A compact portrait of a troubled author in "The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad"
John Stape's "The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad," might well have been subtitled "Thirty Years of Debt, Gout, Depression and Angst." Stape delivers a usefully compact, if not vibrant biography that draws on materials not available to his predecessors (including Conrad biographers Frederick R. Karl and Jocelyn Baines).
Seattle Times book critic
"The Several Lives
of Joseph Conrad"
by John Stape
Pantheon, 369 pp., $30
Pity the novelist who aspires to create high art. He may eventually find his place in the literary pantheon after his death. But during his lifetime, the prospects aren't so pretty.
These thoughts are brought on by reading John Stape's "The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad," which might well have been subtitled "Thirty Years of Debt, Gout, Depression and Angst."
Stape, a part-time resident of Vancouver, B.C., is co-editor of "The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad" and the general editor for Penguin Classics' fine new reissues of Conrad's best works. He certainly knows his stuff, and he delivers a usefully compact, if not vibrant biography that draws on materials not available to his predecessors (including Conrad biographers Frederick R. Karl and Jocelyn Baines).
Stape's long familiarity with Conrad and his distaste for the author's later fiction seem to have dulled his enthusiasm for his subject. If you want to find him enthusing about Conrad, turn to his introduction to "Typhoon and Other Stories," where he declares, "These stories handle alienation, cultural displacement, economic exploitation and the erotic (in the widest sense). They have lost little of their relevance or fascination in the century since they were first published."
And to remind yourself just how fine a phrasemaker Conrad was, turn to "Typhoon" itself: "Captain MacWhirr, of the steamer Nan-Shan, had a physiognomy that, in the order of material appearances, was the exact counterpart of his mind: it presented no marked characteristics of firmness or stupidity; it had no pronounced characteristics whatever; it was simply ordinary, irresponsive, and unruffled."
So who was this author whose heavy Polish accent made his often flawless command of English on the page difficult to credit?
Conrad ("Heart of Darkness") was born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857, an ethnic Pole in what was then Russian territory and is now part of Ukraine. His parents were ardent Polish nationalists who fell afoul of the Russian authorities (his father was a political prisoner at one point), and Conrad's boyhood was deeply unsettled.
His parents died young of tuberculosis, leaving Conrad orphaned at 11. With some reluctant guidance from an uncle, Conrad went to sea at 16 — and encountered the worlds that inspired some of his best fiction: the Congo, the Malay Archipelago. He soon developed what Stape calls "lifelong habits of overspending, getting into debt, and counting upon others to bail him out." And he picked up English somewhere along the line — how, exactly, has been lost to posterity.
He published his first novel in 1895. Late marriage (1896) was followed by late fatherhood (sons born in 1898 and 1906). By 1900 he had published two acclaimed masterpieces — "The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' " and "Lord Jim" — but he was a sick man.
Brilliant work kept coming — "Heart of Darkness," "The Secret Agent" — but debilitating gout and bouts of depression were unrelenting. His wife was crippled by knee trouble. The kids kept getting sick. Expenses kept mounting, and his inability to keep to a budget reduced him to begging from friends again and again.
Finally, as he was completing "Under Western Eyes" (1911), he suffered a complete nervous collapse. A turnaround came with Conrad's first bona fide seller, the novel "Chance" (1914). Stape argues that, with few exceptions, the work that followed wasn't up to snuff (Conrad died in 1924).
Stape turns up some tidbits I haven't come across before: a Christmas "playlet" performed at Stephen Crane's house in 1899, co-written by Conrad, Crane, Henry James, H.G. Wells and H. Rider Haggard; more contact between Conrad and the early 1900s gay demimonde than other biographers have remarked upon (friendships and acquaintances, not liaisons); brief meetings with pianist Artur Rubinstein and writer T.E. Lawrence.
Stape also notes the influence Conrad has had on writers as various as William Golding, John le Carré and V.S. Naipaul. Still, he finds him "not quite a 'great' novelist" even as he admits that he "speaks for an awareness of fragmentation so quintessentially modern that his voice, a century and a half after his birth, remains powerful and authoritative."
I'm more inclined to go with critic Michael Gorra's assessment of Conrad: "He showed us worlds we had not seen before, and he made technical innovation respond to the pressures of history itself. No writer of his time did more to change the stories the novel in English can tell, or indeed the way it tells them."
Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@ seattletimes.com. He has been The Seattle Times book critic since 1998, and has also published four novels.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company