restricted access The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad, Volume Two: 1898-1902, and The Art of Failure: Conrad's Fiction (review)
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Joseph Conrad. The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad, Volume Two: 1898-1902. Ed. Frederick R. Karl and Laurence Davies. New York: Cambridge UP, 1986. 483 pp. $44.50.
Suresh Raval. The Art of Failure: Conrad's Fiction. Winchester: Allen, 1986. 187 pp. $27.95.

The period 1898-1902 was a crucial one in Conrad's life. During these years he wrote "Youth," Lord Jim, Romance (with Ford Madox Ford), "Heart of Darkness," "Typhoon" (characterized by its author as "too silly for words"), "Falk," "Amy Foster," The Inheritors (with, and largely by, Ford), "To-morrow," and "The End of the Tether," part of which was burned by an exploding lamp and had to be recomposed. Tales of Unrest was published in 1898; by 1902 Conrad had already sketched out much of what was to become Nostromo, arguably his greatest novel. Though reviews of his work were mixed, ranging from mystification through respect to outright enthusiasm, he was winning the praises of his fellow practitioners in the field. Thus George Gissing, whose Ryecroft Papers had finally added fashion to his fame among the novelists of the day and who rarely spoke a charitable word about contemporary novelists, declared Conrad to be "the strongest [End Page 342] writer—in every sense of the word—at present publishing in English." "I feel rich enough now standing here with such a Christmas gift in my hands as no lavishness of Dickens' imagination could have contrived for the felicity of a poor devil in a Christmas Tale," Conrad wrote gratefully to Gissing in December, 1902. They were the same age—forty-five—though at opposite ends of their careers.

These are the years of Conrad's short-lived and sometimes stormy collaboration with Ford; of the birth, in January, 1898, of his son Borys ("I hate babies," Conrad declared a few weeks later); and of his acquisition, in September, 1900, of the well-known agent J. B. Pinker to handle his literary affairs, already complicated by publishers' loans and advances, Conrad's debts and unmet writing obligations, the insertion into his tangled finances of agreements with publishers to help him pay for an elaborate life insurance policy, and the endless difficulties caused by his sale of, but utter inability to complete, for another two decades, the novel that would be called The Rescue, eventually the most detested by Conrad of all his literary productions. In fact he was to remain in debt to Pinker until the commercial success of Chance in 1913.

Though often unable to write because of illnesses real or imagined, the neurasthenic Conrad worked hard, as the list of titles for these few years suggests, remained in debt (Lord Jim earned him only £100; 4,637 copies of it had been sold two and a half years after publication), traversed mercurial shifts in mood and temper and in some of these thought his work worthless. But this second of a projected seven volumes of letters also reveals him as a good hand at a serial, to borrow Hardy's phrase about himself, and an increasingly cunning negotiator with publishers, editors, and agents, though often enough he miscalculated the ultimate length of his tales and the time it would take to complete them. During these years the tentative novelist who had hopefully produced Almayer's Folly, An Outcast of the Islands, and The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' a few years earlier became Conrad the Novelist, surer of himself, of his vocation, and of his place in English letters—though in moments of panic he still wondered if he should go back to sea and even inquired about available commands. He never quite lost his astonishment that a grizzled mariner from eastern Europe should have ended up in drydock "writing novels to amuse the English! . . . It is a fool's business to write fiction for a living."

The Conrad of these years fretted about his chronic pennilessness and borrowed from anyone who would lend. The letters show how generously, above all others, he was treated by Galsworthy, who advanced him money again and again knowing, no doubt, that it could never be repaid. Conrad complained that worries about money prevented him...


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