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Ian Watt 79 from JOSEPH CONRAD: A BIOGRAPHY / by Ian Watt The Missouri Review is pleased to be able to present a selection from Ian Watt's forthcoming biography of Joseph Conrad. The earlier portions of this chapter describe the formative influences on the young Conrad: the political persecution of his father, the early loss of his parents, his sense of Poland's tragic history, his rewarding but short-lived career in England's dwindling sailing-fleet. In England Conrad found freedom and security, but also the ambiguous life of an exile. In appearance Conrad was of middle height, not much above five foot six according to most accounts, though his wife said he was over five foot eight (JA, 2), and his "Application to be Examined" in 1886 gives it as five foot nine and a half inches. His photographs1 show a large, somewhat receding forehead, high cheekbones, and a strong nose; as he grew older the sensitive upper-lip and rather weak chin of his childhood were covered by a dark-brown moustache and beard. Conrad's body was square and sturdy; his powerful shoulders were slightly rounded and hunched, but the upturned carriage of his head gave an impression of redoubtable vigilance. That Conrad's appearance was striking, and in later years strikingly handsome, was mainly due to his hazel brown eyes "over which the lids were deeply folded";2 Langlois remembered them as melancholy, dreamy, and gentle (JB, 96); but even in the earliest photographs, taken when he was a child of four, five and seven, Conrad's gaze has a penetrating concentration on the world before it which is compounded of vulnerable apprehension and scornful challenge. In manhood Conrad largely outgrew his early sickliness, but remained very highly strung. On his nervous days, according to Langlois, "he had a tick of the shoulder and of the eyes, and the most minor unexpected occurrence—something falling on the floor or a door slamming—would make him jump. He was what we would call a neurasthenic."3 That was in 1888, and in 1890 Conrad's Congo voyage seriously worsened his physical and nervous health. From then on he was intermittently immobilised by severe attacks of malaria, rheumatism, and especially gout, as well as by periods of prostrating psychological depression. It is very difficult to know how to assess the ultimate importance of Conrad's recurrent ill-health and nervous instability. Some biographies, of which that by his wife, Jessie Conrad, was the first and Bernard Meyer's is the fullest, make this side of Conrad's personality dominant; and although one certainly cannot blame them for not explaining Conrad's genius—who could?—one is left wondering how the psychologically crippled valetudinarian they present could have managed to survive past the age of sixty-six, and produce some twenty volumes of fiction that are marked by gloom, certainly, but also by a moral strength and sanity that remains unrivalled in the literature of our century. A striking disparity such as that between Conrad's psychology and his creative achievement is common enough among writers. The parallel 80 THEMISSOURIREVIEW with Samuel Johnson is particularly illuminating. Neither Johnson nor Conrad wrote directly about their inner lives, and it is only our subliminal sense of great energies at play to keep turbulent and destructive personal feelings under conscious control which makes us feel that in both cases we are in touch with one of the great heroes of the wars of the mind. In some ways it is more difficult with Conrad than with Johnson to understand the man. One reason is the nature of the evidence. Very few of Conrad's own letters from the first half of his life have survived; and although his autobiographical writings, notablyA Personal Record and The Mirror of the Sea, are both illuminating and of supreme literary quality, they are highly selective. Conrad scorned the confessional genre as "a form of literary activity discredited by Jean Jacques Rousseau on account of the extreme thoroughness he brought to the task of justifying his own existence" (PR, 95); and Conrad was the last man either to provide raw biographical data for public consumption, or...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 79-88
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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