Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) considered himself a man of three lives: one as an ethnic Pole born in the Ukraine who lived the early part of his life in what is now Poland; one as a widely traveled seaman; and another as a writer in England. A master of reinventing himself, Conrad occasionally applied his fiction-writing skills to autobiography. To further complicate matters, some of those close to him gave inaccurate accounts of his life. John Stape, editor of The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad and co-editor of two volumes of The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad, is the ideal biographer for such a complex subject. An intrepid researcher, Stape debunks some Conradian myths in his latest book, The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad.
An orphan by his teens, Conrad decided to go to sea, inspired by sea novels and youthful rebellion. During this period he read widely and developed two defining lifelong characteristics: acute observation skills and a habit of living beyond his means. Of particular interest are Stape's exploration of Conrad's travels as sources for his later novels and stories; for example, his 1890 trip to the Congo inspired his most famous tale, Heart of Darkness. As Stape writes, "His experience of the depths of rapacity, inhumanity, and cynicism was to alter his views of life forever, and his contact with the climate permanently damaged his health."Stape deals with the related questions of why Conrad became a writer and why he decided to write in English (his third language after Polish and French), dismissing Conrad's insistence that he just sat down one day and started to write. Though Conrad's extraordinary talent was recognized by many in literary circles early in his career, it would be years before he gained a significant readership. Conrad's relationships with publishers and his close friendships with Stephen Crane and John Galsworthy are also discussed.
This authoritative and insightful book should be appreciated by all who enjoy Conrad's work, as well as readers who like good biography.
Roger Bishop is a retired Nashville bookseller.