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Reviewed by:
  • Critical Approaches to Joseph Conrad ed. by Agata Szczeszak-Brewer
  • Rebecah Pulsifer
Agata Szczeszak-Brewer, ed. Critical Approaches to Joseph Conrad. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2015. x + 254 pp.

Joseph Conrad remains one of the most complex figures in modernist studies. His fiction continues to invite debate on the ethics of representation (particularly of the global south), modernism's fascination with ambiguity, and the methods through which we encounter literary texts. The essays in Critical Approaches to Joseph Conrad extend these conversations, offering an array of approaches to Conrad as an author of colonial contact, a participant in the literary marketplace, and an antecedent to contemporary representations of racism, postcolonialism, and other forms of inequity. Agata Szczeszak-Brewer opens this accessible edited collection by recalling Chinua Achebe's well-known critique of what he saw as Heart of Darkness's inherent racism. Szczeszak-Brewer writes that, for her, the very contentiousness of Heart of Darkness reaffirms its cultural and pedagogical significance: "I thought of intense and engaged debates in my classroom on this very topic whenever I taught the novella. And I decided to include the book in my syllabus" (1). This opening gesture sets the stage for many concerns that recur in the essays comprising this volume: the persistent debates surrounding Conrad's representations of race, colonialism, and empire, particularly in Heart of Darkness; the indeterminacies (ethical, formal, and thematic) that characterize Conrad's oeuvre; Conrad's influence on writers and thinkers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; and Conrad's current place both in literary studies and in the classroom.

This volume is divided into three sections. The introduction and part one, "Conrad's Contexts," orient the reader to Conrad's life and the worlds with which he interacted as a merchant marine, expatriate, and author. Part two, "Critical Approaches to Heart of Darkness," zeroes in on Conrad's best-known (and most commonly [End Page 594] taught) text. The four essays in this section document the contributions of Heart of Darkness to contemporary accounts of colonialism and postcolonialism. Part three, "Critical Approaches to Other Major Texts," offers fresh readings of Almayer's Folly, Lord Jim, Typhoon, Nostromo, The Secret Agent, "The Secret Sharer," and Under Western Eyes. While this section focuses on Conrad's other familiar fictions, it also connects his life and work to the larger networks (collaborative, aesthetic, and economic) of modernism.

This volume's essays are particularly strong in their illumination of the multifaceted biographical, historical, and cultural circumstances in which Conrad forged his literary works. In her introduction, Szczeszak-Brewer's brief biography of Conrad provides an image of a brilliant yet troubled author whose life was characterized by contradiction and conflict. That "Poland existed only as a concept" for most of Conrad's life (3) and that he acted as an agent of colonialism during his twenty years at sea, Szczeszak-Brewer suggests, informs "the constant 'becoming' of his characters, the active, wandering mind of his narrators, the conflicts, the paradoxes, and the unresolved questions in his fiction" (8). Barry Morton extends Szczeszak-Brewer's biographical focus by elucidating the complex histories of three locales that are especially significant to Conrad's life and work: partitioned Poland, the Malaysian Archipelago, and the Congo Free State. John G. Peters provides a concise overview of Conrad's critical reception by outlining the major conversations that have characterized Conrad scholarship. Nisha Manocha traces the author's contemporaneous literary influences by demonstrating how authors such as H. G. Wells, Virginia Woolf, and Willa Cather imitated his stylistic "repetitions and dense descriptions" as well as his fascination with "so-called exotic locales" (100). Andrew Glazzard's brilliant essay on The Secret Agent's source texts and publication history establishes the intricate relationship between literary production and publishing constraints, which in turn points to "the complexities of authorship" (161). Overall, this collection's attention to the material and relational conditions that shaped Conrad's work provides an interesting case study in some of literary modernism's cultural peculiarities, particularly the interrelations of imperialism and national identity as well as of mass markets and authorship.

Several essays in this volume demonstrate the theoretical flexibility...


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