Friday, September 18, 2009

"It is a fool's business to write fiction for a living," or, Joseph Conrad's letters

I've been enjoying dipping into The Portable Conrad this week, particularly the small selection of letters that close the volume, which alone would make the whole book worth picking up for any Conrad fan. I drew from one of those letters, to John Galsworthy, on Wednesday, but there's more worth sharing--including the closing line of that letter:
The finishing of "H. of D." took a lot out of me. I haven't been able to do much since.
Which does seem excusable.

The letters, at least the selection included here, offer us a somewhat unexpected Conrad, less weighty and serious than in his novels, and at times almost light--though what's fascinating is how frequently Conrad veers from moments of humor or self-deprecation into darker passages of near despair. Take the opening of this letter, from October 12, 1899, to his friend E. L. Sanderson:
Were you to come with a horsewhip you would be still welcome. It's the only kind of visit I can imagine myself as deserving from you. Only the other day Jessie asked me whether I had written to you and overwhelmed me with reproaches. Why wait another day? But I am incorrigible. I will always look to another day to bring something good, something one would like to share with a friend,--something,--if only a fortunate thought.
That lament will, I fear, be familiar to the couple of friends to whom my letter writing debt has settled into serious arrears. But, knowing me as a naturally a light-hearted person, they would I think be shocked if I followed up that lament with the bleakness that Conrad envisions:
But the days bring nothing at all,--and thus they go by empty-handed,--till the last day of all.
That same letter also offers some entertaining reflections on publishing and the craft of writing, starting with the raising--and instant dashing--of hopes of financial reward:
A book of mine (Joseph Conrad's last) is to come out in March. Three stories in one volume. If only five thousand copies of that could be sold! If only! But why dream of the wealth of the Indies? I am not the man for whom Pactolus flows and the mines of Golconda distill priceless jewels. (What an absurd style. Don't you think I am deteriorating?) Style or no style,--I am not the man. And oh! dear Ted, it is a fool's business to write fiction for a living. It is indeed.
The very next paragraph, however, turns what had begun as a joking account into a striking, unforgettable description of the haunted existence of the dedicated writer:
It is strange. The unreality of it seems to enter one's real life, penetrate into the bones, make the very heartbeats pulsate illusions through the arteries. One's will becomes the slave of hallucinations, responds only to shadowy impulses, waits on imagination alone. A strange state, a trying experience, a kind of fiery trial of untruthfulness. And one goes through it with an exaltation as false as all the rest of it. one goes through it,--and there's nothing to show at the end. Nothing! Nothing! Nothing!
With some adjustments, that passage could slip into any number of Conrad's works; I even hear echoes of the final lines of Heart of Darkness

While we're on the subject of publishing, I'll close with this letter from late in Conrad's life to Richard Curle, about a magazine article Curle was writing about him. (I think that's the case--one of the faults of The Portable Conrad is that it entirely lacks contextual or explanatory notes.). Dated July 14, 1923, it opens with Conrad expressing gratitude for the form of the survey Curle had made of his work, then continues:
I was in hopes that on a general survey it could also be made an opportunity for me to get freed from that infernal tail of ships and that obsession of my sea life, which has about as much bearing on my literary existence, on my quality as a writer, as the eunmerating of drawing rooms which Thackeray frequented could have had on his gift as a great novelist. After all, I may have been a seaman, but I am a writer of prose. Indeed the nature of my writing runs the risk of being obscured by the nature of my material. . . . Even Doubleday was considerably disturbed by that characteristic as evidenced in press notices in America, where such headings as "Spinner of sea yarns--master mariner--seaman writer," and so forth, predominated.
Conrad is overstating his case there a bit: his ships, for what their natural isolation does to a man's spirit, are far more important to his writing than he suggests--just as Thackeray's drawing rooms, and their distorting effects on character, are in some important way the heart of his work. I have some sympathy for him nonetheless; the sense of being forever defined by the accidental path of one's youth must, as age closes in, be incredibly frustrating.


  1. That is great stuff. I have a love/hate thing with Conrad, so I like to read about his more personal side.

    Glad I found your blog. I’m working my way through Wuthering Expectations’ blogroll, looking for book bloggers with similar tastes to mine. Looks like I found one.

  2. Anonymous7:35 PM

    Hello from Russia!
    Can I quote a post "No teme" in your blog with the link to you?