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"I'd rather dream a novel than write it," Conrad told a correspondent in 1907, "for the dream of the work is always much more lovely than the reality of the thing in print. And then, English is still for me a foreign language whose handling demands a fearful effort." When he wrote this Conrad had produced most—some would say all—of his finest fiction. And yet he often described himself in his letters as a man destined and condemned to scribble in a foreign tongue in order to support what was then a family of four.
During the years covered by this third volume of a projected eight, Typhoon and Other Stories, Romance (with Ford Madox Ford), The Mirror of the Sea, and Tales of Unrest were published. All of Nostromo and The Secret Agent was composed, and both were published—as were the essays on Henry James ("a man who is approaching sixty years who has to his credit forty volumes practically free from imperfection," Conrad told a correspondent), and "Autocracy and War." Chance was begun in 1905, although not completed until 1912, and the interminable struggle with The Rescue (1919) continued. And Under Western Eyes, initially called "Razumov," was started. So these five years were central to the progression of Conrad's productivity and the enduring reputation he would earn in English letters. It was his best of times, especially if one rates Nostromo and The Secret Agent as his greatest novels. They have a powerful claim.
And so we should expect, should we not, a series of letters expounding the form of fiction, discussing with his contemporaries theories of composition and point of view, trading professional secrets with such familiar correspondents as Galsworthy, Wells, Edward Garnett, Ford, and James? But oddly and sadly, about half of the present volume consists of whining letters to the literary agent James Brand Pinker, begging money; and many of the remaining letters beg money from others. For the truth is that Conrad, throughout his greatest working period, "borrowed" shamelessly from everyone, especially from the wealthy and generous Galsworthy. By 1906 his financial affairs had reached such an impossible state that Conrad put them altogether into the hands of Pinker, whose duties now included not only negotiating publishing terms but also keeping track of all of Conrad's accounts and issuing checks directly to the Kentish tradesmen and the personal servants who kept this anarchic household staggering along. It was Pinker's job also to hand over to the novelist his own pocket money, a few pounds at a time. The oddest thing is that Conrad, like his hero Gissing, seemed to thrive, creatively speaking, on his miseries—almost needing them, it would appear, to prick him into life as an artist.
Some interesting and surprising things come out of the present volume. Conrad on Moby-Dick, in 1907: "It struck me as a rather strained rhapsody with whaling for a subject and not a single sincere line in the 3 vols of it." In 1906 he produced a piece claiming that "An Outpost of Progress," one of his earliest tales, was [End Page 786] his "best story." Ford, we discover, before his nervous breakdown in September 1904 helped Conrad with the writing of some sections of The Mirror of the Sea.
Nostromo was written in great bursts of nervous energy over six months in 1904; sometimes three hundred words were all Conrad had to show for a day's work. He told Pinker that if he died before the novel was completed, Ford could finish it. And he acknowledged the leisurely pace of the great book's beginning: "The pile of pages is bigger certainly by three or four every day; but the story has not yet begun." He was writing the history of Costaguana: "There's 23,000 words ready...