Essays on Conrad

Essays on Conrad

Essays on Conrad

Essays on Conrad

Synopsis

Ian Watt (1917-1999) has long been acknowledged as one of the finest of postwar literary critics, and among the most learned of those writing about the work of Joseph Conrad. Essays on Conrad is a collection of Watt's most characteristic essays on Conrad's work. Watt's own philosophy, as well as his insight into Conrad's work, was shaped by his experiences as a prisoner of war on the River Kwai. His moving account of these experiences completes this essential collection of Watt essays.

Excerpt

Readers of the final chapter of this book may find it surprising that the man who spent years labouring on the River Kwai should have returned after the war to an inconceivably different way of life and immediately embarked on a distinguished academic career. Little more than a decade later he published The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding(1957). After the war years many of Watt's contemporaries, even if they had not spent them in painful captivity, found it difficult to adjust their lives to more sedate civilian routines. What readers of this collection as a whole will observe is that the strength of mind – the character – displayed in the final chapter also informs Watt's critical writing. The persistence of this quality goes some way to explaining Watt's devotion, over many years, to Conrad – an honourable stoicism that shuns illusion without being an enemy of pleasure, especially the pleasure of fine technical and aesthetic discriminations.

In The Rise of the Novel Watt maintained that realism, as he defined it, was the quality that distinguished the work of the early eighteenthcentury novelists from all previous fiction. Before that period there were of course thousands of fictions, but the novel, as we know it, became possible only when the general acceptance of certain social, economic and philosophical assumptions, and the coming into existence of a literate, middle-class and predominantly Protestant audience, made possible such extraordinary works as Samuel Richardson's Clarissa(1748). Watt discriminates between the kind of realism exemplified by Defoe, with his unmatched power to persuade readers by minute presentation of detail that what they are reading is true, and a richer realism that concerns itself also with personality and civilized values generally. This variety of realism is essential to the kind of writing that we agree to call the novel. It is not merely a matter of making the narrative seem authentic as to local and period detail; it is also a matter of establishing the authenticity, the complex art and humanity, of the work as a whole.

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