New York Review of Books
February 22, 2018
Joseph Conrad’s heroes were often alone, and close to hostility and danger. Sometimes, when Conrad’s imagination was at its most fertile and his command of English at its most precise, the danger came darkly from within the self. At other times, however, it came from what could not be named. Conrad sought then to evoke rather than delineate, using something close to the language of prayer. While his imagination was content at times with the tiny, vivid, perfectly observed detail, it was also nourished by the need to suggest and symbolize. Like a poet, he often left the space in between strangely, alluringly vacant.
His own vague terms—words like “ineffable,” “infinite,” “mysterious,” “unknowable”—were as close as he could come to a sense of our fate in the world or the essence of the universe, a sense that reached beyond the time he described and beyond his characters’ circumstances. This idea of “beyond” satisfied something in his imagination. He worked as though between the intricate systems of a ship and the vague horizon of a vast sea.
This irreconcilable distance between what was precise and what was shimmering made him much more than a novelist of adventure, a chronicler of the issues that haunted his time, or a writer who dramatized moral questions. This left him open to interpretation—and indeed attack. In the mid-1970s, two of the most prominent novelists of the age, V.S. Naipaul and Chinua Achebe, set their sights on Conrad, the first in an essay called “Conrad’s Darkness and Mine” and the other in “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.”
Naipaul’s problems with Conrad are essentially stylistic and formal, arising from Conrad’s “unwillingness to let the story speak for itself, this anxiety to draw all the mystery out of a straightforward situation.” Naipaul sees no great virtue in Lord Jim, The Secret Agent, Under Western Eyes, or Victory: “A multiplicity of Conrads, and they all seemed to me to be flawed…. The Conrad novel was like a simple film with an elaborate commentary.” As he contemplates some of Conrad’s fiction, Naipaul writes witheringly, “I had read other stories of lonely white men going mad in hot countries.” Thus, he continues, the story of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, “the upriver ivory agent, who is led to primitivism and lunacy by his unlimited power over primitive men, was lost on me.”