Joseph Conrad

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I never mean to be slow," Joseph Conrad wrote to David Meldrum of the Blackwood publishing house in 1899, but "The stuff comes out at its own rate . . . [and] too often-alas!-I've to wait for the sentence-for the word." The process of writing involved long hours of incapacitating doubt that left him caught like a ship in a calm, an unrestful paralysis in which his mind remained "extremely active," producing "descriptions, dialogue, reflexion -everything-everything but the belief, the conviction, the only thing needed to make me put pen to paper." Days would pass without his writing a line, and Conrad would take to his bed, sick of a labor so great that it should have given "birth to masterpieces" instead of what he termed the "ridiculous mouse" his struggles would sometimes produce. Few of his letters are without some plaintive or even desperate note, and if it wasn't the fight with words then it was his worries about money or housing, the illnesses of his wife and children, or the crippling attacks of gout with which his working life was spiked.

The difficulties were real. Conrad may, as his biographer Zdzislaw Najder writes, have suffered from "depression in the strict psychiatric sense of the term," but money was indeed tight, the family health poor, and the novelist was no hypochondriac, however detailed his account of his symptoms. Only he, however, would have compared the work he was doing at the time he wrote Meldrum to a household rodent. The previous year had seen the publication of both "Youth" and "Heart of Darkness," and the letter itself concerns the serialization of Lord Jim. Only Conrad would think of himself as writing slowly in the astonishing decade that began in 1897, a period that saw the publication not only of these works, but also of The Nigger of the "Narcissus" (1897), Nostromo (1904), and The Secret Agent (1907). Yet Conrad never had what Morton Dauwen Zabel has called a sense effluent ease or assurance in his craft." To write at all was an achievement, a trouble that only the most strenuous of efforts could surmount.

Some of that has, doubtless, to do with the particular circumstances of Conrad's life. He was born Jozef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski in 1857, in a part of Poland that after the partition of 1793 had fallen under Russian rule. His parents were members of the Polish gentry, and patriots-his father a poet-and before his fifth birthday the Tsarist government had sent the family into an exile, north of Moscow, that broke the health of both husband and wife. His mother died in 1865 and his father four years later, leaving the boy to the guardianship of his maternal uncle, Tadeusz Bobrowski. In 1874, facing the unacceptable possibility of Russian military service, and with an almost inexplicable hankering for a sea that he had as yet just glimpsed, the future Conrad left his Cracow home and schooling for Marseilles. There he drew upon both Bobrowski's money and his contacts to learn the trade of an officer in the merchant marine. Much about the boy's four years in France remains cloudy, and Conrad would later depict that time with a degree of romantic retrospection that has made his biographers sweat. But by 1878 he had signed on to a British steamer and begun his move toward England.

Conrad's spoken English remained heavily accented, but in A Personal Record (1912) he described the language as having "adopted" him and maintained "that if I had not known English I wouldn't have written a line for print in my life." Nevertheless he also complained, according to Ford Madox Ford, that the language was incapable of "direct statement" and that "no English word has clean edges." French seemed to him too perfectly "crystallized," but its vocabulary did at least have a limpid clarity of meaning. English words, in contrast, carried so many connotations as to be little more than "instruments for exciting blurred emotions." And some readers have, accordingly, always found his prose rather muddy-"obscure, obscure," in E. …