- The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad, Vol. 4, 1908-1911
During the years 1908-1911, Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) wrote and published Under Western Eyes, resumed writing Chance, composed a half dozen or so of his least inspired stories (the exception was "The Secret Sharer," written in ten days in 1909), and produced some reminiscences—not a very fertile time, for him; indeed, this is the period sometimes described by Conrad scholars as the beginning of his "decline" as a writer of fiction. "Age has dimmed all my fires," the novelist tells Arthur Symons in 1909 (Conrad was fifty-one); two years later he writes to Ford Madox Ford: "Life is an awful grind. The feeling that the game is no longer worth the candle."
There is no doubt that Conrad suffered a series of breakdowns in these years—periods such as that between January and March 1910, just after the completion of Under Western Eyes, when he was not able to write a word. From early 1910 to early 1911 he wrote virtually nothing; whole months pass (for example, February 1910) without a single letter being written. In March-April 1911 and again in the autumn of that year he produced almost nothing, though in constant debt. In some moods composition, for him, was no less terrifying than death, and regarded with perhaps even greater loathing.
Conrad on the life of an author is terrifying enough. Having to write, he tells Norman Douglas, makes me feel "positively suicidal." He was always behind: "never can I get on fast enough. I am pen and ink ridden. Its a nightmare." He resembles Flaubert, he says, only "in the desperate, heart breaking toil and effort of the writing, the days of wrestling as with a dumb devil for every line of my creation." In a letter to E.V. Lucas he refers to "those moments of cruel blankness when one's writing life seems to come to an end. I live in the constant dread of these visitations." To compose, he tells his friend John Galsworthy, he must have "that absolute quiet, complete silence, without which . . . I cannot work to any serious purpose." To another correspondent: "There is no moment in the day when I don't hate the sight of pen and ink. . . . I wish sometimes I had remained at sea which had I honestly stuck to it would no doubt be rolling now over my head." Again writing to Douglas, Conrad characterizes the writer's fate as "mere hard labour for life—with this difference that the life-convict is at any rate out of harm's way—and may consider the account with his conscience closed." Being required to write whether he wants to or not brings down upon him, Conrad declares, "black depression," subjects him to "the blackest depths of utter impotence."
Having always to meet the next deadline was robbing him, he says, of life's pleasures. "I have no amusement, no relaxation of any kind—none whatever," he complains to his agent J.B. Pinker in 1908. "I haven't seen a play or listened to a piece of music it seems for years." In 1909 he tells Galsworthy: "For two years I haven't seen a picture heard a note of music, hadn't a moment of ease in human intercourse—not really." In other moods the note of self-commiseration is missing, and he is the opposite of sentimental. He describes himself as "a plain man without tears and sensibility"—admitting, though, that he is "not a comforting person . . . to be amusing is not in my line." To Edward Garnett, in 1911: "As to faking a 'sunny' ending to my story I would see all the American Magazines [End Page 507] and all the american Editors damned in heaps before lifting my pen for that task." And yet he was appalled when his fiction was characterized by one editor as "unrelieved gloom." He detested almost all critical evaluations of his work ("There is even...