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Joseph Conrad Today
Publication of the Joseph Conrad Society of America
ISSN 0162-413X
HomeRecent Book Reviews

The following are excerpts from book reviews in recent issues of Joseph Conrad 
Today.

Society members have access to complete reviews through the archive of current and past electronic issues of the publication.  (Members can click on the "JCT Electronic Copies" menu item visible to them on the left.) 

Non-members can access complete reviews by purchasing hard copies of the issue; please click on "JCT Back Issues" on the left.

Spring 2021 Reviews

(Scroll down for all reviews in this issue; reviews from the Fall 2020 issue follow)

Patricia Pye on D. C. R. A. Goonetilleke's edition of Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness

Edited by D.C.R.A. Goonetilleke
Third Edition
Broadview Editions, 2020
344pp. $13.50

          This is the third of a well-established edition of Heart of Darkness by Broadview Press. For this edition, Goonetilleke has broadened the range of documentary evidence in the appendices, and in particular given voice to black observers of the Congo like Disasi Makulo. Makulo was enslaved as a child in the 1870s by Tippu Tip, the infamous trader from Zanzibar, from whom he acquired his nickname.  “Disasi” means “cartridge,” a grimly apt moniker for a child in a continent resonating with the sound of gunfire. A substantial extract from The Life of Disasi Makulo is included here and, as Goonetilleke writes in the preface, this “opens an unprecedented window” (11) on life in the Congo in the late nineteenth century. Makulo’s account also helps to contextualize Heart of Darkness, his nickname alone recalling Marlow’s encounter with the French gunship: “In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent” (87). Makulo was later purchased by Henry Morton Stanley, along with twenty-two other children. He regarded Stanley as his “liberator” from Tippu Tip, and his account is all the more powerful for its lack of irony or anger, as he recalls how the great explorer informs them: “I cannot let you return to your parents’ homes since I do not want you to become like them: savage people, cruel people, who do not know the Good Lord” (209).

          There are many other revealing accounts in this edition, but those about Stanley are worth highlighting, not least because he keeps popping up, rather as he must have done in the Congo. Amongst the excellent range of photographs included is one of him, and along with the other documents this enables us to build up a composite picture of his character. Also included are the diary entries of William G. Stairs, the explorer who accompanied Stanley up the Congo in 1887, three years before Conrad’s trip. Stairs notes how Stanley gets “worked up”; is “excitable”; “says and does a great many foolish things”; and “is not a man who has had any fine feelings cultivated in his youth” (210). You rather get the impression that “Old Stanley” could behave childishly at times. This is a somewhat ironic personality trait, given that in Incidents of the Journey through the Dark Continent (also extracted in this edition), he describes the Congo as an “infant State,” which needs to reach a “mature fullness” in order to be a “shining example” (263) to the rest of Africa.  Stairs’s account of Stanley may recall Conrad’s characterization of Kurtz, who in the wilderness is like a “spoiled and pampered favourite” (128) who can be “contemptibly childish” (152). The documents by and about Stanley thereby encourage us back to Conrad’s narrative and this exemplifies the value of the contextual resources in this edition. As Goonetilleke suggests, these offer “perspectives on the reality out of which this particular fiction emerged” (56). 

          The documents in the appendices encompass correspondence, speeches, lectures, diaries (including the Congo Diary), memoirs, satires, articles, contemporary illustrations, maps, and photographs.  There is even an advertisement from the publisher George Newnes in 1899, promoting Stanley’s publications and mentioning his “immense popularity” (267). This was evidently in London rather than the Congo, where his name apparently produced “a shudder,” as we discover from an open letter to King Leopold, written by the African American writer George Washington Williams in 1890.    This impassioned letter is new to this edition and reflects what is essentially a very “vocal” collection of documents.  Here the style alone is worthy of a close reading, as Williams shifts in tone from his “disappointment” to a final blistering indictment of Leopold and the Belgian government’s “deceit, fraud, robberies, arson, murder, slave-raiding, and general policy of cruelty” (225). . . . [Full review in the JCT issue]


Patricia Pye on John G. Peters's edition of Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness

Edited by John G. Peters
Broadview Press, 2019
231 pp. $60.00

          As John Peters notes in his introduction, there are many editions of Heart of Darkness. This is one of two recently published by Broadview and like Goonetilleke’s third edition (Broadview, 2020) it offers a detailed introduction, substantial textual annotations, and a variety of contextual resources, here encompassing maps, correspondence, reviews, autobiographical writing, and contemporary accounts of the Congo.  What differentiates Peters’s edition is a stricter interpretation of “contemporary.” While Goonetilleke contextualises Heart of Darkness within a broad Victorian / early Edwardian time frame, Peters chooses instead to focus on 1890, the year of Conrad’s journey to the Congo.  And so, with the exception of King Leopold II’s “Letter from the King of the Belgians” (1898), the contemporary accounts of the Congo are from 1890. This focus is consistent with Peters’s contention that the novella is clearly set in or perhaps slightly before that year, and therefore to include documentary sources from a later period, whilst valuable, presents a “somewhat inaccurate picture of what Conrad actually experienced” (33).  

          This approach foregrounds the debate over Conrad’s influences for Heart of Darkness and the extent to which he drew both on first-hand experience and second-hand knowledge.  In a comprehensive introduction, Peters unpacks the historical background over two sections, “History of the Congo Free State” and “History and Heart of Darkness.”  This structure supports his contention that Conrad based his story on “actual experience” and therefore it needs to be contextualised within its own specific time frame. Such careful marshalling of material is a hallmark of this edition, and there is a distinct sense of Peters pruning back the undergrowth to clear a path through the chronology. He explains how colonial abuse evidently increased in the Congo between 1890 and 1899, when Heart of Darkness was written, leading to critical debate about which incidents Conrad witnessed. Peters cites Conrad’s letter to Roger Casement in 1903 where he clearly refutes knowledge of a specific atrocity during his time there. Conrad asserts he knew nothing about the practice of cutting off African workers’ hands, despite “keeping my ears and eyes well open”; being privy to both “casual talk” and “definite enquiries”; and having had “numerous informants” (160-61). Peters suggests we take Conrad “at his word” here, while acknowledging he may have “suppressed this memory, is being wilfully misleading, or was simply far more out of the loop than he thought” (18-19). To extend Peters’s discussion, it is also insightful to look more closely at the language of Conrad’s letter. I was struck, in particular, by that deliberate contrast between “casual talk” and  “definite enquiries,” because it highlights Conrad’s characteristic preoccupation with the process of gleaning and exchanging information. Similar terms haunt the conception of other works, most notably The Secret Agent. The extent of Conrad’s knowledge about the real-life events influencing his fiction is characteristically hard to ascertain, however his interest in how they are communicated is never in doubt.

          There is a separate section on colonialism. A more wide-ranging discussion of imperialism and race can be found in Goonetilleke’s edition, although Peters offers an accessible survey of the critical debate following Achebe’s famous critique in 1977.  However, I wanted to add a “Discuss” to his assertion that “Conrad, like all of us, was a product of his time” (20). This sounds rather vague in an edition which foregrounds the experience of a specific year. Some signposting of the contextual resources would also have been helpful, especially to the contemporary reviews which offer much insight into attitudes about race.  Peters also explores Heart of Darkness as a tale of psychological change under “The Journey Within” (referencing Guerard). Despite the ostensible shift in focus implied by the heading, colonialism resurfaces here from the perspective of Marlow’s evolving mindset about Western civilization. This highlights one of the problems posed by such introductions, as inevitably there is an overlap between sections and so theme-hunting undergraduates may miss the additional discussion. Themed sections like “Marlow and Women” can also constrain fuller explorations of Conrad’s characters. For example, Marlow’s aunt is contextualized here by the debate over Conrad’s limited representations of women.  Yet this characterization is just as pertinent to the wider discussion of colonialism, as her talk of “weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways” (63) epitomizes contemporary attitudes across the gender divide. . . . [Full review in the JCT issue]


Riccardo Capoferro on Yael Levin's Joseph Conrad: Slow Modernism

Joseph Conrad: Slow Modernism

Yael Levin
Oxford University Press, 2020
192 pp. $70.00

           The title of Joseph Conrad: Slow Modernism correctly emphasizes that the focus of the book is not restricted to Conrad’s oeuvre. Not only does Levin reassess many of Conrad’s works, but she also historicizes a strain of modernist literature that has for a long time been obscured by other defining aspects and themes—in particular by the quest for a fully-fledged aesthetic vision typical of key authors such as Joyce and Eliot. To do so, Levin astutely adopts a self-conscious retrospective scope. She takes Beckett’s non-teleological approach to form and meaning as a vantage point, tracing its prehistory—namely, its early emergence—in the work of Conrad. In looking at Conrad, however, she does not simply focus on his attempts to disrupt conventional formal or ideological patterns—what he called narrative “finality”—she also highlights how, driven by a desire for order, Conrad’s work ranges between a teleological, sense-making organization and an open-ended approach to narrative and experience.

          Crucial to Levin’s theoretical and interpretive undertaking is the idea of “slowness.” Taking her cue from Bergson, Levin preliminarily investigates the meaning of the velocity-slowness binary in modernist writing as well as in common, well-established approaches to narrative. The metaphor of “velocity” defines highly functional plots, which seem to be based on causal logic. In these plots, action plays a key part and endings tend to provide conclusive explanations and judgments, overshadowing moments of indetermination. As Levin reminds us, Conrad was keenly aware of the constraints of “velocity”—in fact, he did not want to place too much weight on “accidents.” In Conrad’s fiction, Levin argues, the use of non-teleological episodes goes along with the description of states of experience that Bergson would have identified with “life”: states in which the self becomes permeable, immersed in, and intertwined with, the surrounding environment. In Levin’s apt phrase, Conrad’s narrative explorations attempt, therefore, to grasp a deeper “experience of time.”

          In Joseph Conrad: Slow Modernism, the notion of “slowness” covers, therefore, a variety of interconnected dimensions that go far beyond formal construction. Conrad’s representation of a “slow” self has, in particular, crucial implications. In the absence of rational detachment, the subject-object dichotomy, established by Descartes’s thought and integral to empiricist epistemology, cannot hold any longer. Non-teleological narratives that seek to capture “life” are thus relevant in terms that are both ontological—Levin puts a premium on an “ontological” approach to Conrad’s fiction—and epistemological. In charting the way in which Conrad fleshes out the relation between time, narrative, and the self, moreover, Levin historicizes the modernist rejection of late-realist, pseudo-scientific approaches to experience. Interestingly, however, her interpretations also contribute to our understanding of typically modernist techniques of representation, in particular of “defamiliarization” and its Conradian correlative, “delayed decoding.” While the notion of “delayed decoding” stresses how Conrad’s distinctive use of narrative focus defers the perception of an object, Levin identifies a kind of defamiliarization that does not depend on a temporarily obscured reality, but on a full immersion of the self in the experience of time. . . . [Full review in the JCT issue]


James Ward on Robert Hampson's Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad (Critical Lives)

Robert Hampson
Reaktion Books, 2021
208 pp. $19.00 / $9.99

          On 9 September 2020, the BBC broadcast the documentary “Africa Turns The Page—The Novels That Shaped A Continent.” The presenter, David Olusoga, explained how the picture of Africa presented to Western readers before the publication of works by Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o in the 1950s was “a bit of a problem,” particularly the popular boy’s own stories of H. Rider Haggard and John Buchan, which pitted heroic Westerners against “unruly savages.” In contrast Joseph Conrad took the African adventure story and turned it into something “far more troubling.” However, in introducing the work of Achebe Olusoga explained that:

 

“Heart of Darkness” was an attack on European Imperialism, but in the twentieth century African writers began to rebel against the idea that their continent should be thought of or described as a place of “darkness,” and one writer in particular condemned the way that European novelists, like Joseph Conrad, had portrayed the people of Africa as passive victims with no inner thoughts or inner lives. (“Africa Turns the Page”)

 

It seems unfortunate that, in the popular imagination at least, Conrad is still defined in relation to Achebe’s powerful criticism delivered in the 1977 lecture, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” This is a problem that Robert Hampson acknowledges in the compelling new addition to the “Critical Lives” series from Reaktion Books, suggesting that Achebe’s essay “has become the lens through which Conrad’s work as a whole is often introduced and unjustifiably dismissed” (14). As most readers of Conrad will know, a previous short story “An Outpost of Progress,” presented a quite different picture of Africa, and provided proof, as Hampson illustrated in the article “An Outpost of Progress: The Case of Henry Price,” that Conrad had a much greater sensitivity to the complexities of African culture and society than Olusoga suggests (in Conrad in Africa, edited by Lange and Fincham, Social Sciency Monographs, 2002, 211-230).

          Much of the material from that article is reworked here, but condensed to a fascinating two-page summary which situates the story in relation to the colonial history of Sierra Leone. This history provides the explanation for Henry Price’s various knowledges of European and African cultures and tells us why his role in the story is pivotal. I mention this example specifically because it exemplifies, like numerous other examples throughout this short guide, the depth of knowledge and understanding that Robert Hampson brings to his work, reflecting a lifetime spent writing about the author, which allows both new readers and more experienced students of Conrad to gain a greater appreciation of Conrad’s art and practice. Indeed, while the Morning Star has suggested that this book would be suitable for “the student and the general reader,” anyone familiar with Hampson’s work will no doubt be interested to read an edition which promises “new interpretations of all of Conrad’s major works” (Hampson back cover). . . . [Full review in the JCT issue]


Fall 2020 Reviews

(Scroll down for all reviews in this issue)

Robert Hampson on Rob Lemkin, African Apocalypse

African Apocalypse
Film by Rob Lemkin
Featuring Femi Nylander
2020
africanapocalypsefilm.com

          On Friday 16 October, the British Film Institute showed African Apocalypse, a documentary by Rob Lemkin, as part of the 2020 London Film Festival.

          African Apocalypse follows Femi Nylander, a British-Nigerian poet and activist, on a journey to and across Niger. It begins with Femi recalling his time as a philosophy student at Oxford, where, as he observes, he met more Old Etonians than other black students. He recounts his discovery there of Heart of Darkness, and his initial conviction that Conrad’s account of Kurtz’s activities in the Congo must have been an exaggeration, a piece of imaginative embellishment. However, subsequent reading and research soon disabused him and revealed to him the true nature of the “civilising mission” in Africa. Inspired by Heart of Darkness, African Apocalypse tracks Femi as he follows in the footsteps of Captain Paul Voulet, who was sent by the French government on a military mission to “pacify” the peoples of the Chad Basin and put the area “under French protection.” 

         Lemkin, who has a distinguished record as the maker of over fifty documentaries, describes the film as a nonfictional retelling of Heart of Darkness. This is signaled by quotations from Heart of Darkness, which are used to provide some of the commentary throughout. Indeed, the film begins with Marlow’s assertion about “the conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves.” However, Heart of Darkness also informs the film at a deeper level with Femi’s quest to reach Voulet’s grave echoing Marlow’s quest for Kurtz, and the film offers the same kind of double narrative as Conrad’s novella. Femi’s quest uncovers the story of Voulet’s expedition in its passage of looting and slaughter, but there is also a second story: the story of Femi’s own experiences during this quest. . . . [Full review in the JCT issue]


Sylvia Weiser Wendel on Tracking the Literature of Tropical Weather

Tracking the Literature of Tropical Weather: Typhoons, Hurricanes, and Cyclones

Edited by Anne Collett, Russell McDougall, and Sue Thomas

Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, 2017

300 pp. $139.99/$139.99/$129.00

          The paradox of tropical winds, invisible yet audible, destructive yet capricious, takes on greater import in a warming world. In their introduction, the editors of this timely book remind us that tropical storms endanger a large and growing portion of the world’s population, while costs of repairs and rebuilding continue to escalate. Merging the abstract with the actual, then, the essays here view tropical storms depicted in world literature as indistinguishable from their impact on people and culture.

          Srilata Ravi, writing about tropical literature in Mauritius, recaps the Francophone island’s history of storm-focused prose. From Bernardin de St. Pierre’s 1789 Voyage a L’Ile de France, Ravi continues to the same author’s better-known Paul et Virginie, “the foundational text of Mauritian literature,” wherein cyclones bookend the tragic progress of the heroine (30). Marcel Cabon’s 1965 novel, Namaste, is as befits a midcentury work more concerned with social injustice, specifically a laissez-faire attitude towards storm warnings among the then-colonial authorities, and poor or nonexistent access to storm preparation in the island’s remote and impoverished reaches. Ravi argues that the last third of the novel, in which the protagonist, suffering from cyclone-induced trauma, wanders as a madman about the ruined landscape, represents an internalization of violence-as-storm, in which human beings and nature are not seen as being at odds but in balanced, if unhappy, interaction. . . . [Full review in the JCT issue]



Mark Deggan on Hugh Epstein, Hardy, Conrad and the Senses

Hardy, Conrad and the Senses

Hugh Epstein

Edinburgh UP, 2020

313 pp. $125

“The Unpurged Images”

 

Outside our consciousness there lies the cold and alien world of actual

things.  Between the two stretches the narrow borderland of the senses.

                                                            Heinrich Hertz

 

          Epstein’s excellent recent volume, Hardy, Conrad, and the Senses (2020), covers new ground in three interconnected ways. It surveys how nineteenth-century reflection upon sensory phenomena inflects literary depictions of consciousness; it shows how such discourses inform the aesthetics of the authors at the heart of his study, Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad; lastly, and most impressively, in a series of paired close readings from the major novels, Epstein shows how attention to the senses opens unexpected insights into how we are to understand their characters and scenarios.  
          
The late century focus was always going to be a touch surprising. In the years since Ian Watt’s reading of Victorian moral imperatives and the cult of progress in Conrad in the Nineteenth Century (1979), Conrad is not often seriously appraised as a Victorian writer.  One forgets that the “Victorian realist,” Hardy, outlived Conrad by four years, dying in 1928; but such observations raise Hardy the novelist above the poet, whose 1917 collection, Moments of Vision, is celebrated at the time Conrad, the younger by seventeen years, was navigating what Thomas Moser called his period of “decline.” On a like note, Hardy is seldom contemplated in direct relation to the literary upheavals of the Modernist era, while Conrad’s later works regress toward the romance formulas of an earlier one. Then there is the issue of nationality: being English is a way that the deracinated Polish seaman could never be, what is one to make of Hardy’s “Michaelmas rains” (Return of the Native 55) and “primaeval yews and oaks” (Tess 119) in relation to the global settings more often favored by Conrad?  Epstein is understandably guarded on what brings these authors together. Given how hard it would seem “to find two contemporary great writers less inclined directly to acknowledge one another” (9), Hardy, Conrad and the Senses must look elsewhere for its interpretative hinge. . . . [Full review in the JCT issue]


J. A. Bernstein on Katherine Isobel Baxter, Imagined States

Imagined States: Law and Literature in Nigeria, 1900-1966

Katherine Isobel Baxter

Edinburgh UP, 2019

216 pp. $98.38

 

They Can’t Breathe

 

          Writing in the American Scholar weeks after the death of George Floyd, a Black American, at the hands of the Minneapolis Police, Robert Zaretsky, an historian, explains why he can no longer teach Heart of Darkness:


My students do not need to be asked to attend to the subtleties of lines that compare, say, an African boilerman to “a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat walking on his hind legs.” The haze of uncertainty, especially when exhaled by a 19th-century white novelist, was not what my students needed before George Floyd was murdered. It certainly is not what they—or their professors—need now.  (“The Bloom Has Faded,” June 22, 2020)

 

In an interview the same month, Michael Eric Dyson, the Black sociologist and writer, told the New York Times that he would strike Heart of Darkness from the canon, explaining that “it’s done so much damage in fashioning savage notions of Africa” (“Why Michael Eric Dyson Would Demote ‘Heart of Darkness’ From the Canon,” June 7, 2020).

          Painting Conrad as a racist, or at least as a purveyor of racialist thought, is nothing new in Conrad studies, as any reader of these pages well knows. The sentiment dates back at least as far as Achebe’s famous essay, “An Image of Africa,” which was adapted from his 1975 lecture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Putting aside for a moment the question of whether Conrad’s depiction of racism necessarily constitutes his endorsement—a question that Cedric Watts, among others, asked (“‘A Bloody Racist’: About Achebe’s View of Conrad,” The Yearbook of English Studies, 13, 1983, pp. 196–209)—it is clear that teaching and writing about Conrad, especially now, comes with a special sense of responsibility and an awareness of how his writings can be received. The Joseph Conrad Society of America even issued a statement to this effect in June of 2020, acknowledging that “Conrad’s relation to racism is often complex and contradictory.”

          Enter Katherine Isobel Baxter, whose Imagined States: Law and Literature in Nigeria, 1906-1966, surveys a fascinating range of West African literature, from Achebe and Joyce Cary to Cyprian Ekwensi and Edgard Wallace, to look at the ways in which governing law has been imagined in the region. Drawing on Agamben’s concept of the “state of exception,” Baxter’s central claim is that “British and Nigerian fiction writers, sometimes consciously and sometimes not, attended to and made visible the inventive force of the law, not least in the suspension of the rule of law” (5). For Baxter, it’s the imaginative component, the way law is transmuted and distilled through the medium of literature, and thereby encapsulated in the public’s mind, that matters most in reckoning colonialism’s force. Also borrowing from Benedict Anderson’s notion of an “Imagined Community,” she shows—quite convincingly, in fact—how literature, both highbrow and popular, forms a kind of pedestal for buttressing the law and furthering colonialism’s reach, especially through what Agamben calls a perpetual “state of emergency” . . . [Full review in the JCT issue]



Yael Levin on Julie Beth Napolin, The Fact of Resonance

The Fact of Resonance: Modernist Acoustics and Narrative Form

Julie Beth Napolin

Fordham UP, 2020

345 pp. $30

 

          It is an exciting time to be a Conradian. At the same time that many of us are contending with well-intentioned but misplaced efforts to right literary discourse by eradicating Conrad from the canon, recent works of criticism are broadening the scope of investigation into his works and allowing us to rethink his writing in radically new ways. Such critical work is important; it confirms the author’s place in academic discussion and provides new avenues of research that attest to his continuing importance in the future. Julie Beth Napolin’s The Fact of Resonance is a welcome contribution to this enterprise. It allows us to see beyond the abstractions of narrative voice and to hear, feel and experience Conrad’s writing anew. The three central chapters of this comparative and inter-disciplinary study are inspired by the openings of Almayer’s Folly, The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ and Heart of Darkness, but what follows, in each case, is not the standard critical exegesis of these works. Instead, Conrad’s is but one of many voices heard in the course of this engaging book. Within the framework of a broad range of critical theory—including Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Kittler, Jean-Luc Nancy, Frantz Fanon—Conrad is placed in dialogue with works by W.E. B. Du Bois and William Faulkner. Napolin’s productive and at times explosive juxtapositions set an important precedent. This is a brave and original work that is significant to the future of Conrad studies precisely because it reads him differently.

          The project seeks to recuperate the acoustics of narration that are lost in the consolidated and neutral narratological conceptualization of voice. The focus on racial, gendered, cultural and linguistic tensions illuminates forms of difference that disappear in categorical logic. Structuralist systems necessarily reject, raze or marginalize otherness. Napolin’s attempt to sound the resonances of that which survives this process is not merely a conceptual investigation into the ellipses of narratology; it is an attempt to tease out missing, absent or obliterated (in other words non-canonical) historical trajectories by exploring the acoustic unconscious of canonical texts. . . . [Full review in the JCT issue]