It’s about time we revive the great modernist’s digressive autobiography about language and writing.
By **Kaya Genc**
Joseph Conrad’s A Personal Record, one hundred years old last month, is out of copyright and out of print. The autobiography of a great modernist, the book exists in a digital version on Amazon and Project Gutenberg but its status otherwise bears out what Conrad himself feared while writing it, that nobody would read his memoirs. “I was told severely that the public would view with displeasure the informal character of my recollections,” he wrote in the book’s hackneyed opening. But the informal character of the book may be what is most appealing for us today: a digressive autobiography about language and writing. Reading it a century after it appeared leaves one with the story not just of the author’s life, but of the hardships that accompany writing in English.
The title may ring familiar. Almost all Conrad’s most famous books, Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, mention A Personal Record in their introductions, some in extensive detail. The devoted Conrad reader finds passages that shed light on how his best work was conceived and how he made the remarkable decision, in his thirty second year, to become an English novelist.
But not everyone was convinced about the accuracy of Conrad’s recollections. For many of his biographers Conrad’s attempt at an “accurate” autobiography proved a regrettable failure. What began as a “personal record” of his life turned out to be a document that misled those who were eager to penetrate its secrets. He misremembered the names of ships he sailed with and dates of significant events. Like Oscar Wilde, Conrad enjoyed bending facts and creating myths about himself. He even fabricated whole scenes in order to create a dramatic, vivid style which resembled that of his novels.
A Personal Record was produced amidst personal and artistic crisis in Conrad’s life, during years in which he struggled to finish his eleventh novel, published finally in 1911 as Under Western Eyes. While his literary agent, James Brand Pinker, pressured him, Conrad worked diligently on a project he thought would amount to sixty thousand words. But he finished it at twice that length. An elaborately designed and politically complicated project, the novel demanded him to quarry his English “out of a black night, working like a coal miner in his pit”. Issues such as autocracy and Russian anarchists brought to Conrad’s mind memories of his own passionately nationalist parents’ struggles against the Russian state. Apart from these personal and linguistic difficulties, Conrad was beset by financial problems and owed Pinker, for one, a great deal of money. There were also health problems. His wife Jessie had recently fallen, injuring her knees and needing constant care; and his own fits of gout added to this setback. Conrad saw himself as a failure.
These were his circumstances when his friend Ford Madox Ford approached him for a set of articles for his new literary magazine, the English Review. Conrad was more than happy to accept, to earn some quick cash, briefly get away from the manuscript of a book too deeply rooted in Slavic matters, and take some joy in writing “intimate personal autobiographical things.” The initial title, Life and the Art, changed upon publication in the English Review during 1908-1909 to Some Reminiscences.
In January 1912, the book appeared in England. When Harpers produced an American edition, the title changed again to A Personal Record. But the J. M. Dent & Sons version of 1919 contained one of its most precious parts, the introductory Author’s Note. It testifies to how these recollections were linked to an extremely personal concern of Conrad. As his eminent biographer Zdzisław Najder argues, one significant factor in Conrad’s undertaking of the project had been his need, while giving life to old recollections, to answer his critics. A hostile review of Conrad’s A Set of Six, a collection of stories, had left deep wounds. Writing for the Daily News, Robert Lynd introduces Conrad as “a Pole, who writes in English by choice,” which (according to him) was “a very regrettable thing”. Those who don’t write in their native tongues, claims Lynd, are fated to lose “the concentration and intensity of vision without which the greatest literature cannot be made”; and Conrad would be a much better writer, he insists, in his native Polish.
Apart from being an attack on his literary, linguistic and cultural credentials, Lynd characterizes him as a “cosmopolitan” and “a homeless person”. Sir Hugh Clifford presents Conrad as having made a choice between French and English before writing his first novel. In his Author’s Note, Conrad countered that writing in English had never been a choice; he was rather “adopted by the genius of the language.” Had he not written in English, he insists, he would not have written at all.
“At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, When I grow up I will go there”.
Conrad’s recollections of his father, early in the book, provide the narrative with a tragic sense of loss. The need to regain a “personal record” of his father in the present time of his mature age had no doubt a Proustian dimension. A great admirer of the French novelist, Conrad characterized him, in a letter written to Proust’s first English translator Charles Kenneth Scott Moncrieff, as “a writer who has pushed analysis to the point when it becomes creative”. But it was another French master who inspired Conrad during the composition of his first novel.
The scene is Rouen, the city of Gustave Flaubert’s childhood; Conrad is awarded a place in the 2,000-ton steamer Adowa, where he is hard at work on the tenth chapter of Almayer’s Folly, his first novel. This is followed by a fantasy in which the spectre of Flaubert hovers with interest over the dock, looking down at the efforts of a writer who called himself one of his “servants ”. This moment of creative outburst is interrupted, however, when a naval officer—“a cheerful and casual youth”—comes into Conrad’s cabin, banging open the door and saying things that instantly put an end to that concentrated moment of literary composition.
The “cinematographic” progression of scenes that follows comes off as both delightfully ironic and full of vivid detail. Conrad reports how the responsibilities of a sailor’s life become not only a source of irritation and interruption, but of fascination; that the composition of his first novel began in “the front sitting-room of furnished apartments in Pimlico square” in London. From there the manuscript was carried to Congo where it almost fell into the river. It travelled to Switzerland and Australia next, before being nearly forgotten in the Friedrichstrasse station in Berlin. In the wee hours of the day a sleepy Conrad left his Gladstone bag in the refreshment room; had it not been for a train porter the manuscript of Almayer’s Folly would probably have been tossed in the waste basket. It travelled from Warsaw to Ukraine, was heroically preserved before being shown to its first reader, a “young Cambridge man” with dark, deep-set eyes. The setting was on board a ship called Torrens that had been outward bound to Australia; when Jacques, the young reader, returned next morning with the manuscript, he confessed to being very much interested in his tale. “This was all I was to hear from his lips concerning the merits of Almayer’s Folly,” Conrad writes. “We never spoke together of the book again”.
A Personal Record features another major incident in Conrad’s life, famously repeated by Charles Marlow in Heart of Darkness. It is a scene that reveals Conrad’s childhood passion for maps. “I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration,” he remembers. “At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, When I grow up I will go there”. Having obtained the necessary knowledge to navigate a ship, he was finally eligible to obtain a master’s certificate in the Merchant Service–and “go there”. Speaking through the hindsight of a retired sailor, he describes how those blank spaces which fascinated him so immensely proved to have a dark kernel. Chinua Achebe in his seminal essay “An Image of Africa” dissects Conrad’s fascination with these “blank” and “dark” places of earth, depicting how they revealed at times a racist glorification of the English character which was placed in opposition to the “darkness” of Africans. Achebe quotes A Personal Record in his essay, emphasizing the way in which Conrad describes the encounter with his “first Englishman” in Europe, calling him “my unforgettable Englishman”. The difference between Conrad’s descriptions of Africans and Englishmen provide evidence for what Achebe called the “irrational love and irrational hate jostling together in the heart of that talented, tormented man”.
Achebe’s critique leads us to reconsider Conrad’s seemingly innocent fascination with the spirit of exploration (and may have something to do with the Record’s being out of print). With characteristic virtuosity of style, Conrad describes his younger self as one who had little experience with English ships or the language. One may argue that the portrayal of the younger sailor by the mature writer had in fact been ironic as evidenced by his remembrance of how, for the first time in his life, his hand touched “the side of an English ship”. While undoubtedly having an “irrational” quality, this fascination with all things English strikes one as an absurd obsession. Conrad’s encounter with the English ship then merges into another more important encounter with the English language. “For the very first time in my life, I heard myself addressed in English”, Conrad wrote and called it the speech of his secret choice, his remembered emotions and his dreams. Despite the fact that Conrad seems never to have disavowed his explicit racism, these artful recollections, which begin with Conrad’s composition of his first novel, end with his being hailed in the language we take to be the subject of this autobiography.
A hundred years after its publication, A Personal Record is required reading for anyone interested in Conrad. Among its pages one can hear the hail of the language, feel the nostalgia for old times and see the ambitions of an author who wanted to live a remarkable life. The fact that it is rarely read today confirms Conrad’s reputation as one of English literature’s most “homeless” authors. As for those who make English their home, his recollections, for good and for ill, remain indispensable.
Kaya Genc is a Turkish novelist and essayist. His work was published in The Guardian, Index on Censorship, Songlines and on the London Review of Books website. Kaya is currently writing, in English, his second novel.