Searching For Joseph Conrad

It takes a perverse kind of ingenuity to make a boring book out of Joseph Conrad's life. After all, it's hard to think of a novelist whose career was as adventurous as Conrad's, or whose work raises more aesthetic and political passions. The man born as Joseph Korzeniowski in landlocked Berdichev in 1857 followed his youthful dream to become a ship's captain, visiting ports from Malaysia to Venezuela. He attempted suicide in Marseilles, had a ship blown up under him in Sumatra, almost died of dysentery in the Belgian Congo, and fell in love with a mademoiselle in Mauritius.

Then, shortly after his 36th birthday, he gave it all up for good, exchanging the most romantic of callings for the most solitary and sedentary. In just a few years, he made himself into a great writer in English — not even his second language but his third, after French — and invented a new kind of novel, in which adventure and intrigue are raised to the level of moral parable. His fascination with human evil, with the cruelty and existential void lurking beneath the surface of advanced European civilization, qualifies Conrad as perhaps the first modernist writer. "I am modern," he defiantly wrote after one publisher rejected him — so much so that it took decades for his reputation to spread beyond a small circle of admirers. It makes sense that Conrad did not become genuinely popular until World War I, when the public was finally ready to hear the prophecy in Kurtz's dying words in "Heart of Darkness": "The horror! The horror!"

Yet with such a story to tell, John Stape somehow manages to make "The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad" (Pantheon, 369 pages, $30) as dusty a biography as you will ever read. Page after page is filled with Conrad's comings and goings, his voyages and publications; but of the man himself, his mind and art or even his physical presence, Mr. Stape offers barely a hint. You can't deny that Mr. Stape gives a full chronicle of Conrad's life from birth to death, but when he is done, he leaves you with nothing to remember. He is like a man walking down the corridor of a museum who never turns aside into a gallery, but heads straight from the front door to the exit.

This incuriosity is especially striking in a biographer of Conrad, whose story opens out onto so many alluring prospects. His early years were passed at the epicenter of Polish nationalism, which flared up in 1863 into a doomed uprising against Poland's Russian occupiers. Several of Conrad's relatives were involved in the struggle, and were arrested or killed as a consequence. Two years earlier, Conrad's father, a patriotic journalist and sometime conspirator, had himself been arrested by the Tsarist police and exiled to the distant Russian city of Vologda. The freezing climate and miserable living conditions took their toll: Both Conrad's parents contracted tuberculosis, and by the age of 11 the boy was an orphan.

Mr. Stape sketches these miserable events, but has little to say about how they must have affected the young Conrad. He was faced, it is clear, with a crushing psychic burden. He could either devote his life to the hopeless cause that killed his parents, or leave Poland behind and live with the guilt of apostasy. By choosing the second path, Conrad severed himself from his past, and his later attempt to remake himself as an Englishman has an air of desperation. (He wrote bitterly about the way English critics regarded him as "a sort of freak, a bloody amazing furriner writing in English.")

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