of the novels (which, one way or another, occupy much of the book) are marred by gushy hyperbole (""the greatest writer in the English language"") and by bland, clichÉd lit-crit verbiage: ""it is the Nigger who dominates it [Nigger of the 'Narcissus'], and it seems as though he represents, by reason of his violent background, his fatal illness, and his powerful will, a kind of symbol and summation of the human condition, and enables Conrad to convey, perhaps more powerfully than in any other book, the heights and depths of his tragic vision."" Worth some perusal by students, perhaps, but overall a dusty and sometimes amateurish addition to the considerable Conrad bio-criticism shelf.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1981
Publisher: Atheneum