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‘All the damned professors are radicals at heart.’
The Secret Agent, ch. 2
For Conrad the publication of what is now regarded as his consummate achievement in the art of fiction turned out to be a strangely uneasy event. Despite the usual family illnesses and financial problems, the first draft had been written in the remarkably short time of nine months, February to October 1906, and without the usual outcries of compositional anguish. But as he reached the stage of serialization, October 1906 to January 1907, and then of revision for book-publication, when he added 28,000 words to the original draft during May to July 1907, he suddenly seemed to lose confidence – though less perhaps in the novel itself than in the thought of the reception that awaited it.
Our main evidence for this is his correspondence, which whenever it touches on the work-in-progress acquires a strangely defensive note. On 12 September 1906, he wrote to John Galsworthy, to whom he had sent part of the manuscript: 'In such a tale one is likely to be misunderstood. After all you must not take it too seriously.' The whole thing is superficial and is but a tale’ (Letters III, p. 354.
The facts gleaned from hearsay or experience were but opportunities offered to the writer. What he has done with them is matter for a verdict which must be left to the individual conscience of readers.
Last Essays, p. 145
While an author is planning, writing, and revising a novel, the work may be said to be part of his life, in the sense that what he is doing is one of the many ongoing activities that make up his life. But once he has decided that his novel is finished – which means, in practice, that it is ready for publication – then it assumes a different status: it now stands outside his life and must make its way independently of him. Whether it survives or not is a question beyond his control – one ultimately to be determined not by himself but by his public. Having left the life of its author, the new novel depends for its fate on whether it enters the life of its readers.
When, therefore, we raise the question of the relationship of art and life, it would seem that we are asking how a work is related to its author and to its readers. Thus we could proceed in two directions: backwards, as it were, into the conception and genesis of the work, or forwards into its reception and survival. If we decided to move backwards, we could ask an increasingly complex series of questions.
J'ai jeté ma vie à tous les vents du ciel mais j'ai gardé ma pensée. C'est peu de chose – c'est tout – ce n'est rien – c'est la vie même.
(I have thrown my life to all the winds of the sky but I have kept my thought. It is a trifle – it is everything – it is nothing – it is life itself.)
Conrad to R. B. Cunninghame Graham, 8 February 1899
It has been my purpose in this study to try to demonstrate that Conrad's major creative phase rests on a continuous and consistent effort of thought. I began by arguing that Conrad conceived of his own art in terms of insight and vision rather than of laughter and tears; that he founded his values, both artistic and moral, on the hypothesis of a ‘spectacular’ universe; and that he steadily, even fiercely, resisted every attempt to reduce the significance of his work to its causal or biographical origins. It seemed, right, therefore, to approach the novels with the assumption that their author was in full possession of what he was trying to do and say. The Conrad that this assumption has enabled me to discover is a much more intellectually coherent figure than the one criticism has accustomed us to. From E. M. Forster's notorious verdict that ‘he is misty in the middle as well as at the edges’ to C. B. Cox's recent more qualified view that ‘there is no clear development of ideas throughout [his] work’, the mainstream of Conrad scholarship has stressed his power and profundity at the expense of his intelligibility and control.
II n'y a pas d'expiation. Chaque acte de la vie est final et produit fatalment ses consequences malgré tous les pleurs et les grincements des [sic] dents.
(There is no atonement. Every action in life is final and produces its inevitable consequences despite all the tears and gnashings of teeth.)
(from a letter of 15 September 1891 to Marguerite Poradowska)
‘Heart of Darkness’ stands at the threshold of Conrad's major creative phase. Before producing that narrative he had been unable to make any progress on Lord Jim, a novel he had been trying to get under way from some months. After it, however, he was able to work uninterruptedly on the new project, completing it in just under one year. Lord Jim was published in book form in 1900; it was followed, if not quickly at least steadily, by the two great masterpieces Nostromo (published 1904) and The Secret Agent (published 1907); these in their turn were succeeded by Under Western Eyes (published 1911), which fittingly brought to a close the most productive decade of Conrad's life.
The reason why ‘Heart of Darkness’ occupies a special place in the Conrad canon is that it was the first of his works fully to disclose the possibilities of tragedy. In The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’, to be sure, the crew had been torn between incompatible claims, but the conditions of their life had induced them to choose right: Conrad had been able to turn his back on acknowledged complexity in the name of a moral positive.
I know I am but a reed. But I beg you to allow me the superiority of the thinking reed over the unthinking forces that are about to crush him out of existence.
Razumov in Under Western Eyes, p. 89
At a first glance the resemblances between Lord Jim and Under Western Eyes are more striking than between any two other works by Conrad. The two novels have a similar theme: the exploration of the consequences of an act of betrayal; they have a similar form: an elderly narrator's examination of the motives of a young protagonist over two periods and two locations. These parallels, however, must be treated with caution, for they are so immediately convincing that they tend to blur the essential originality of the later work. Indeed, nowhere is Under Western Eyes more distinctive than at the points of its alleged resemblances with Lord Jim: the nature of the act of betrayal, and the nature of the relationship between narrator and protagonist. In any case, the later novel's affinities with The Secret Agent, though less obvious, are most profound. Far from marking a clean break with its immediate predecessor (as some critics have alleged), Under Western Eyes can be described as taking up its essential concerns (including, of course, the motif of the secret agent), and carrying them into unexpectedly challenging new areas.
Consider, in this respect, Conrad's controversial use of a narrator.
I confounded the beat of the drum with the beating of my heart.
Marlow in ‘Heart of Darkness’, p. 142
It is appropriate that ‘Heart of Darkness’ should begin in the Thames estuary – the very place where The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ ended – for it is, in a special sense, a continuation of that novel. ‘Heart of Darkness’ takes up the affirmations of its predecessor, and exposes them to a process of systematic questioning. The test of the sea generates values which are submitted to the test of the wilderness.
In respect of the positives it discovers, the world of The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ is a self-sufficient one. This does not mean that its inhabitants are unrepresentative, particularly in the weaker side of their nature; or that the redemption they achieve together cannot be sought in other forms of service. On the contrary, the voyage of the Narcissus – particularly in its final phase – is susceptible of wider application. As the ship approaches England, a sudden glimpse of the coast leads the narrator to imagine the island as some mighty vessel in its own right, which its subjects can serve much as its crew serves the Narcissus. And later, after the ship has berthed, and a swarm of strangers has taken possession of her ‘in the name of the sordid earth’, and the narrator sees the men, now paid off, drifting in front of London's historic Tower, he immediately associates them with their ‘fighting prototypes’ – the great line of English maritime heroes.
… the crew of a merchant ship, brought to the test of what I may venture to call the moral problem of conduct.
from Last Essays, p. 95
It has long been recognized that The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ and ‘Heart of Darkness’ (published in Youth: a Narrative; and Two Other Stories) stand out from the rest of Conrad's early work for their concentration and intensity. As my purpose in this study is not to characterize Conrad's output as a whole, but to try to show something of the intellectual power and consistency of the major phase of his creative life, I have no hesitation in confining my examination of his early writing to these two narratives. Before I begin, however, I must briefly refer to a preliminary difficulty which no student of Conrad can afford to ignore: the peculiarities of his English. The charge of over-writing which Dr Leavis has levelled at ‘Heart of Darkness’ is a just one; it also applies to The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’. Indeed, a great many English readers have felt that Conrad's style as a whole is all too often unnaturally congested and over-wrought. It is, of course, not surprising that the English of a foreigner should in some respects be found wanting. What does require explanation, however, is that these oddities of expression should rarely inhibit the power and coherence of his meaning.
Although the importance of Conrad's work has long been recognized, Jacques Berthoud attempts a full demonstration of the clarity, consistency, and depth of thought evident in the novels written during the first decade of this century. Instead of the standard versions of Conrad - from sceptical moralizer to 'metaphysician of darkness' - he offers a tragic novelist, engaged in a sustained exploration of the contradictions inherent in man's relations with his fellows; and from the perspective thus achieved, he is able to show why Conrad occupies a leading place among the creators of modern literature. This book will be of interest to specialists in English studies because it seeks to make a substantial contribution to the critical debate on the significance of Conrad's work. It will also appeal to any reader looking for guidance through the complexities of the major novels: the central issues have been presented as simply as the originality of Conrad's art and thought permits.
I had no idea to consider Anarchism politically, or to treat it seriously in its philosophical aspects.
(from a letter of 12 September 1906 to John Galsworthy)
Conrad himself acknowledges that The Secret Agent was conceived as a contrast to Nostromo. ‘One fell to musing before the phenomenon – even of the past’, he writes in the ‘Author's Note’ to the new novel:
of South America, a continent of crude sunshine and brutal revolutions, of the sea, the vast expanse of salt waters, the mirror of heaven's frowns and smiles, the reflector of the world's light. Then the vision of an enormous town presented itself, of a monstrous town more populous than some continents and in its man-made might as if indifferent to heaven's frowns and smiles; a cruel devourer of the world's light.
The Secret Agent, p, xii
And Conrad does not confine himself to stating this contrast in a preface; he actually builds it into the novel itself. Among his major characters, he includes one whose function is partly to highlight the differences between life at home and life abroad. The Assistant Commissioner who takes charge of the inquiry into the Greenwich explosion can be regarded as a diminished Charles Gould. Like Gould, he is a man whose ‘real abilities, which were mainly of an administrative order, were combined with an adventurous disposition’ (p. 113). But because of a socially advantageous marriage, he has been obliged to exchange the freedom and initiative of a police career in the colonies for a high departmental post in Scotland Yard.
There was something inherent in the necessities of successful action which carried with it the moral degradation of the idea.
Mrs Gould in Nostromo, p. 521
With Nostromo and The Secret Agent we reach the summit of Conrad's achievement as a novelist. I may begin to substantiate this claim by noting that these two novels are at least as closely related as (in one way) The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ and ‘Heart of Darkness’, or (in another) Lord Jim and Under Western Eyes. It has become standard practice to connect Nostromo with its predecessor and The Secret Agent with its successor. Thus Robert Penn Warren argues that Nostromo is an elaboration of the conflict between the ideal and the real exhibited in Lord Jim, and Irving Howe that the sardonic treatment of the anarchists in The Secret Agent anticipates Conrad's ‘antipathy toward the revolutionary émigrés in Under Western Eyes’. I am not suggesting that such correlations are illegitimate; but they have the effect of obscuring how very distinctively these two central masterpieces resemble each other. Notably, both bring to the foreground not a single protagonist doubled by a single narrator but a number of equally prominent individuals, each of whom is repeatedly called upon to comment on his fellows. Furthermore, these foreground characters are not only presented in relation to one another but also in relation to a middle-ground of subordinate figures of great variety, and to the background of an entire population.
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