Paul Kirschner. Comparing Conrad: Essays on Joseph Conrad and His Implied Dialogues with Other Writers

By Artese, Brian | Conradiana, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Paul Kirschner. Comparing Conrad: Essays on Joseph Conrad and His Implied Dialogues with Other Writers


Artese, Brian, Conradiana


Paul Kirschner. Comparing Conrad: Essays on Joseph Conrad and His Implied Dialogues with Other Writers. Geneva, 2009. Xviii + 200 pp.

Revisiting my haggard copy of Under Western Eyes to better consider Comparing Conrad, in whose pages that novel looms largest, I found that unusually long stretches of my marginalia had been provoked by the deep research and insight of the editor: one Paul Kirschner, author of Comparing Conrad. For a Conradian, Kirschner's book is indeed a kind of invaluable scholarly assistant. Your own theories and cherished ideas about the novelist will continually be affirmed, corrected, or expanded as the study whispers in your ear a wealth of hard-won knowledge about the books in Conrad's life, books not just on his shelves and in his intellectual background, but those that had unquestionably lain open on his writing desk--and often uncomfortably close to his pen. Each chapter in Comparing Conrad has been published elsewhere, the first in 1965, with the subsequent essays advancing through the decades to 2007. Yet the whole still feels like a revelation, a refreshing vista of literary historicism, gathering in one volume so much of what Kirschner has taught us about the panorama of fiction always at Conrad's horizon.

Considering some of Conrad's more direct literary appropriations, Comparing Conrad ultimately defends the author from the charge of premeditated plagiarism. If Conrad takes from others, it is always to make something new: to reconsider and reconstruct. The work as a whole is "always about something different and far larger than what is quoted'" (x). But here Kirschner fights a strong current created in his own opening chapters, where he startlingly enumerates "five levels" of the writer's "plagiarism," a word that "today has been largely replaced by the term 'intertextuality'" (viii). In an extended discussion of Maupassant's influence on the author, Kirschner compares the death of Charles Forestier in Bel-Ami with that of James Wait in The Nigger of the "Narcissus". In Maupassant:

He wept. Big tears ran from his eyes onto his emasculated cheeks....

Then his hands, fallen back on the bed, began a continuous movement, slow and regular, as if to gather up something on the sheets.... Forestier's breath was faster than that of a dog that has just been running, so hurried that it couldn't be counted and so weak it could hardly be heard.... He looked before him at something invisible to the others, and hideous, of which his eyes reflected the terror.... Suddenly he quivered, with a brusque shudder seen to run from one end of his body to the other, and he stammered:

"The cemetery.... I ... my God!..."

In Conrad:

   Jimmy's respiration was so rapid that it couldn't be counted, so
   faint that it couldn't be heard. His eyes were terrified as though
   he had been looking at unspeakable horrors.... Suddenly with an
   incredibly strong and heartbreaking voice he sobbed out:

"Overboard!... I!... My God!"

      Donkin writhed a little on the box. He looked unwillingly. James
   Wait was mute. His two long bony hands smoothed the blanket
   upwards, as though he wished to gather it all up under his chin. A
   tear, a big, solitary tear, escaped from the corner of his eye and,
   without touching the hollow cheek, fell on the pillow.

In both scenes, death has a witness. In Bel-Ami, George Duroy watches Forestier:

      Duroy himself was beginning to doze off when he had the sensation
   that something was happening. He opened his eyes just in time to
   see Forestier close his like two lights going out. A slight hiccup
   agitated the dying man's throat, and two threads of blood appeared
   at the corners of his mouth, then ran onto his shirt.... He had
   finished breathing.

In Narcissus, Donkin is sneaking out of the cabin:

      [Donkin] clutched the handle cautiously, but at that moment he
   received the irresistible impression of something happening behind
   his back. … 

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