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A Genius Who Crossed the Line : JOSEPH CONRAD: A Biography, By Jeffrey Meyers (Scribner's Sons: $27.50; 417 pp.)

June 23, 1991|Jay Parini | Parini is a poet and novelist. His most recent novel is "The Last Station," a novel of Tolstoy's final year

Joseph Conrad was an unlikely person to have become one of the great novelists of the English language. For a start, he was born Teodor Korzeniowski, the son of a Polish aristocrat. On top of that, he was not terribly well educated in any conventional sense, having left high school before graduating. As a boy, he wanted, more than anything, to go to sea. And go to sea he did.

From 1878 through 1894, he worked as a seaman, eventually winding up in the British merchant navy, where he eventually rose to the rank of captain. Describing Conrad's career at sea in this new biography, Jeffrey Meyers writes: "During his twenty years at sea, he sought variety rather than consistency in the pursuit of his profession. He never sustained a successful career with any one firm or shipping line, and worked on eighteen different ships." Like so many seamen before him, Conrad sought adventure; to an extraordinary degree, he found it.

These adventures--running guns for the Carlist cause, piloting a river boat in the Congo, cavorting with local tribesmen in Borneo, and so forth--provided him with enough good material for a lifetime of writing. The amazing thing is that he was able to cross the line from minor Polish sailor to major English novelist: an incredible, incomprehensible feat that has challenged biographers from the beginning. And, indeed, biographers have flocked to Conrad, intrigued by the endless mystery of the man.

Among the first scholars to approach this subject was G. Jean Aubrey, who published a two-volume tome in 1927 but never came very close to understanding Conrad. There were two important early memoirs, one by Jessie Conrad, the novelist's wife, another by Ford Madox Ford, a close friend and fellow novelist. These remain an invaluable source of nitty-gritty stuff about Conrad's personality. More recently, biographies by Zdzislaw Najder and Frederick Karl have added considerably to the store of available facts. (Najder in particular did some pioneering research on Conrad's Polish background.)

What has been lacking is a biography that makes overall sense of the myriad, often contradictory, facts of Conrad's life. Now Meyers has supplied that book. He has depended heavily on previous scholarship, as well he should have. This was not meant to be a ground-breaking biography in that sense, although there is in fact a good deal of new material in this study. More important, Meyers has looked hard at the raw materials of Conrad's life and made the right connections. The resulting portrait is stunning.

What enhances Meyer's portrait is the way he uses the later novels as a guide to the early life. Conrad's strange devotion to the Carlist revolution in Spain, for instance, always has remained a curious thing. But Meyers has mined "The Arrow of Gold," a late novel, to good effect in interpreting the young author's romantic attraction to this doomed, reactionary cause. He also quotes from an unpublished memoir by one of Conrad's oldest English friends, G. F. W. Hope, in an illuminating way on this subject. Always, Meyers flashes forward and backward with great ease, never hesitating to make connections. Quite sensibly, he reads Conrad's attraction to this lost cause in the light of his father's idealistic but doomed devotion to Polish nationalism.

Meyers is a well-known scholar of literary modernism, and his previous books on Wyndham Lewis, Katherine Mansfield and D. H. Lawrence all have been useful in preparing him to write this life of Conrad. He has the kind of effortless knowledge of the literary landscape of Britain in the early years of this century that is essential in a good Conrad biographer. What this means is that he can talk easily about Conrad's literary circle, which included Henry James, H. G. Wells, Ford, Hugh Walpole and others. He also understands the fiction and, more complexly, the ways in which literal truth often must be "stretched" in pursuit of imaginative truth.

Conrad, as Meyers notes, was not at ease with his pen: "A slow and painstaking writer, Conrad felt utterly exhausted after completing three hundred words--a page and a half in his script--which was his average daily achievement." Dickens, by contrast, would write 10 times that in a day and feel exhilarated, ready to walk 10 or 20 miles through London. What was wrong with Conrad?

He was deeply neurotic, for a start, subject to dark moods and fits of temper. And he was often ill, suffering from an array of aches and pains, including gout and recurrent headaches. He also was a solitary man who did not connect, fully, even with his wife.

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