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book Reviews A Conrad Biography John Batchelor. The Life of Joseph Conrad: A Critical Biography. Blackwell Critical Biographies No. 4. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994. χ + 335 pp. $29.95 ANY RECOUNTING of Conrad's life enters a very crowded field. Memoirs by family and friends, Jean-Aubry's two-volume selection of letters, with foreshortened commentaries (ghost translated by Desmond MacCarthy), and further collections of letters appeared shortly after Conrad's death in 1924. Jean-Aubry's pretentiously styled "definitive biography," inadequate both as to fact and emphasis, was published only in 1957 and did not much advance the study of Conrad's life. Jocelyn Baines's Joseph Conrad: A Critical Biography (1960) pioneered a genuinely scholarly approach, and after it came the deluge. In the following two decades Baines's work was greatly extended, particularly by Norman Sherry's detailed source-hunting on Conrad's experience in the Far East and by Jessie Allen's (not always reliable) study of Conrad's sea years. Bernard C. Meyer's psychoanalytic biography of 1967 took a highly specialized approach and remains slightly outside the main line. The past fifteen years have seen no less than two exhaustively researched scholarly biographies—Frederick R. Karl's (1979) and Zdzislaw Najder's (1983)—two popular full-length accounts for the highbrow market—by Roger Tennant (1981) and Jeffrey Meyers (1991)—as well as Owen Knowles's very readable A Conrad Chronology and Cedric Watts's brief study, in Macmillan's Literary Lives series, of the market pressures on Conrad's career (both 1989). The Collected Letters, published by Cambridge University Press, now stands at its mid-point, with four volumes published, and four yet to appear. The unusual shape of Conrad's life and career offers the biographer special challenges: there is, to begin with, the Polish background, the Marseilles years, the maritime experience, and then the literary career itself with a wide circle of friends, acquaintances, and fellow writers in England. Documentary materials are scattered in public archives and private collections in Europe, North America, Asia, and Australia. The biographer must also cope with lacunae caused by the depredations of time—in particular, the destruction of records and crucial collections of letters during the Russian Revolution and the Second World War. Despite these obstacles archival work has now securely established the main outline and facts of Conrad's life, and while diligent scholars 219 ELT 38:2 1995 regularly turn up letters, singly or in caches, major discoveries become increasingly unlikely. The completion of The Collected Letters will allow "Conrad" to emerge, as it were, entire, and will doubtless require a new and full assessment of the life and career. In the interim and in the absence of startlingly new information or even a crying need for a new biography the task of re-interpretation, the adjustment of shades and emphases, remains. This is largely the approach taken by Batchelor's sensible volume, urged on by the program of Blackwell's Critical Biographies series, which mandates critical discussions of the works as part of the life. This is a return, in a sense, to the model Baines laid down. It was eschewed by Najder in his Joseph Conrad: A Chronicle, which is commonly, and rightly, considered the biography of record. (It is difficult to imagine its being surpassed on Conrad's Polish background and context.) Unlike Baines, however, whose work was ground-breaking, Batchelor's critical readings benefit from the wealth, possibly even the over-abundance, of Conrad criticism from various angles, that has appeared during the past thirty-five years. The life sections of this volume doggedly traverse what for the scholar and specialist will be highly familiar terrain, in some cases, offering twice—or more often—told tales. In common with Conrad's other biographers , Batchelor misses an opportunity at new information and novel perspectives in neglecting the extant letters written to Conrad. He opens with brisk accounts of the Polish childhood and maritime life, much indebted to the diligent spade work of Andrzej Busza, Najder, Hans van Marie, and Sherry among others, before arriving at the center of his interest—after all, the only justification for any biography of Conrad— the literary...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 219-222
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Will Be Ceasing Publication
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