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Literature & poetry

Ancient views on the mariner

Conrad in Perspective

When critical enterprise devotes itself exclusively to one artistic personality, sometimes the price is a certain indifference to wider critical and theoretical innovation: single-author criticism often sniffily bars fashionable gate-crashers at the exegete's more specialised scholarly feast. Perhaps this explains why Zdzislaw Najder, whose four decades of biographical and critical research on Joseph Conrad have earned him an unquestioned authority, has produced such a strikingly old-fashioned book. Of course, it is not a catastrophe to be old-fashioned - why after all should every critic sing from the same postmodern hymn-sheet? Najder himself, who with disarming candour confesses himself a "mastodon" in the marshes of contemporary theory, is unapologetic: "The critic's sole raison d'etre is to assist the readers in their enjoyment and understanding. The scholar's primary raison d'etre is to help the critic I" Thus many of the principal themes of recent Conrad criticism are absent: Najder is signally oblivious to Conrad's tricky gender politics, does not consider that the novelist's encounter with the colonial project is marked less by simple condemnation than radical ambivalence, and uninterested in the stylistic and narrative reflexivity that identifies Conrad as at least as much a modernist as an inheritor of the 19th-century tradition. It is rather as if much Conrad criticism of the past 15 years had never been.

Najder's Conrad has no truck with the sort of ambiguities that tend to preoccupy theorists: he is first and foremost a figure of fierce if frequently agonised ethical commitment, steering by the lodestar of "fidelity" - fidelity not to abstract principles but to oneself and one's reciprocal obligation to a community (Conrad's privileged image of community is of course the working, contesting shipboard crew). One feels these values are also very much Najder's own: the critic's evident admiration for and even identification with his subject is striking.

This is very much a Conrad of the liberal imagination - sceptical of the prospects for human perfectibility yet committed to the fight against quietism, radically antagonistic to what he saw as the twin demons of atavistic barbarism and revolutionary Utopianism; patriotic in the generous traditions of 19th-century nationalism rather than their murderously exclusive modern inheritors.

Indeed, the most passionate and convincing contributions here are the essays that insist on the indispensability to Conrad's ethical position of the legacy of Polish romanticism, where literary creation featured in contradictory fashion as both the necessary sublimation of political activism in partitioned Poland under imperial Russian domination, yet also as an intolerable refuge from and evasion of action: the same double bind we encounter repeatedly in the wanderers, exiles, and refugees who people Conrad's stories. The stress of suffering such irreconcilable ethical and social demands in Najder's eyes lends Conradian protagonists like Lord Jim and Razumov (in Under Western Eyes, whose conflicted debt to Dostoyevsky is the subject of one of the best essays here) a classically tragic aspect. Najder's own experience of political struggle (condemned to death in absentia by the Polish military regime of the 1980s) informs this portrait.

This is a collection of variable quality, whose intended audience remains unclear. Although the three opening chapters, crucial for Najder's portrait in stressing Conrad's patrimony of progressive nationalist struggle, expertly sketch his Polish background with a wealth of detail, little here will be new to the specialist. Several other essays read like eloquent prefaces to a collected edition or (as they mostly were) papers delivered in the receptive atmosphere of a specialists' convocation.

The trouble with Najder's Conrad, finally, is that he seems a rather rigid, monolithic figure, more profound than he is complex. Yet surely what continues to compel readers in Conrad is precisely his indeterminacy - pitched on the cusp of modernism, working to renovate such venerable categories as honour and faith while his every sentence betrays an anxiety at their imminent obsolescence. And Najder seems to miss this unique flavour of unsought (by Conrad) equivocality that animates the Conradian text. One example will suffice: to Najder, the famous episode at the end of Heart of Darkness when Marlow lies to Kurtz's "Intended" about her lover's last words exemplifies the social contract of fidelity: she remains committed to her cherished image of Kurtz while Marlow in his turn refuses to betray her own fiercely held fidelity. But consider a reading that pointed out the heavy reliance of Conrad's construction of a discourse of "fidelity", here as elsewhere, on the invocation of a clearly gendered sublime, and the affinities of his nameless "Intended" with the inscrutable Otherness of the African continent by which the colonial project is at once fascinated and disabled: would this really be so untrue to Conrad, and to our experience of reading him? Najder's evident belief that it would, ultimately does an injustice not only to his complex and fascinating hero but to his ideal of serving the reader's interests.

Barry Langford is lecturer in film studies, Royal Holloway, University of London.

Conrad in Perspective: Essays on Art and Fidelity

Author - Zdzislaw Najder
ISBN - 0 521 57321 1
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 240

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