Closer look at a Pole apart

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Sam Leith

By Zdzis­law Na­jder Cam­den House, 808pp, $ 61.30 HAT a pe­cu­liar life it was: born in Poland, ex­iled to Rus­sia, or­phaned at 11 and sent to sea at 16. A decade and a half of salt wa­ter and soli­tude in the mer­chant marine. Then the rest of it spent as an English gent, writ­ing lit­er­ary nov­els in his third lan­guage ( English) un­der the strong in­flu­ence of the writ­ers of his sec­ond ( French). Yet, there he is, slap- bang in the Great Tra­di­tion.

This bi­og­ra­phy, first pub­lished in English in 1983, now up­dated and ex­panded for the 150th an­niver­sary of Joseph Con­rad’s birth, has quite some heft to it. Com­ing to it as a Con­rad en­thu­si­ast, rather than a scholar, I con­sulted a friend whom I knew to be a Con­rad nut to find out where Zdzis­law Na­jder’s book stands in the Con­ra­dian con­ver­sa­tion.

Na­jder,’’ he ad­vised me, is a very great man. His book is old, long and vi­ciously Pol­ish.’’ He did not, friends, tell a lie. This is some hard ship’s bis­cuit. Na­jder is one of those scrupu­lous bi­og­ra­phers who starts with the an­ces­tors, aims for the grave­stone, and chews me­thod­i­cally and in chrono­log­i­cal or­der through ev­ery avail­able fact in the man­ner of a tor­toise go­ing through a par­tic­u­larly tough piece of let­tuce. The ma­te­rial is there, but Na­jder doesn’t go out of his way to sell his wares to the gen­eral reader.

Still, he’s aware of this; and aware too that those wares can be hard to sell. As he pre­pares to em­bark on ar­guably the most im­por­tant 16- year stretch of Con­rad’s life, from 1898 to 1914 ( hard work, ac­com­pa­nied by a suc­ces­sion of good and — more of­ten — bad moods, and of im­proved — but mostly wors­en­ing — health’’), he en­ters a plea for sym­pa­thy: If his life in those years was dull and, over long pe­ri­ods of time, sadly mo­not­o­nous for the bi­og­ra­pher ( and the reader), how ex­tremely de­press­ing it must have been for Con­rad when he con­trasted his writ­ing life with his ear­lier years of free­dom and con­stant change. Any­way, he zips through this pe­riod in a lit­tle less than 200 pages. His sub­ject was far from be­ing a bar­rel of laughs. In­deed, the cen­tral the­sis of the book is that Con­rad suf­fered from clin­i­cal de­pres­sion. It’s some­thing of a moot point, ob­vi­ously: no de­ci­sive di­ag­no­sis is pos­si­ble, but he of­fers good ev­i­dence that, if not de­pressed, Con­rad was de­press­ing. He didn’t seem to have any­thing in com­mon with his wife, found his chil­dren ir­ri­tat­ing, and from the mo­ment he be­gan lub­bing on land, his cor­re­spon­dence con­sisted al­most en­tirely of pleas for money, in­dig­nant re­sponses to re­fusal of the same, whinges about his health and com­plaints about how mis­er­able he found writ­ing and how lousy his latest book was.

About many of the in­ter­est­ing ques­tions, there’s lit­tle or no ev­i­dence. His sex life, for ex­am­ple, is a com­plete mys­tery. Na­jder fi­nally gets around to dis­cussing it se­ri­ously on page 487 and is able to draw no con­clu­sions. Con­rad spent years trav­el­ling as a sailor in the mer­chant marine, yet ev­i­dence of any ro­man­tic en­tan­gle­ments is sketchy at best. He had the odd, very chaste flir­ta­tion, then mar­ried abruptly a wo­man he did not find at­trac­tive and who of­fered him no sort of in­tel­lec­tual com­pan­ion­ship. They re­mained mar­ried and pro­duced two sons. He fre­quently treated her badly but doesn’t seem to have played away. Was he un­usu­ally honourable or blessed with a low sex drive ( the de­pres­sion?),

or what? No­body knows. Like­wise, Na­jder has rel­a­tively lit­tle to say about the mat­ter of re­li­gion, though he en­dorses a per­cep­tive crit­i­cal re­mark about the fiction hav­ing a re­li­gious char­ac­ter.

Con­rad’s health was pretty much shot by the time he re­turned from his trip up the Congo at 33, and got worse. Na­jder’s book is a cat­a­logue of ner­vous at­tacks, gout, rest cures in Switzer­land and such­like. He cel­e­brated the com­ple­tion of Un­der West­ern Eyes with a ner­vous break­down. The process of writ­ing near enough rat­tled the poor man to bits.

‘‘ Ever since Lord Jim ( in­clu­sive) the end of ev­ery long novel has cost me a tooth,’’ he wrote in 1911 while strug­gling with Chance . ‘‘ I wouldn’t mind los­ing two teeth to get this end done quickly.’’ This rep­re­sented a sub­stan­tial com­mit­ment to his art, com­ing as it did from a writer who was patho­log­i­cally ter­ri­fied of den­tists.

Back when he was gear­ing up to lose his first tooth, he re­ported: ‘‘ I’ve been cut­ting and slash­ing whole parts out of Jim. How bad, oh! HOW BAD! Why is it that a weary heaven has not pul­verised me with a teeny- weeny thun­der­bolt?’’ In his cor­re­spon­dence, at least as quoted here, the de­sire for an abrupt death comes as a sort of semi- au­to­matic re­frain.

Where many writ­ers talk about fin­ish­ing a novel in terms of giv­ing birth, Con­rad an­nounced the com­ple­tion of Al­mayer’s Folly with the words: ‘‘ It is with great sor­row that I have to in­form you of the death of Mr Kas­par Al­mayer . . . it seems to me that I have buried a part of my­self in the pages ly­ing here be­fore my eyes.’’

For the mag­nif­i­cent run of lit­er­ary fu­ner­als that were to fol­low, we have not just the chief mourner to thank. Con­rad was suc­coured, en­cour­aged and, for a sub­stan­tial part of his life, funded by a suc­ces­sion of friends and pa­trons.

Af­ter the death of his fa­ther, Apollo, a fer­vent and ide­al­is­tic Pol­ish na­tion­al­ist writer, the young Kon­rad ( as he then was) came un­der the pro­tec­tion of his ma­ter­nal un­cle. Tadeusz Bo­browski — me­thod­i­cal, con­ser­va­tive, pru­dent, dot­ing — wrote fre­quently and en­cour­ag­ingly to his nephew, though of­ten in tones of ex­as­per­a­tion. Con­rad was ru­inously bad with money: ru­inously, one should add, not to him­self so much as to his cred­i­tors. Not since Karl Marx, you’d think, has there been a sponger like him.

He in­ces­santly over­spent his al­lowance from Bo­browski and was deaf to pleas for thrift. In his later life as a writer, it was his un­for­tu­nate agent, J. B. Pinker, who found him­self in­ces­santly gouged for cash.

There is in Con­rad’s let­ters on this sub­ject some­thing of Billy Bunter in pur­suit of a postal or­der. Na­jder sug­gests, though, that Con­rad’s ex­trav­a­gance ( and per­haps his de­pres­sion) was con­nected to his out- of- place­ness. He was anx­ious about his so­cial po­si­tion in terms of class as well as na­tion­al­ity, and to live like a proper Ed­war­dian gent, even if he couldn’t af­ford it, was im­por­tant to his self- es­teem. Con­rad was a volatile mix of pride and in­se­cu­rity.

As much as he dep­re­cated his work in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of com­po­si­tion, he vo­cif­er­ously as­serted his im­por­tance in lit­er­ary his­tory. He was acutely con­scious of his heav­ily ac­cented spo­ken English and al­most al­ways re­sisted in­vi­ta­tions to read aloud or speak in pub­lic. When, dur­ing a row with Con­rad, Pinker told him to ‘‘ speak English’’, he was vi­o­lently of­fended. Poland, too, was a raw nerve. Was it a be­trayal of his moth­er­land, or his fa­ther, that he wrote in English? He bris­tled at be­ing called Slavic.

Yet it was this out- of- place­ness that gave him his unique out­look, and his learned English ( ac­cord­ing to his friend Ford Ma­dox Ford, picked up from the pages of Bibles Con­rad was us­ing to roll cig­a­rettes) that gave him his unique style. Con­rad was gained in trans­la­tion. He worked for those books, and the best of them are mag­nif­i­cent.

Did he, to­wards the end of his life, settle into the com­fort­able qui­etude of an es­tab­lished lit­er­ary grandee? Alas not. As one friend re­called some­what un­kindly: ‘‘ Con­rad never said any­thing very in­ter­est­ing in his last years; he was too pre­oc­cu­pied with money and gout. He was only thrilling when he lost his tem­per and chat­tered and screamed like a mon­key.’’ His wife Jessie — bovine, sim­ple, saintly and in agony from her knees — sur­vived him. The name on his tomb­stone — demon­strat­ing, as Na­jder ob­serves, ‘‘ how un­cer­tain was Jessie’s grasp of her hus­band’s back­ground’’ — is Joseph Teador Con­rad Korzeniowski.

The mis­spellings, the botch­ing of Pol­ish and English, in their way seem ap­pro­pri­ate. There lies, as Con­rad him­self put it years ear­lier, ‘‘ a Pol­ish szlach­cic ( gen­tle­man, roughly) cased in Bri­tish tar! What a con­coc­tion!’’

The Spec­ta­tor

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