- The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad
In Writing The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad, John Stape definitely had his work cut out for him. Generally, in the biography genre an author faces one of two obstacles: either too little information, with scant amounts of surviving documentation; or there is the equally difficult issue of too much information, with scattered accounts and records, letters, diaries, other biographies, and so on. Stape is faced with the latter of these potential biographical snags, and one notices very early on how adept he is at mediating what proves to be a vast amount of information. In the case of Conrad we find an enormous number of saved letters and correspondences, two biographical reminiscences published by Conrad himself, four biographical volumes by Jessie Conrad, a characteristically unreliable volume by Ford Maddox Ford, a number of pamphlets written by friends and acquaintances upon his death, not to mention the more recent biographies of the last half century by Frederick Robert Karl and Jeffrey Meyers. On top of all this there is three-quarters of a century of critical scholarship on Conrad. Needless to say, putting together all the pieces of Conrad’s life is a truly Herculean biographical task if ever there was one, and The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad is truly a brilliant example of how to weave together new findings while working to synthesize existing materials.
One of the strong points of this volume is Stape’s abstention from the conjectural. He is careful to walk the line of biography and guesswork, weighing in on what may be apocryphal and maintaining a distance toward those second- and thirdhand accounts that may be, in his own words, “not particularly reliable.” With this said, however, Stape acknowledges that the narratives we create for ourselves and that others [End Page 488] create for us are as important as the “truth” of a life. An instance of this is Conrad’s own, probably fictional, account of fighting Russian troops as a young man: the story’s fictional nature tells us that this is a man with a writer’s penchant for narrative embellishment and the fantastic in all things, while the biographical side shows us a deep, if largely hidden, resentment of Poland’s Russian occupation that reappears in different guises throughout the book. Stape avoids weighing in too heavily on anything that proves unreliable, noting how easily past accounts, true or not, can harden into fact. Particularly interesting are three such Conrad myths that “refuse to die despite lack of evidence: that Conrad was involved in smuggling or gun-running related to Spain’s Third Carlist War; that he was wounded in a duel, and that he had a tortured love affair [in 1877–1888].” With a mythology as interesting as this, it is easy to see how some would like to perpetuate such an interesting biography and how such stories “tempt any writer on Conrad’s life to milk fiction for biographical purposes.” Stape, however, is evenhanded in handling such unreliable information and shows a strong awareness that “fictions perhaps inevitably gather round a writers life.”
As in any biography there is an accumulation of details. As an adept, always critical biographer Stape has the courage to plainly ask at one point: “Do these details matter?” Even when not explicitly stated, he keeps this question in mind throughout the book, flawlessly making connections between literary fiction, personal fiction, and the haziness that is the “real” of any biographical project. Stape has ensured that all the details matter, that what the biographer presents us is relevant to what we need to know and what we want to know. This is perhaps one of the things that makes Conrad’s life, and this biography, so interesting: the fact that biography and fiction are so closely connected and relevant to one another. With Conrad experience was so often reconstructed as the fiction we know today.
Conrad’s life was in reality nicely divided: his first nearly thirty years were spent dreaming of the sea and eventually...