Before I turn to Conrad, I want again to mention the short novel I’ve just published, a political novella about Israel during an international crisis. As I’ve mentioned, I have revised it over the years (with two agents’ help, it was nearly accepted for publication a couple of times), and I’ve now made it available newly revised through Amazon’s free publishing arm, Createspace. With its nuclear theme inside something of a thriller structure as well as its portrait of three generations of Israelis, the difficult political questions it raises sadly remain relevant. The title is Acts of Terror and Contrition: A Nuclear Fable (that’s the Amazon link), and it’s accompanied by eight stories of mine about America in the 80s (i.e., during the Reagan years through the fall of the Berlin Wall). I’m glad that it’s now available to people who might find it moving and stimulating.
The issue of the novel’s relationship to the most harrowing problems in society is, of course, central to Joseph Conrad’s novels. As he engages his (and our) world’s excesses and political extremities, the governing approach or aesthetic of his fiction marks his novels as a product of the twentieth century. Each of Conrad’s narratives embodies and projects, for one thing, the core modernist strategy of perspectivism, which is finally a process of unfolding multiple points of view in a sort of counterpoint of voices. Views and voices mix and collide, altering one another, and this continual (simultaneously spatial and temporal) altering and unfolding is for Conrad a key to the process of understanding reality; finally it is a way of being. His own identity and experience embodies just those qualities so central to his imagination. The sense of his being an alien in British society and of being repeatedly fragmented by his experience and by his society’s fate: all of this is built into his life history – in childhood as a colonial subject of Russian rule in Poland, as a self-exile from Poland at 17 to Marseilles, as a Francophile who adopted English as a merchant marine and then as a writer, finally as a British citizen.
From his birth in 1857, Conrad’s life dramatically embodies the modernist concerns with dangerous excess and with the implacable collision of perspectives. His father, Apollo, reminds Bernard Meyer, who is one of Conrad’s biographers, of Balzac’s comment that if you point out a precipice to a Pole, he will immediately throw himself over, dressed in full regimental regalia. Apollo – a member of the landed gentry, proudly bearing the Nalcesz coat-of-arms – was a member of the Polish National Committee opposed to Russian rule over Poland. A literary and political writer and a translator of French and English literature, Apollo named his son Konrad, after the hero of a nineteenth-century Polish national epic hero. When Conrad was four, he almost died of pneumonia as his parents took him with them into Russian exile, which was Apollo’s punishment for his political opposition to Russian rule. In a remote town, north of Moscow, young Conrad – he was then seven – watched his mother die of tuberculosis; she was also of the landed gentry, but her family was grounded, practical, and disapproving of her marriage. At the age of 11, Conrad moved back to Poland with his ill and dying father, permitted finally to return; after Apollo’s death, the boy was made to walk at the head of the large patriotic funeral procession.
For the next six years, Conrad – initiated into trauma, resilient yet sensitive to disconnection – was raised by his mother’s practical brother, Uncle Tadeuz, in Krakow where he was tutored in his mid-teens (and visited the French-speaking part of Switzerland with his tutor, who reported to Tadeuz that the adolescent Conrad was “an incorrigible Don Quixote”). The Uncle feared that Apollo was influencing his son from the grave, and yet at the age of 16, Conrad was given permission (and funds) to go to Marseilles in order to apprentice as a French merchant marine. This was in 1874, a year in France not unlike 1974 in America – a time of profound disillusionment and realism about the government and the disastrous 1871 Franco-Prussian War. Over the next two years, in his late teens, Conrad shipped to Martenique and to Venezuela, illegally ran guns to Carlist revolutionaries in Spain, squandered most of his money, experienced a disastrous love affair, and attempted suicide by shooting himself in the chest (but missing his heart). The French immigration office understandably cancelled his sailor’s license.
Conrad traveled to England, enlisted in the British merchant Marines, and began his sixteen-year career rising in the ranks to Captain and becoming a naturalized British subject in 1887. He served as Captain of the Roi de Belges, going up the Congo River in 1890, and his experiences during that voyage became part of the basis of Heart of Darkness, written in 1900. His literary career began however when, he says, he was docked in Rouen harbor and started writing Almayer’s Folly in the flyleaf pages of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, the proto-modern masterpiece of stark realism and exacting style about Emma Bovary’s needy and out-sized ego (Conrad admired Flaubert and especially Maupassant, for they had “the courage to state the hardest truths”). This first novel is about a sort of Pere Goriot, that is, a King Lear-like father, who struggles to protect and control his daughters; already here, Conrad is exploring the creation of a consuming, larger-than-life character, who – tragicomic though he is – threatens to crack open the structure of his family and society. In 1894, when Conrad was thirty-seven, the novel was accepted for publication; also that year, Uncle Tadeuz died, and Conrad formally ended his sea career (which had already been curtailed by his illness after his trip up the Congo four years earlier). He settled in London and married his typist Jessie George in 1896. Mrs. Conrad’s memoir is a suggestive source in documenting the neurasthenic agony of writing for him.
Conrad sometimes buckled under the pressure of writing, for he consistently set himself the hardest tasks as a novelist. The modernist audacity and ambition of his works during the first decade of the twentieth century exacted a great toll, and after the completion of Under Western Eyes in 1910-11, he suffered a serious breakdown. In that work, he summonses the courage to return in imagination to the scene of his earliest traumatic experience of political oppression and extremity and to write a novel about Russian autocracy, modeled in part on Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (Conrad uses elements of that novel, despite his antipathy toward the Russian novelist). The essay “Autocracy and War” like Conrad’s 1911 novel presents a vision of existence as combat between an inhuman nothingness or “néant” (embodied for Conrad by the political oppression of the Russian Tsar and by Bismarck in Germany) and the capacity to sustain compassion and empathy (the “sympathetic imagination” toward others, on which human community is based and which is often sustained, he writes, by women); Under Western Eyes portrays a group of such women who variously struggle to help each other and the protagonist Razumov to endure oppression’s negation of the human. Thomas Mann greatly admired the novel, particularly for its juxtaposition of narrators and its metafictional perspectivism: Razumov’s journal of being buffeted by the forces of oppression (and his own internalization of them) is “translated from the Russian” by a well-meaning, sentimental and somewhat blinkered English “professor,” who provides his Western reading of the harrowing Eastern tale. The novel is that rare work of art, Mann writes, capable of bridging the divide between and synthesizing the implacably opposed entities of East and West in Europe.
In my next post, I’ll try to indicate other instances of the courage and modernist audacity of conception at work in Conrad’s perspectivist novels and, also, to explain his rendering of the modern novel’s characteristic “gigantism” and particularly the revelatory excess of self-absorption and megalomania in some of Conrad's most compelling characters.
About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art
A new book about Beethoven gathers together (and completely rewrites and supplements) my blog posts on Beethoven into a short introduction to the composer, Ways of Hearing Beethoven, which I hope to see published. My novel The Fall of the Berlin Wall, completed a year ago, is about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. Five years ago, my 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, which I would love to see published. One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse, which I think would be of value to a conventional publisher. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a full rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[My blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]
[My blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]