Ford's Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance as Metafiction: Or, How Conrad Became an Elizabethan Poet

By Wiesenfarth, Joseph | Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Ford's Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance as Metafiction: Or, How Conrad Became an Elizabethan Poet


Wiesenfarth, Joseph, Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature


The real secret of Mr. Conrad--and it is open to the whole world--is not that he is a Polish mariner, but that he is an Elizabethan poet.

"Literary Portraits--XLI"

JOSEPH Conrad wrote three novels in collaboration with Ford Madox Ford: The Inheritors (1901); Romance, A Novel (1903); and The Nature of a Crime (1909, 1924). Each of them has a metafictional thrust in it, varying from plotting a suicide to collaborating on the writing of a biography of Oliver Cromwell. These metafictional moments seem inevitable in works that were the product of two writers who incessantly discussed with each other every aspect of the writing of fiction. What happened in their life together, appropriately enough, made its way into their fiction. And their metafictional quality makes these novels more interesting to modern readers than they would otherwise be. This metafictional matrix also adds a dimension to Ford's Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance (1924). Its major action is the quest for the New Form of the novel. This is a heroic quest that grew out of Ford's and Conrad's conviction that "the only occupation fitting for a proper man in these centuries is the writing of novels" (Remembrance 186) because

   great works of art ... put their fingers upon the disease spots of nations
   or describe the diseases of civilisations. A great work of art is a precise
   diagnosis of human estates, and this is why great works of art are so
   frequently disliked. They are passionless; they state without comment; and,
   just as we dread the surgeon who declares that we are doomed by a mortal
   disease, so we dread the writer who tells us dispassionately what is the
   matter with us.(1)

This dangerous quest for the truth and a form in which to render it is as heroic as any task one can undertake and confers immortality on the writer who succeeds. Why? Because "a great talent occupies itself with the deep places of the mind and frames its projections of those secrets in projections of kingdoms that are the kingdoms not merely of to-day" (Thus 95). So although the writer must die, the work need not. The Elizabethan poets and dramatists, more than anyone else in the English tradition, have made this, indisputably, a fact of literary life.

The quality of permanence in Conrad's work, consequently, led Ford to present him as an Elizabethan poet. Ford also shows that Conrad felt that plays like The Duchess of Malfi and Hamlet read like novels and that playwrights like Webster and Shakespeare-"the greatest novelist as a delineator of character" (62)--wrote like novelists. So Conrad's business, like theirs, was to hypnotize his audience into "seeing moonlight, laurel hedges, palaces, cracks in walls or forest glades" when on the bare page and on the bare stage none of these things were to be found (March 468). And, as with the Elizabethans, "the human heart as recorded in Mr. Conrad's pages is the human heart of an immense number of men in all ages and in all climes" (94). Ford's memoir is inescapably of a piece with his earlier and later essays about his collaborator because they too show Conrad to be an Elizabethan poet writing modern fiction.

The Inheritors and The Nature of a Crime lead inevitably to Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance where Conrad steps forth as an "Elizabethan Gentleman Adventurer." Like that memoir each of these novels is metafictional in its rendering of a writer's adventures. The Inheritors (1901), for instance, has a struggling writer as its central character. Arthur Echingham Granger is an impoverished aristocrat who wants to be a novelist in the Jamesian tradition. But he gets involved in puffing the powerful and promoting their interests in a literary atmosphere of writers and their sponsors, collaborators and editors, critics and publishers(2)--publishers who found journals like the Hour to serve the financial interests of men like the Duc de Mersch. Granger, aligned with this group, betrays them for the love of an unloving Fourth Dimensionist ("Fate" is the name she gives herself) who wipes out their world by using him to implement the plot she constructs to destroy them. …

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