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The Several Lives of Joseph Conradby John Stape
Synopses & Reviews
Published to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth, The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad is a brilliant and highly readable biography of a literary figure of world-wide reputation.
Conrad' s impact has been so profound and far-reaching that, eighty years after his death, he remains an essential cultural reference point. Such phrases as heart of darkness and The horror The horror have entered the language, often cited without an awareness of their original contexts. His popular legacy extends to Latin American fiction, to the spy novel, to the terrorist and anarchist character, and to film. The writers he has influenced range from T. S. Eliot to William Faulkner to V. S. Naipaul and John Le Carre . For a writer of difficult fiction he has enjoyed a remarkably wide impact, yet as Marlow proclaims in Lord Jim of the figure whose story he tells, he was one of us, and so Conrad remains in fascinating ways.
Stape' s biography - an intimate portrait, including previously unpublished photographs - offers a Conrad for our times, a man with a deep sense of otherness, of multiple cultural identities and, writing in his third language, a working writer, whose novels and stories are a cornerstone of literary modernism and, indeed, of modernity itself.
"Joseph Conrad's lasting reputation has been built on his acclaimed books, Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim and The Secret Agent, but Stape, drawing on an encyclopedic knowledge of his subject, shows how Conrad's life can be sharply divided into three parts: his youth, dominated by the concerns of disenfranchised Polish relatives; his travels as a working seaman; and finally, his long career as a writer and family man. And while Stape, editor of The Oxford Companion to Joseph Conrad, admits to the difficulty of painting a portrait of a man who was inclined to bend the truth about his own life, he has done an exacting job tracking down the people and places Conrad encountered in his life. Unfortunately, this biography values detail over insight. We read about lunches with people who will never reappear in Conrad's life, but are left wanting over questions of literary import. For example, Conrad began writing about unhappy romantic affiliations long before he embarked on his uneventful if not impassioned marriage to Jessie George, but Stape barely touches upon previous romantic involvements that may have influenced Conrad's thinking. Readers are left with a great deal about Conrad's life, but little insight into how it shaped his work." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Suppose you were asked to name the most studied classic of English fiction, that single work most often read in high school and college classrooms. What would you choose? My own guess would be Joseph Conrad's nightmare-vision of moral decay, 'Heart of Darkness.' A hallucinatory account of a journey up the Congo River to a distant trading camp, a supposed 'outpost of progress,' this 1902 novella foretells... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) the whole bloody history of the past century. It misses nothing: imperialism, racism and genocide, the squalid megalomania and corruption of those in power, our era's spiritual torpor, the exploitation of third-world peoples, the raping of nature and women, massacre justified as political expediency, rampant mendacity, the ethos of the concentration camp. 'Exterminate all the brutes!' Even now, Mistah Kurtz's dying words and his final scream — 'The horror! the horror!' — continue to rip away the smiling mask of civilized values to show us what lies beneath, what lies ahead — Paschendale, Auschwitz, AIDS, 9/11, mass starvation in Africa, the daily body count in the Middle East. In all his fiction Joseph Conrad's great theme is human nature in extremis, and perhaps only Dostoevsky plumbs more deeply into the ravaged souls of men. While Conrad's prose can be slack or overripe, and sometimes his syntax doesn't quite track, that voice on the page earns its grandeur and eloquence. It speaks with the melancholy authority of lived experience. In 'Lord Jim,' he writes, 'It is when we try to grapple with another man's intimate need that we perceive how incomprehensible, wavering, and misty are the beings that share with us the sight of the stars and the warmth of the sun. It is as if loneliness were a hard and absolute condition of existence; the envelope of flesh and blood on which our eyes are fixed melts before the outstretched hand, and there remains only the capricious, unconsolable, and elusive spirit that no eye can follow, no hand can grasp.' As John Stape reminds us in this brilliantly concise (and often witty) biography, Conrad's life was one of loneliness, steady work, reckless extravagance and recurrent suffering. Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski (1857-1924) grew up a Pole when Poland no longer existed, his homeland having been absorbed into Russia and the Austrian empire. His parents died when he was young, and while still in his teens, the boy bid farewell to the landlocked world he knew to become a sailor. For nearly two decades he lived on ships and slept in seamen's hostels. Early on he began to serve on British merchant ships, where he must have learned most of his English. During his years as a seaman, a first or second mate and occasionally a captain, he traveled in the Caribbean and Central America, the Mediterranean, Australasia, the Far East and Africa. It was a hard life, sometimes made harder by the youthful sailor's taste for gambling and heedless overspending. Yet Conrad was hardly your typical roustabout sailor: He read Flaubert and Dickens in his bunk and was noted throughout his life for impeccable manners. Why he began to write, though, remains 'an intractable mystery.' When 'Almayer's Folly' appeared in 1895, it was virtually the only thing he'd ever composed in English, aside from letters, an unpublished squib for the magazine Tit-Bits and perhaps the answers to examination questions to become a Master Mariner. A comparably fine novel, 'An Outcast of the Islands,' followed a year later, by which time Conrad decided to definitely hang up his peacoat and settle down with pen and ink. No one could have predicted the astonishing run of masterpieces he would produce in the next decade: 'The Nigger of the "Narcissus"' (1897), 'Youth' (1898), 'Heart of Darkness' (1899), 'Lord Jim' (1900), 'Typhoon' (1902), 'Nostromo' (1904), 'The Secret Agent' (1907). (Only his most famous short story, 'The Secret Sharer,' from 1912, is missing.) Many of these draw on their author's experiences at sea, but none is just a nautical adventure. What Conrad achieves is, in critic Ian Watt's phrase, 'the revelation of moral essences.' His is work of the utmost seriousness: 'My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything.' Just as this decade mirabilis was beginning, Conrad — apparently eager to settle down — married the solidly working-class Jessie George. It is hard to judge the couple's years together, though Conrad's fiction repeatedly turns on unfulfilling marriages and failed dreams. Because of an accident, Jessie was to suffer most of her life from leg and knee pain. Over time she grew enormously fat, partly because she couldn't move around well. At the same time, Conrad repeatedly showed a homosocial fondness for younger men, often writers — Stephen Crane, for instance, and later the largely forgotten Hugh Walpole and Richard Curle. Still, Conrad's real life was spent at his desk, at least when he wasn't suffering from crippling gout or even more crippling depression. Almost all his projects took far longer than he originally expected. 'Lord Jim' started life as a short story before ending up a 130,000-word masterpiece of interlocking narratives, a tour de force of time shifts and brilliant set pieces. Like so much of Conrad, it probes the destructive power of dreams — not that any of us can really escape the romance of illusions. 'A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea.' Up until the outbreak of World War I, Conrad offered the world magnificent works of art, and hardly anyone cared. But from 'Chance' (1914) onward, he began to produce weak and uneven books — with the arguable exception of 'Victory' (1915) — and suddenly earned great sums of money. Stape is quite forthright about this artistic decline: He tells us that 'The Arrow of Gold' (1919) vies with 'The Rover' (1923) for 'worst novel ever written by a major writer.' By the 1920s Conrad had essentially stopped writing. He had become what Yeats called a 'smiling public man,' visiting the United States in 1923, making the cover of Time magazine, overseeing a collected edition of his work and hoping for the Nobel Prize (which never came). He died at age 66 from a heart attack. 'The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad' possesses three great strengths. First is Stape's authority as a Conrad scholar; he worked as an editor of the collected letters and now oversees the Penguin Classics editions of the novels and stories. Second, his biography is utterly without padding — every precise sentence adds new information and moves the narrative briskly along. And third, the book offers lots of extra matter of real use, including photographs, maps, a family tree, a biographical who's who, a pronunciation guide for people and places in Conrad's life and an extensive bibliography. Stape has pressed into one volume all the basic factual information anyone is likely to want to know about Conrad's life. Still, while we learn about Conrad's partnership with Ford Madox Ford (whose name was then Hueffer) on such books as 'The Inheritors' (1901) and 'Romance' (1903) or about the writer's long-term relations with editor Edward Garnett and literary agent J.B Pinker, we are told only the barest minimum about the various works. Readers wanting an introduction to Conrad's artistry will need to go elsewhere, perhaps to Ian Watt's masterly 'Conrad in the Nineteenth Century,' even though that study doesn't cover what some would argue are the author's most ambitious achievements, 'Nostromo,' about political corruption in Latin America, and 'The Secret Agent,' about an anarchist bomb plot. Of course, neither of these will ever match 'Heart of Darkness' in popularity among readers and critics. The most recent update to the Norton Critical Edition of the novella reprints Conrad's text in 70 pages — and then adds 400 pages of commentary and criticism. Yet even while that book enjoys a special status, John Stape reminds us that virtually everything Conrad wrote reveals the desperate loneliness and fragmentation of modern life. His influence can be seen on such contemporary novelists as J.G. Ballard and J. M. Coetzee, on V.S. Naipaul and John le Carre. We still see through those steady, mariner's eyes and know — all too well — that 'there are as many shipwrecks as there are men.' Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda(at symbol)gmail.com." Reviewed by Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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Book News Annotation:
Polish-born British writer Conrad (1857-1924) was not particularly concerned about distinguishing fact from fiction when he recounted events in his own life, and neither were his friends and family, reports Stape (St. Mary's U. College, London), so the major task of his biographer is not to find material, but to sort it out. In fact, he finds, Conrad re-invented himself over and over in life as well as in his account of it, and some of his experiences were as incredible and romantic as any of his novels. Annotation ©2008 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad is the first new biography in more than a decade of one of modern literatures most important writers--whose work remains widely read and acutely relevant eighty years after his death. In this authoritative, insightful book, we see Joseph Conrad as a man who consistently reinvented himself. Born in 1857 in Berdichev, Ukraine, he left home early and worked as a sailor out of Marseilles; traveled to the Far East and Africa with the British merchant navy; and, finally, in 1891, settled in England, beginning a precarious existence as an novelist and family man. Here is a Conrad for our moment: a man with a deep sense of otherness; a writer with multiple cultural identities who wrote in his third language and whose fiction became the cornerstone of literary Modernism.
With his exceptional knowledge and understanding of Conrad, and drawing on unpublished letters and documents, John Stape succeeds in casting an illuminating new light on the life of a willfully enigmatic man who remains one of the greatest writers of his, and our, time.
About the Author
John Stape is Research Fellow at St. Marys University College, London. He has taught in universities in Canada, France, and the Far East. He is the editor of The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad, and co-editor of two volumes of The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad. He divides his time between Vancouver and London.
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