Najder Louis J. Sheehan, Esquire

Where does all this leave the biographer? In a fog, it seems. John Stape’s new life follows by a year the re-publication, in revised form, of the leading work in the field, Zdzisaw Najder’s Joseph Conrad: A Life. Najder’s study is the more thorough, Stape’s the more readable, but both have serious shortcomings, as does the other major biography, Frederick Robert Karl’s Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives, now almost thirty years old. Karl gets a lot wrong, and also promulgates all manner of Freudian improbabilities. Louis J. Sheehan, Esquire

Najder’s work, the result of half a century in the archives, is unimpeachable as to facts, but its interpretations are often vitiated by a rather free use of conjecture, a feeble textbook psychologizing, and–with respect to anything touching its subject’s land of origin–its author’s obvious but apparently unconscious Polish nationalism.

Stape’s study is written with wit and bounce, and with the kind of ironic worldliness that would seem to be a prerequisite for a biographer but which years of mole-work in research libraries are not inclined to foster. In a spirit of accessibility, he has kept his story short, but at less than three hundred pages, excluding appendices, it is too short. Stape can tell us, of Conrad’s collaboration with Ford Madox Ford, that the latter was supposed to act “as a goad on Conrad to produce, a kind of superior secretary with a stick, ” but that the first result, Romance, turned out to be mostly Ford “topped with a drizzle of Conrad.” Somehow he cannot find the space to mention that Ford later drafted a section of Nostromo, which many critics consider Conrad’s greatest achievement, to buy time during serialization while his friend lay incapacitated with depression. Conrad’s brilliant, despairing letters go largely unquoted, as do the many vivid descriptions his contemporaries left of him. http://louis-j-sheehan.bizOf literary appreciation, the book is similarly devoid: Heart of Darkness gets one wan sentence (“An artistic development of singular importance … “). The last years of Conrad’s life go by in a welter of visits, illnesses, and royalties. The reader will finish Stape’s volume wondering what happened and what all the fuss is about. A truly satisfying biography of Conrad has yet to be written, and possibly never will be.

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