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What Joseph Dobrinsky sets out to demonstrate in this relatively brief but energetic study is the extent to which Joseph Conrad's fiction can be read (or must be read) as a series of metafictional parables in which Conrad the artist seeks to come to terms with a set of obsessive patrilineal legacies, political as well as aesthetic, that deeply affected his self-image as detached artist and alienated Pole. The problematic center of these legacies is Conrad's monomaniacal father, Apollo Korzeniowski: political activist, romantic idealist—above all, impetuous destroyer of Conrad's small family. Conrad becomes, in his art, an "accusing heir," possessed of a complex vision of the paradoxically creative and destructive potential of the talents (and perhaps too of the romantic inclinations) he has inherited." "The practice of the calling," Dobrinsky writes, "wards off neurosis since it must rest on an exceptional ability to lay down one's anxieties, again and again, through their compulsively renewed symbolizations."
Conrad, his idealist father, his sacrificed-in-the-cause mother Evelina, and even his pragmatic maternal uncle Thaddeus Bobrowski (who little admired Conrad's father) consequently assume thinly-veiled aliases in Conrad's fiction. In "Heart of Darkness," for example, Conrad (doubling partly as Marlow and partly as the Russian Harlequin) plays out ambivalent feelings of awe and censure in reaction to Kurtz (representing Apollo Korzeniowski: Kurtz = "Korz"), the committed but debauched idealist and artist-writer, whereas the Intended, suggestively nameless, embodies "the author's latent brooding on the tragedy of his mother's naive idealism." As he does elsewhere in Conrad's fiction, Dobrinsky sees the accusatory Thaddeus Bobrowski identified with a distinct brand of sterile conservatism, here in the guise of the general manager, a "Philistine in chief," an inane and empty Polonius, what Conrad possibly judged he might have become had he utterly rejected his aesthetic inheritance.
This is the basic pattern that Dobrinsky sees reenacted, with variations, elsewhere in Conrad's fiction. In Lord Jim, to elaborate on one more example of how the paradigm works, Conrad is complexly embodied in both Marlow (latent teller of tales) and Jim (disastrous dreamer). The oracular Stein, with his frequently obscure pronouncements on the nature of idealistic dreamers, here becomes the renewed projection of the father. Although he is like Kurtz—their exploits are strikingly similar, Dobrinsky points out—he is certainly more humane and far more sympathetically portrayed, jewel, like the Intended before her, embodies the naive idealism of Conrad's mother, and, also like the Intended, cannot bear Marlow's conveyed "truth" about Jim at the end. Even Uncle Thaddeus finds his significant other in the guano-mining pragmatist, Chester.
Full discussions of Nostromo, "The Secret Sharer," Under Western Eyes, and Victory fill out this volume, each ingenious and convincing in its way, each a little too ingenious when Dobrinsky departs from making his point more generally and [End Page 789] tries to force-fit even the most minor details of text. Although some readers in this poststructuralist age may find Dobrinsky's study a little quaint in its methods, most, I think, will find it thoroughly engaging and thought provoking, even when Dobrinsky is being most radically conjectural.