The Several Lives Of Joseph Conrad, by John Stape (Random House)

 The horror, the horror. Conrad’s reverberative phrase from Heart of Darkness has found ever-new applicable contexts, from the Belgian Congo to postcolonial Rwanda. Mumbled by a toad-like Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, it could well serve as the twentieth century’s catastrophic epitaph.

One might conclude that the phrase’s originator was not an optimist about the human condition, and one would be right. John Stape’s pedestrian biography marking the 150th anniversary of the birth of Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, better known to the world as the novelist Joseph Conrad, reveals a man with an incapacity for happiness and a very great capacity for gloom. Courtly but lacking in charm, Conrad was distant and irascible, testy with publishers and family alike. He lived through revolution and war, perilous ocean voyages and celebrity, but his inner life, insofar as he must have had one, seems characterised by depression, seclusion and monotony – the writer at his desk, grinding out his books.

Born in revolutionary Poland before that country had a name, Conrad’s childhood was spent in wintry exile – the price paid for having politically active parents. His mother succumbed to tuberculosis, and Conrad was intermittently looked after by his uncle and grandmother as his father’s health also declined. On his father’s death, Conrad, aged eleven, was rescued and raised by this uncle, who prepared him for the career at sea that provided the material for many of his novels.

Those novels are the reason we are interested in the life, but the man, despite the exhaustive industry of this biography, remains beyond our grasp. Here he is, with his fat wife, Jessie, and her cluster of psychosomatic ailments; here he is, motoring around England with his son, Borys; here he is, collaborating on potboiler novels with Ford Madox Ford to raise needed cash; here he is, pained with gout and lashing out at his agent. None of this – nor the myriad other details his biographer supplies – explains Lord Jim, Nostromo, The Secret Agent, or Under Western Eyes. These books, written in his third language, English, are the enduring result of that grinding at the desk. This is the writer at work – outwardly, there’s not much to look at, and inwardly, perhaps there’s even less. But there are the novels, with their zealots and spies and sea captains and gun-runners, contrived in their plots, melodramatic, and as psychologically profound and morally acute as the best of Henry James.


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Tim Tweets