Short Tales of Joseph Conrad


A striking portrait of Conrad, aged about 46, was drawn by the historian and poet Henry Newbolt, who met him about 1903:

One thing struck me at once—the extraordinary difference between his expression in profile and when looked at full face. [W]hile the profile was aquiline and commanding, in the front view the broad brow, wide-apart eyes and full lips produced the effect of an intellectual calm and even at times of a dreaming philosophy. Then [a]s we sat in our little half-circle round the fire, and talked on anything and everything, I saw a third Conrad emerge—an artistic self, sensitive and restless to the last degree. The more he talked the more quickly he consumed his cigarettes... And presently, when I asked him why he was leaving London after... only two days, he replied that... the crowd in the streets... terrified him. "Terrified? By that dull stream of obliterated faces?" He leaned forward with both hands raised and clenched. "Yes, terrified: I see their personalities all leaping out at me like tigers!" He acted the tiger well enough almost to terrify his hearers: but the moment after he was talking again wisely and soberly as if he were an average Englishman with not an irritable nerve in his body.[2]:331

On 12 October 1912, American music critic James Huneker visited Conrad and later recalled being received by "a man of the world, neither sailor nor novelist, just a simple-mannered gentleman, whose welcome was sincere, whose glance was veiled, at times far-away, whose ways were French, Polish, anything but 'literary,' bluff or English."[2]:437

After respective separate visits to Conrad in August and September 1913, two British aristocrats, the socialite Lady Ottoline Morrell and the mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell – who were lovers at the time – recorded their impressions of the novelist. In her diary, Morrell wrote:

I found Conrad himself standing at the door of the house ready to receive me. How different from the [disparaging] picture Henry James had evoked [in conversation with Morrell], for Conrad's appearance was really that of a Polish nobleman. His manner was perfect, almost too elaborate; so nervous and sympathetic that every fibre of him seemed electric... He talked English with a strong accent, as if he tasted his words in his mouth before pronouncing them; but he talked extremely well, though he had always the talk and manner of a foreigner... He was dressed very carefully in a blue double-breasted jacket. He talked... apparently with great freedom about his life – more ease and freedom indeed than an Englishman would have allowed himself. He spoke of the horrors of the Congo, from the moral and physical shock of which he said he had never recovered... [His wife Jessie] seemed a nice and good-looking fat creature, an excellent cook, as Henry James [had] said, and was indeed a good and reposeful mattress for this hypersensitive, nerve-wracked man, who did not ask from his wife high intelligence, only an assuagement of life's vibrations.... He made me feel so natural and very much myself, that I was almost afraid of losing the thrill and wonder of being there, although I was vibrating with intense excitement inside; and even now, as I write this, I feel almost the same excitement, the same thrill of having been in the presence of one of the most remarkable men I have known. His eyes under their pent-house lids revealed the suffering and the intensity of his experiences; when he spoke of his work, there came over them a sort of misty, sensuous, dreamy look, but they seemed to hold deep down the ghosts of old adventures and experiences – once or twice there was something in them one almost suspected of being wicked.... But then I believe whatever strange wickedness would tempt this super-subtle Pole, he would be held in restraint by an equally delicate sense of honour.... In his talk he led me along many paths of his life, but I felt that he did not wish to explore the jungle of emotions that lay dense on either side, and that his apparent frankness had a great reserve. This may perhaps be characteristic of Poles as it is of the Irish.[2]:447

A month later, Bertrand Russell visited Conrad at Capel House, and the same day on the train wrote down his impressions:

It was wonderful – I loved him & I think he liked me. He talked a great deal about his work & life & aims, & about other writers.... I got him on to Henry James... Then we went for a little walk, & somehow grew very intimate. I plucked up courage to tell him what I find in his work – the boring down into things to get to the very bottom below the apparent facts. He seemed to feel I had understood him; then I stopped & we just looked into each other's eyes for some time, & then he said he had grown to wish he could live on the surface and write differently, that he had grown frightened. His eyes at the moment expressed the inward pain & terror that one feels him always fighting.... Then he talked a lot about Poland, & showed me an album of family photographs of the [18]60's – spoke about how dream-like all that seems, & how he sometimes feels he ought not to have had any children, because they have no roots or traditions or relations.[2]:448

Russell's insights, so resonant with Morrell's, reveal the profundity of Conrad's existential loneliness. Russell's Autobiography, published over half a century later in 1968, vividly confirms his original experience:

My first impression was one of surprise. He spoke English with a very strong foreign accent, and nothing in his demeanour in any way suggested the sea. He was an aristocratic Polish gentleman to his fingertips.... At our very first meeting, we talked with continually increasing intimacy. We seemed to sink through layer after layer of what was superficial, till gradually both reached the central fire. It was an experience unlike any other... I have known. We looked into each other's eyes, half appalled and half intoxicated to find ourselves together in such a region. The emotion was as intense as passionate love, and at the same time all-embracing. I came away bewildered, and hardly able to find my way among ordinary affairs.[2]:448–49

The two men's subsequent friendship and correspondence lasted, with long intervals, to the end of Conrad's life. In one letter, Conrad avowed his "deep admiring affection, which, if you were never to see me again and forget my existence tomorrow will be unalterably yours usque ad finem."[2]:449 Conrad in his correspondence often used the Latin expression meaning "to the very end", which he seems to have adopted from his faithful guardian, mentor and benefactor, his maternal uncle Tadeusz Bobrowski.[58]

Conrad looked with less optimism than Russell on the possibilities of scientific and philosophic knowledge.[2]:449 In a 1913 letter to acquaintances who had invited Conrad to join their society, he reiterated his belief that it was impossible to understand the essence of either reality or life: both science and art penetrate no further than the outer shapes.[2]:446

Najder describes Conrad as "[a]n alienated émigré... haunted by a sense of the unreality of other people – a feeling natural to someone living outside the established structures of family, social milieu, and country".[2]:576

Throughout almost his entire life Conrad was an outsider and felt himself to be one. An outsider in exile; an outsider during his visits to his family in... Ukraine; an outsider – because of his experiences and bereavement – in [Kraków] and Lwów; an outsider in Marseilles; an outsider, nationally and culturally, on British ships; an outsider as an English writer.[2]:576

Conrad's sense of loneliness throughout his exile's life found memorable expression in the 1901 short story, "Amy Foster".

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