- Joseph Conrad
Tim Middleton's introduction to Joseph Conrad is, to put it bluntly, a mitigated intellectual undertaking. Framed in an accessible style and clear diction, this volume offers an informed, comprehensive overview of Conrad's writings and life. Like most guides to literature, Middleton's volume provides a bird's-eye view of the explored field of study. It offers students new to Conrad's works and criticism a wealth of information that may help them familiarize with the author's life and works. The volume's concise summaries of the stories, its laborious recapitulation of Conrad scholarship and inclusion of varied biographical accounts—alongside a substantial bibliography—facilitates the novice reader's understanding of Conrad's texts. However, those seeking insightful arguments about the examined works are likely to have their thirst unquenched. Given the book's clear evasion of close textual analysis and general lack of deep critical engagement, there is, indeed, little a Conrad specialist can glean from this sweeping, strictly factual study.
Middleton's book is divided into four parts. The first part ("Life and Contexts") addresses a range of issues, including Conrad's Polish childhood, the impact of his sea career on his fiction, his literary friendships, and his stylistic and thematic debts to French and Russian authors. The discussion of these various topics is instructive; yet it is often carried out in a rhetoric that unfortunately gives the impression of dryness and platitude. The second section ("Works") provides brief accounts of Conrad's novels and short stories, with minimal personal commentary. The same section also usefully evokes Conrad's artistic struggles, development of his writing career from the Malay novels of the 1890s-1920s, and critical reception of his fiction. The third part ("Criticism"), wholly devoted to Conrad scholarship, painstakingly traces the genesis of Conrad studies. It focuses on the works of past and recent leading critics which it summarizes, occasionally commenting on their merits and limits. The list of references furnished in this section is impressive, and most of them will certainly be, in varying degrees, helpful to the students. I nonetheless believe that the lengthy enumeration of book titles in what looks like an aspiration to exhaustiveness may be tedious [End Page 89] for those who are familiar with Conrad and overwhelming for the students who are new to the field. The last section consists of a detailed chronology, usefully sketching out historical and literary events that shaped Conrad's life and career.
Middleton's study is thematically ambitious. It covers widely Conrad's artistic career and discusses his canonical novels, including Lord Jim, Nostromo, and Under Western Eyes, as well as lesser-known collections and works such as "Laughing Anne" or A Set of Six. Middleton has judiciously chosen to "devot[e] equal space to canonical works and overlooked collections" (xiv). His decision to provide a balanced corpus of study distinguishes, to some extent, this volume from other general introductions to Conrad usually more focused on the author's major works. This global, democratic approach introduces the readers to less familiar works, and in this way it may enable them to see Conrad the artist in his multiple creative facets.
For one thing, Middleton's effort to initiate his readers to Conrad studies reveals an attempt at historicization that partakes of an overall project of linking text and context. Throughout he tries to place Conrad's fiction in the complex cultural, political, and ideological context in which it was produced. This necessary contextualization leads him to adopt a wide-ranging approach that shows Conrad's works from various interpretive stances. There is in Middleton's method a manifest effort to tease out the complex links between text, context, and critical history in order to highlight the literary, cultural, and ideological denseness of Conrad's works. Regrettably, though, this attempt at contextualization is often too sketchy and lopsided to guide efficiently the students steering through Conrad's multilayered persona and labyrinthine, fascinating fictional universe.
In terms of methodology, the volume adopts a helpful pedagogic approach that takes the reader by the...