Joseph Conrad: A Writer's Writer Biographical Study Sees Turn-of-Century Novelist in Accord with the Modern Era. BOOKS

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TURGID in style, profoundly pessimistic in stance, Joseph Conrad's writings did not attain a high degree of popular success until relatively late in his career. His convoluted narrative techniques, his long, awkwardly constructed sentences (one critic remarked that Conrad wrote paragraphs rather than sentences), and the odd sense of distance one feels between his words on the page and the people and events he is trying to describe - all were a considerable bar to his hope of reaching a wide readership. Reexamining his prose - whether in a classic work like his "Nigger of the Narcissus" or a lesser effort like his autobiographical reminiscence of his life as a sailor, The Mirror of the Sea (recently reissued by the Marlboro Press) - one understands very well the response of an early book reviewer, who concluded that "only greatness" could make books of such "copiously bad" workmanship "so well worth reading."

During his lifetime, Conrad's work won him the respect, and often the friendship, of his contemporaries: from John Galsworthy, one of the first English writers to discover his talent, and Ford Madox Ford, who collaborated with Conrad on some early books, to figures as diverse as Henry James, Stephen Crane, Bertrand Russell, and Andre Gide. But what may well have been the single most important factor in securing his place on classroom reading lists was the critic F. R. Leavis's judgment, nearly two decades after Conrad's death in 1924, placing his works in the Leavisian "Great Tradition" of the novel. "As Conrad's ideas were justified by the events of the 20th century," observes Jeffrey Meyers, his latest biographer, "he came to be admired ... for beliefs that seemed more in accord with our time than with his own." Certainly, Conrad's vision of a "Heart of Darkness" beneath the veneer of civilization came to seem more prophetic of 20th-century history than the uplifting imperialist sentiments of his near-contemporary Rudyard Kipling, whose work also featured exotic colonial settings. The flawed, self-doubting "Lord Jim" seemed more at home in the Age of Anxiety than Kipling's enterprising "Kim." Furthermore, by the time Conrad's works were received into the canon of "modern classics," his own literary flaws - obscurity and difficulty - were readily perceived as artistic virtues.

In "Joseph Conrad: A Biography," Meyers links Conrad's pessimism to his heritage as the son of a Polish patriot, Apollo Korzeniowski. As a small boy, Conrad accompanied both his parents into exile in Russia's frozen north. His mother died when he was seven, his father five years later. Conrad inherited a deep suspicion of all things Russian, which found its way into two of his most powerful novels, "The Secret Agent" and "Under Western Eyes." In Conrad's eyes, Russia was the evil empire: oppressive, dishonest, backward, and barbaric, whether under its czars or under the revolutionaries who took their place.

Conrad's experience commanding a riverboat in the then-Belgian Congo in 1890 further reinforced his pessimism about human nature. Meyers argues that Conrad was a strongly anti-imperialist voice, denouncing the greed and cruelty of white men whose behavior, unrestrained by the normal bonds of civilization, was far more savage than any cannibal's.

As Meyers presents his story, Conrad's view of the futility of "progress" was first formed by the sad history of Poland, then by his lonely childhood, and finally by his difficult life, first as a seaman, then as a struggling writer.

It seems likely that some of Conrad's awkwardness as a stylist can be attributed to the fact that English was not his native language. …