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  • Fahrt ins Geheimnis Joseph Conrad: Eine Biographie [Journey into Mystery: Joseph Conrad—a Biography]
  • G. W. Stephen Brodsky (bio)
Schenkel, Elmar . Fahrt ins Geheimnis Joseph Conrad: Eine Biographie [Journey into Mystery: Joseph Conrad—a Biography]. Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer Verlag GmbH, 2007. 367 pp.

His sea life at an end, Joseph Conrad at age thirty-nine wrote in An Outcast of the Islands (1896) Abdullah's solemn words to Willems, "Travelling is victory! You shall return with much wisdom" (Outcast 131). The Malay Arab speaks with the irony of Conradian prophecy, for wisdom won defeats hopeful illusion and kills romance. Yet, such is the ambivalence of youth in age, that many more years after his sea life was past, the Pole Conrad (who knew all about victory in defeat) could still quote himself in "Travel."1

Elmar Schenkel has created a similar triumph of ambivalence with his Journey into Mystery: Joseph Conrad—A Biography, the first German Conrad biography, published, fittingly, by the great publishing house whose iconic Samuel Fischer first gave the complete Conrad collection to Germans in their own language. An inveterate and eclectic traveler, the author is to be found in the space of a single year in Berdichev tracing Conrad's "Fusspuren" [footprints] to his beginnings; in Stettin dining on Kashubian apple cakes; on the Ligurian coast near Genoa reliving Conrad's Suspense while writing about bicycles and literature; in Tambov, the harlequin's Heimat [homeland] in Heart of Darkness, searching out Russian dissident religious sects; or back in his own Heimat, lecturing on Conrad-admiring Welsh novelist John Cooper Powys, and writing a modern Toxophilis about his father's love of archery raised to the status of an art form, transcending life's contradictions in perceptions of the Real.

Little wonder that a moderator Sophie Plessing, interviewing her subject for Radio Mephisto 97.6, called him ein wahres Multitalent [a true polymath]; and it comes as no surprise that Journey reads more like a journal of exotic travel than a conventional biography. Professor of English Studies at the University of Leipzig, Elmar Schenkel could have chosen to write Journey in English, likely with comparable elegance. However, he eschewed the temptation of a wider readership. Written in [End Page 89] pellucid prose in the author's native German, as his subject dictates that it should be, it is lyrical, witty, and serious, while avoiding the desiccating scholarly vice of serious seriousness.

The majority of Conrad biographies are earmarked by the same contentious major themes of neurosis and neurasthenic alienation, and take one position or another in the ongoing debate on Thomas Moser's contentious "decline" theory. With Professor Zdzislaw Najder's Joseph Conrad: A Chronicle as a rare departure from these themes by its emphasis on Conrad's szlachta [Polish noble gentry] tradition and the role of Polish honor, the formidable aggregate of scholarship about the Polish, French, and English Conrads has made novelty a daunting challenge for the aspiring biographer. Now, in his Journey, Elmar Schenkel has entered the lists, his feder a quill aiming for the center of Conrad's life and art. And a goldene Pfeil—an arrow of gold—it is.

Both subtle and profound, Journey is un-"scholarly" in the best sense. Like Sir Philip Sidney's ideal in the Apologie for Poetrie, "a spekyng picture: with thys ende, to teche and delyte," Journey "makes us see" with (like the champion Schenkel père's archery) the ease of art that conceals art. Relying mainly on secondary sources and adorned with a judicious selection of Conradiana photographs, this is a vastly entertaining biography, designed appropriately for its intended readership, more as a popularizing introduction to Conrad than as a research resource. A list of source material appears at the end of each chapter, and a useful chronology is appended; but the text is refreshingly free of distracting endnote numerals. The absence of an index, while a hindrance for the specialist, is a virtue for the Conrad tyro and a blessing for the general reader. Freed from the usual scholarly burdens, we are invited to rove through the pages, to chance on such "Schätze" [treasures] of the author...


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