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Reviewed by:
  • Conrad's Fiction as Critical Discourse, and: Conrad's Existentialism, and: Joseph Conrad
  • David Leon Higdon
Richard Ambrosini. Conrad's Fiction as Critical Discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991. 253 pp. $49.50.
Otto Bohlmann. Conrad's Existentialism. New York: St. Martin's, 1991. 234 pp. No price given.
Ruth L. Nadelhaft. Joseph Conrad. Atlantic Highlands: Humanities P, 1991. 147 pp. $39.95 cloth; pb. $12.50.

Neither Richard Ambrosini, Otto Bohlmann, nor Ruth Nadelhaft has contributed what could be called a breakthrough study to Conrad criticism, but in their various ways their books have provocatively, sometimes authoritatively, filled particular gaps in and asked necessary questions of existing criticism: the agreement between critical expression and narrative practice, the exact nature and expression of Conrad's existential beliefs, and the roles of feminism and the female in Conrad's fiction.

Ambrosini's Conrad's Fiction as Critical Discourse is perhaps less useful when it hews closely to its announced thesis than when it inquires into the exacting practice of narration. Conrad critics have generally ignored Conrad's reviews, essays, notes, and prefaces (except for the "Preface" to The Nigger of the "Narsissus"). Holding that Conrad's failure to use "a readily identifiable theoretical language" accounts for this dismissal, Ambrosini argues that "Conrad did in fact attempt to articulate such a language" and that he constantly "strove after a synthesis of abstract principles and life experiences." To recover this language, Ambrosini first identifies five controlling tropes—work, idealism, fidelity, effect, precision—which suture experience and principles together with the words on the page. These tropes enabled Conrad "to synthesize the aesthetic and moral implications of his artistic intention" and stood him well even in his later years. Approaching Conrad's texts in this way, Ambrosini fully justifies Conrad's challenge that a work should manifest "its justification in every line." Ambrosini ignores the first two Conrad novels and focuses his attention on Tales of Unrest, especially "Karain," to show how Conrad "sets to work an internal consciousness which originates the multilevel structure of many characteristics of the Marlow tales." I remain puzzled as to why Ambrosini starts, so to speak, in médias res, ignoring Almayer's Folly, its 1894 preface, and An Outcast of the Islands. Since Conrad's search for new forms is central to Ambrosini's discussion, his argument sometimes seems headless, not having the discarded forms of the early 1890s before the reader.

For this reason, the second half of the study seems more satisfactory, more stimulating, than the first. Ambrosini's thorough consideration of the "mirror effect" relationship between story and tale in Heart of Darkness ingeniously traces the interplay between the unidentified narrator, the several states of Marlow's personality, and Kurtz in which "the telling, rather than the event itself, generates meaning." This approach enables Ambrosini to pull together observations on image and sensory patterns, ironic juxtapositions, the proleptic nature of temporality, and the reader's role. The reading develops with considerable subtlety and insight, exacting attention to the text, and constant dialogue with the existing critical statements. (One must not ignore the book's extensive notes, because the argument may otherwise seem hermetically isolated from historical, cultural, and critical statements.)

The two chapters on Lord Jim convincingly refute the "break" readings which see the Patna and Patusan sections as standing apart from one another. Ambrosini [End Page 509] returns attention to the tripatrite division based on the different narrative techniques and holds that "at the end of each segment the themes embodied in Jim's figure are synthesized with the author's discourse in theoretical problem. . . . He reinstates Stein as an authority and finds Marlow's interview with him "Conrad's most sustained and explicit use of the critical discourse in his fiction." Lord Jim is, for Ambrosini, the perfected embodiment of fused principle, event, and narrative choice. After it, he writes, come "a funambulatory control of space, time and point of view, as well as a heavy-toned irony practiced at the expense of his narrators."

Ambrosini fully documents the nature of Conrad's aesthetic thought, but is Conrad indeed an existentialist writer and thinker? This question has been asked many times...


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