Life & Letters, Letters & Life, the Final Three Volumes

Article excerpt

Let me begin by reading to you an unpublished letter that Joseph Conrad wrote in the postwar years. One of the things I plan to do here is to reveal how complicated Conrad's life had become in its final ten years or so, as evidenced by his letters--mainly unpublished ones--that will appear in the final three volumes of the Collected Edition. Most Conrad criticism and biographical study has focused on the early life, as it should, since Conrad's formation as a writer was unique in the annals of literature. We search out the smallest pieces of evidence of his reading, his associations, his family background, how his ideas were shaped and reshaped, his conception of what it meant to be a writer, his philosophy or ideology, such as it is; and we create out of that a narrative which seemingly locates, even defines, Conrad. Some narratives are more successful than others, although many are too empirically conceived, too grounded in a kind of pragmatism which cannot account for the vagaries in any life, no less than in Conrad's. Letters become part of this narrative and they, too, are unreliable, although we continue to use them, as I will here. But letters can create patterns, designs, new paradigms, so to speak. The final three volumes of Conrad's letters--coming at a time when it is generally agreed that he was closing down fictionally--reveal that he was very much alive to all aspects of his life, work, and reputation; but more than that, we see him interpreting and reinterpreting his life as his earlier fictional efforts burst upon him, in translations, collected editions, and his own use of earlier work to energize later fictions. The last three volumes give Conrad a sense of completion that perhaps we did not recognize before, focused as we were on earlier success and later decline. Memory, return, awareness of origins, all, characterized the later years.

Now the letter: I will quote extensively from a letter Conrad wrote to John Quinn, the American lawyer and collector of manuscripts and first editions, a letter at the Berg, typed, but with holograph additions. While this letter alone does not give us the full play of Conrad's later years--it comes in 1919, on July 31--it does suggest how he was beginning to touch on everything in his thirty years of fiction writing. He writes:

As to figures [for payment from Doubleday] you and I know very well that their positive value is just--nil. They are worth rather less than the paper they are written upon unless one is convinced of the perfect integrity of the man who has written them down. I am perfectly convinced of Mr. Doubleday's integrity. But I can't say that I am pleased at Mr. Doubleday complaining of my attitude and asking for assistance as though I were an impossible person. [This is of course in connection with a planned Collected Edition of Conrad's works.] For that is what it amounts to. A man is entitled to a certain amount of privacy in his affairs. Mr. Doubleday also talks and even writes about his partners' "discouragement." This looks like, diplomatically speaking, "apply pressure" (to make me mend my ways, I suppose), or in plain Anglo-Saxon. "uttering a threat." If it does not mean that, then what does it mean? That sort of thing will end up by making me feet not "discouraged" but dissatisfied--profoundly so.

With the fullest acknowledgment of your kind offer I don't think this is a case for a buffer. A buffer is inserted between inimical forces to prevent damage. But my feelings towards Mr. Doubleday (the Man and the Firm) are very much the reverse of inimical. Doubleday thought fit to approach me in his own time, and I made no secret of it that I was pleased. On the other hand I was no obscure beginner then. I had made for myself a reputation of the most solid sort, because founded on the recognition of distinguished minds here and elsewhere. My position in English letters was unquestionable, my material position was so far from being unsatisfactory that had I been alone in the world I would have been content with it. …