Academic journal article Conradiana

The Composition and Publication History of Joseph Conrad's A Set of Six

Academic journal article Conradiana

The Composition and Publication History of Joseph Conrad's A Set of Six

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

Although the literary quality of the stories that make up A Set of Six (1908) does not equal that of Lord Jim (1900), Nostromo (1904), The Secret Agent (1907), Under Western Eyes (1911), Heart of Darkness (1899), or any of Conrad's other best works, nevertheless, many readers have underestimated the value of the collection, and these stories have generally attracted little notice in Conrad scholarship. (1) Not only do they have merit in themselves, but they also provide much information about important themes running throughout Conrad's works, including his ideas concerning alter egos, anarchism, politics, and the incomprehensible nature of human existence. Furthermore, they exhibit some important narrative techniques found nowhere else in Conrad's fiction. All but "The Duel" (1908) were written between Nostromo and The Secret Agent. "Gaspar Ruiz" (1906), "The Informer" (1906), and "An Anarchist" (1906) shed special light on some of the issues that arise in those novels, both clarifying these concepts and reinforcing them. The same tension between individuals and political movements in Nostromo and The Secret Agent appears in these stories, as does the same sharp skepticism toward politics. In addition, the plight of Paul in "An Anarchist," who unwittingly becomes numbered among the anarchists, and of D'Hubert in "The Duel," who inexplicably becomes embroiled in an endless duel, anticipate that of Razumov in Under Western Eyes, who becomes hopelessly associated with a political assassination in which he has played no part. In each case, a man finds himself thrust into an absurd predicament and then attempts (mostly unsuccessfully) to make sense of a seemingly senseless world.

HISTORY OF COMPOSITION

Conrad composed the stories in A Set of Six between the end of 1904 and the middle of 1907 while working on The Mirror of the Sea (1906), Chance (1914), and The Secret Agent. His primary purpose in writing at least some of them was financial (while also hoping that a collection of stories would garner yet more money). In a 25 January 1907 letter to his literary agent J. B. Pinker, Conrad informs him, "I am putting the last touches to a story ["The Duel"] which I fancy you will find profitable and not difficult to get rid of either" (Joseph Conrad, Collected Letters 3: 409). (2) Nevertheless, as always, Conrad also wished to produce quality work, and he did seem pleased with some of the stories. To this end, when the opportunity arose to bring out a collection, Conrad chose to exclude "The Black Mate" (completed in early 1908), remarking in a February 1908 letter to Pinker, "My idea is that the Black Mate should not be included" (4: 43; see also 4: 31). Conrad wanted to save the story for a future collection and even considered including it in a volume of stories (along with some from A Set of Six) later to be published in America. (3) It seems the literary shortcomings of "The Black Mate" (typically considered among Conrad's weakest efforts) also played a large role in his decision not to include it, since he not only left it out of the English edition of A Set of Six but also left it out of 'Twixt Land and Sea (1912), Within the Tides (1915), and the American edition of A Set of Six (1915). The story was not in fact included in any collection until the posthumous Tales of Hearsay (1925), in whose compilation Conrad played no part. (4) Still, it is difficult to say exactly what Conrad thought about A Set of Six, since he was notoriously self-deprecatory toward even his finest works. In a 7 November 1907 letter to Deshler Welch, he modestly remarks, "They are a fairly varied lot written without malice--nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to crow about either" (3: 509). Similarly, in a 26 January 1908 letter to his English publisher Algernon Methuen, he comments, "All the stories are stories of incident--action--not of analysis.... They are not studies--they touch no problem. They are just stories in which I've tried my best to be simply entertainingthese particular comments, however, are clearly directed toward Methuen's marketing of the book, because Conrad goes on to say, "For yourself I may mention that in that collection I aimed at a certain virtuosity of style for its 'Master quality' " (4: 29-30). …

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