The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad

This is not the best of the Conrad biographies, but it is far from the worst. The latter honour goes to Jeffrey Meyers’ sensationalist Joseph Conrad: A Life (1991) whose ‘discoveries’ included an early wartime affair Conrad is said to have had with the intriguing young American, Jane Anderson: improbable but possible (of course), but miles away from anything the ‘evidence’ will support. Significantly, the best remains the 1983 biography by Conrad’s Polish compatriot, Zdzislaw Najder.

Few contemporary Conrad scholars are as well qualified to re-tell the story as John Stape. Stape’s formidable scholarly experience includes among other things exhaustive work on the later letters of the author (the last two volumes of which are - finally! - on the very eve of being released by Cambridge University Press). He shares this qualification with (the late) Frederick R. Karl; they also think alike regarding the multiplicity of Conrad’s lives (Stape makes it ‘several’; more precise, Karl subtitles his monumental account ‘the three lives’). But Karl’s huge book is for specialists to delve into; one of Stape’s strengths is its clarity, accessibility and compactness.

The book begins by declaring: ‘A biography by necessity includes elements of fiction’. Some readers may wish that Stape’s narrative had employed more of the speculative freedoms of fiction, but he keeps rigorously to what is supportable in the evidence. This has the advantage of leaving those gaps and rumours in Conrad’s life-story intriguingly indeterminate: his early Marseilles years with suggestions of passionate and tragic love affairs, gun-running and suicide attempts (on a visit in later life, Conrad is said to have insisted to all his contacts in Marseilles to destroy any letters they had of his); his friendships with a number of prominent homosexual men, such as André Gide and Norman Douglas; his refusal to publicly support a former friend from his Congo journey, Roger Casement, who was shortly after executed for treason at the time of the Irish Easter Rising. Stape includes such episodes but generally leaves the evidence (scant as it often is) to speak for itself.

What he evokes eloquently is a life that is unique and virtually incomparable; he leaves us with a vivid portrait of personal loneliness and well nigh pathological neurosis, the dedication often against all odds to write what he had to write, along with the gruelling pressures of family life which he seemed ill-equipped to manage; and (until his later years) endless financial indebtedness and the reluctance of a reading public (with notable exceptions) to buy, read and understand his fictions. John Stape gives us a Conrad who somehow matches Conrad’s own ethical ideal of persevering in fidelity to a cause beyond the point of hopefulness. Thankfully, this account is in no way an exercise in hagiography of sentimentality.

Terry Collits is one of Australia’s leading experts on Joseph Conrad