Conrad in the Public Eye: Biography / Criticism / Publicity

By Salma, Umme | Transnational Literature, May 2012 | Go to article overview

Conrad in the Public Eye: Biography / Criticism / Publicity


Salma, Umme, Transnational Literature


Conrad in the Public Eye: Biography / Criticism / Publicity edited by John G. Peters (Rodopi, 2008)

The Joseph Conrad who was described by Bernard C Meyer as 'a creature of sharp contradictions and inconsistencies',1 a lonely, pathetic, and ill-tempered man and a grudging father, appears with a new aura in Conrad in the Public Eye. This edited volume offers a broad spectrum of opinions about the famous mariner and writer, carefully crossing the welltrodden threshold of Conrad's biographical details. It is not a critical analysis of the life of Conrad, but a focus on how he was viewed and evaluated by his contemporaries. Under the division of four broad sections - Biography, Appreciations, Early Criticism and Publicity - the subsections include news and views about Conrad's life and writings from America, England, Ireland, Wales, France, South Africa, but regrettably nothing from Poland, Conrad's native land. Had Poland been included, the reader would have experienced a sense of completeness together with fascination.

The most vibrant section of the book concerns Conrad's meeting with the reporters in New York, written by Christopher Morley, titled Conrad and the Reporters. From these accounts many facts about Conrad, the man, can be gathered. In place of a burlier, dour, austere, and remote personality, the American reporters got 'the long-thoughtful Ulysses' (8) with a tender, affectionate, gentle and friendly disposition who was not even irritated at the persistent requests by the photographers to take different poses. Though Conrad realised the disadvantages of being famous - he looked perplexed and became tired due to his sickness and the interview process, he preserved his characteristic reserve during the interview. Moreover, when he was requested to say something about American writers, he regretfully admitted that he did not have a critical mind, nor did he have much time to read. Writing came to him spontaneously in the strange and unstable events of his sea-life. This information, together with a poem about his reluctance to deliver a public lecture and epigrammatic sentences about 'the journalistic profession' (8) such as 'Interviewing is a dangerously ticklish art' (11) or 'Interview is really one of the most rarefied and sentimental arts; there is no formula but intuition' (20), makes this part of the book enjoyable.

Florence Doubleday's memoir of Conrad's days at her home, Effendi Hill, during his visit to New York is kaleidoscopic in nature. This lady, the second wife of Conrad's American publisher, F.N. Doubleday, in her Episodes in the Life of a Publisher's Wife remembers many fragmentary events, both funny and grave, with compassion. For example, when Conrad disembarked from the Tuscania, she met a lovely lady, a fan of Conrad, who touching the writer's hand, was crying silently. Conrad asked her one day to call him Joseph, and later on he sent a letter to his wife containing a false excuse that angered Florence very much. As she promised that she would not tell anyone, he informed her when he had stopped and then had resumed writing The Rescue.

In this section the comment on Conrad by Sir Hugh Clifford touches the heart. It gives an impression of Conrad's theme, styles, and expertise in using the English language as well as his mariner-like physical beauty and mental disposition. Clifford writes, 'he was most distinctively and unmistakably a seamen. None could ever have mistaken him for a member of any other profession. ... There was something in the whole character of him ... which remained with him until his death, and was so stamped in as to mark him to the end as a "son of the sea'" (33),and 'there was a certain exotic flavor about his English. ...It was as intangible as the timbre of a voice' (29).

Two memories about Conrad - one is Roditi's meeting with Conrad at Elstree School and the other is James Whitaker's account of his life in Essex - are also interesting. The first one is Roditi's vague effort to remember his meeting with 'a live representative of English literature' (59) in his school. …

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