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Reviewed by:
  • The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad by John Stape, and: A Personal Record by Joseph Conrad
  • Marion C. Michael (bio)
Stape, John . The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad. New York: Pantheon Books, 2007. 369 pp. ISBN 978-I-4000-4449-8
Conrad, Joseph . A Personal Record. eds. Zdzisław Najder and J. H. Stape. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 227 pp. ISBN 978-0-521-86176-2


Considering the merits of John Stape's The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad and the Cambridge edition of A Personal Record in a single review involves more than the coincidence of Najder and Stape's co-editing the latter. Stape acknowledges that his treatment of Conrad's Polish years in Several Lives derives from the documents found in Conrad's Polish Background: Letters to and from Polish Friends and Conrad under Familial Eyes, both edited by Najder (SL, 339). On the other hand, Stape is very much aware of himself as the fourth generation biographer of Conrad, reckoning from Jocelyn Baines' Joseph Conrad: A Critical Biography, published in 1960, which Stape considers the "foundation upon which all later biographies have built" (SL, xxii). Thus, it is fair play in attempting to comprehend the worth of Several Lives as biography to view it in relation to Stape's concern to distinguish it from the worth of its predecessors, especially Najder's Joseph Conrad: A Chronicle and Fred Karl's Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives. But these matters are perhaps too tangential to provide the link that I am seeking to establish. In Several Lives Stape notes that a review of A Personal Record, under its first title Some Reminiscences—the review published in The Nation on 24 February 1912—was rightly titled 'An Elusive Personality'" (xxiv). Agreeing with the reviewer's characterization of Conrad as elusive, Stape asserts in Several Lives, "And so he remains despite the varied evidence that has come to light about his life since 1924. . . ." (SL, xxiv). Yet it is sometimes possible to discern a bit of Conrad in what he has to say about others, a fact which Stape tacitly acknowledges when he employs as the title for Chapter 6 of Several Lives Conrad's description of Anatole France as an "analyst of illusions" in Notes on Life and Letters, a volume which Stape edited, assisted by Andrew Busza, in the Cambridge Edition (NNL, 30-1). In that it provides the direction for his biography, a forthright recognition of the difficulty encountered in solving the enigma represented by Conrad's life, Stape's choice of the epigraph for Several Lives, taken from Lord Jim, is certainly fitting:

It is when we try to grapple with another man's intimate need that we perceive how incomprehensible, wavering, and misty are the beings that share [End Page 168] with us the sight of the stars and the warmth of the sun. It is as if loneliness were a hard and absolute condition of existence; the envelope of flesh and blood on which our eyes are fixed melts before the outstretched hand and there remains only the capricious, unconsolable, and elusive spirit that no eye can follow, no hand can grasp.

(LJ, Epigraph)

Given Stape's recognition of the difficulty, if not impossibility, of coming directly at the elusive, enigmatic Conrad, impressionism becomes an important factor in Several Lives. And it manifests itself early in Stape's interpretation of a portrait of Apollo Korzeniowski, Conrad's father:

Surviving photographs of Korzeniowski in early middle age suggest that the beauty [Ewa Korzeniowska] discerned was of the inner kind. Extravagantly bearded, with unruly shoulder length hair, short of statue and slight of build, he confronted the camera with almost disconcerting austerity and self assurance. Earnestness, that quintessentially nineteenth-century virtue, is deeply engraved upon his brow. He appears as if only partly tamed and, whether seated or mid-stride, ready to spring from the enforced pose.

(SL, 8)

Along this same line, Stape later defends Edward Garnett from Ford Madox Ford's description of him as "the literary dictator of London" (SL, 81) by asserting that photographs of Ford "suggest a drooping walrus suffering from chronic fatigue" and offers a corroboration...


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