- Joseph Conrad and the Reader: Questioning Modern Theories of Narrative and Readership by Amar ACHERAÏOU
The blurb on the back of Joseph Conrad and the Reader makes high claims regarding the importance of this text, stating that the study “proposes new avenues to modern literary criticism” and “introduces several cutting-edge theoretical concepts” including seeing “the text as a tripartite transaction.” After reading the book, I am left with a distinct impression that old literary critical fashions are coming back in style, except under the ownership of new theoretical concept brands. Some parts of Acheraïou’s book are illuminating, especially his summary of Polish and British responses to Conrad’s work, but the preoccupation with opening “new avenues” brings with it some noticeable weaknesses.
In part one, “Theoretical Perspectives,” Acheraïou provides a summary of Barthes’s theory of the death of the author and demonstrates that Conrad did not share Barthes’s notions about the relationships among the author, reader, and text: “where Barthes dismisses the writer as a total absence, Conrad grants that novelist a real, though unstable footing in his writing” (19). Acheraïou concludes that “what Conrad finally suggests through the notion of authorship is a textual dynamics that unsettles (post) modernist and modern criticism’s exclusionary and radical views on texts” (20). “Modern” appears to mean recent, as in the ideas and theories, colored by deconstructionism, that have prevailed in the last twenty years. The ideas in Acheraïou’s explanation of “tripartite transaction” have a distinctly old-fashioned flavor (21). When seeing “the author as a secret sharer in the shaping of sense,” Acheraïou identifies “the reader as an active collaborator” (21). “Tripartite transaction” is a restatement of the old idea in literary criticism that authors, readers, and texts are all involved in the shaping of meaning: no one part of the triangle has absolute claim. This well-trodden assumption of literary criticism is refashioned in a new jargon.
The best part of the book is the second, “Reception Theory: Reading as a Cultural and Ideological Construct,” which offers a valuable glimpse into the Polish and the British responses to Conrad’s fiction in successive chapters. Acheraïou provides useful summaries of the views articulated by Polish writers from Conrad’s age including Wincenty Lutoslawski, Elisa Orzeszkowa, and Viktor Gomulicki, all critics who disparaged Conrad’s work. The chapter also shows Conrad’s response to his Polish critics, revisits Gustav Morf’s criticism, and demonstrates the change in tone in Polish criticism since the 1930s in Zdisław Najder, Andrzej Busza, and others. The account of the British reception of Conrad’s work is also concise and effective. Acheraïou [End Page 125] traces the different strands that contribute to the construction of Conrad’s identity as a foreigner writing in English and the notion of Englishness that both included and excluded Conrad’s genius. The reading of “Amy Foster” that closes the chapter emphasizes Conrad’s keen awareness of the uncertain position he occupied in English life and letters for much of his writing career.
Part three, “Aesthetic Ramifications, Narrative Entanglements, and Fictional Readers,” is divided into five chapters, the last of which is subdivided in four sections. Acheraïou begins with connecting Conrad’s visual aesthetics with a range of writers and traditions including, for instance, Dante, Thucydides, Homer, Herodotus, Cicero, Addison, Sterne, Fielding, and Flaubert. He uses Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, Nostromo, and Victory to discuss the differences between “nominal” and “metaphorical” (or “rhetorical”) readers, the former “reading all kinds of texts in the here-and-now of the fictional time” and the latter being “active observers and interpreters of allegorical scripts” (94). In discussing narrative solidarity and narrative hierarchies, Acheraïou suggests that Marlow exemplifies a narrative voice in Conrad’s fiction that “clearly enjoys supreme status” because “Marlow’s views prevail over the secondary narrators’ evaluations” (120). The argument appears to swing the pendulum far from J. Hillis Miller’s notable reading in “Lord Jim: Repetition as...