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Cambridge Introductions: Conrad & Joyce
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Cambridge Introductions: Conrad & Joyce
John G. Peters. The Cambridge Introduction to Joseph Conrad. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 146 pp. Paper $19.95
Eric Bulson. The Cambridge Introduction to James Joyce. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 139 pp. Paper $19.95

The goal of the new Cambridge Introductions to Literature series is to introduce students to "key topics and authors" in a concise format via "accessible and lively" prose. John G. Peters's volume on Joseph Conrad and Eric Bulson's volume on James Joyce handily achieve this ambition. At once comprehensive and breezily written, these volumes will prove especially useful to newcomers to the authors and to first-time high school and college teachers of these figures who are looking for ways to select and organize relevant course material. Each volume explores its subject's life, intellectual and artistic contexts, works, and reception, and then concludes with a list of recommended "further reading." Each provides a balanced and accessible overview of the fiction in question, and of this fiction's importance to readers today. [End Page 105]

John Peters's volume offers a useful synthesis of what has been thought and said of Conrad to date. His chapter overview of Conrad's biography is balanced and judicious; it provides an excellent quick fix on the trajectory of the author's life and career. Peters's chapter on Conrad's context, which is divided into four sections, is equally useful and insightful. In the section "History and Politics," for example, Peters observes that Conrad, more than any other "British" novelist of his time (or any earlier time), "was affected not only by important historical events in England but also by those on the continent. Given his years in Poland, France, Russia and the Orient, Conrad's experience was far more cosmopolitan than that of most of his fellow novelists in England." In the section "Cultural Issues" Peters discusses the erosion of various long-held notions about Western civilization and about "absolute truths," which contributed to a "cultural climate [that] profoundly influenced the world in which Conrad wrote." In the section "Philosophical Milieu" Peters reminds us that two of the major debates that influenced Conrad concerned scientific positivism and the ideas of Arthur Schopenhauer (though I am less convinced than is Peters that Conrad's pessimism is rooted mainly in Schopenhauer). In the section "Movement in Arts and Literature" Peters addresses a number of key artistic movements—modernism, Romanticism, Realism, Naturalism, and Impressionism—yet notes that Conrad "resisted being associated with any particular literary movement because he felt that it restricted and compartmentalized a writer's work." Although his discussion of modernism perhaps suffers a bit from sketchiness, his brief discussion of Conrad's intersection with impressionism provides a useful overview of his substantial earlier work on this topic.

The heart of the volume, three chapters devoted to Conrad's oeuvre, is commendable for giving equal consideration to all of Conrad's published fictions, not only those from the famed "middle period," a twelve-year period that stretched from Heart of Darkness (1899) to Under Western Eyes (1911). In [End Page 106] the chapter on Conrad's early work, which is "dominated by narratives about the Malay Archipelago and the maritime profession" (that led to Conrad being regarded as a "sea-writer," a label that attaches to him to this day), Peters tackles Almayer's Folly, An Outcast of the Islands, The Rescue, The Nigger of the "Narcissus," and Tales of Unrest. In the chapter devoted to the middle period, Peters treats Conrad's most read and studied works: "Youth" and Two Other Stories, Lord Jim, "Typhoon" and Other Stories, Nostromo, The Secret Agent, A Set of Six, Under Western Eyes, and 'Twixt Land and Sea. In the chapter on Conrad's neglected late fiction, Peters covers Chance, Victory, Within the Tides, The Shadow Line, The Arrow of Gold, The Rover, Tales of Hearsay, and Suspense—works which, with few exceptions (Chance, Victory, and The Shadow Line), have garnered the least critical attention of all Conrad's works. Although Peters's plot-oriented discussions break no new ground, they do nicely describe and assess the works...