Skip to main content
Add Me To Your Mailing List
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 

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.

Fall 2020 Reviews

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

Robert Hampson on Rob Lemkin, African Apocalypse

African Apocalypse
Film by Rob Lemkin
Featuring Femy Nylander

          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]



Spring 2020 Reviews

J. A. Bernstein on Jeffery Mathes McCarthy,  Green Modernism

Green Modernism: Nature and the English Novel, 1900 to 1930

Jeffery Mathes McCarthy
Palgrave Macmillan, 2016
262 pp. $84.99

It’s Not Easy Being Green

In Green Modernism, Jeffrey Mathes McCarthy attempts to show that modernism, long understood as a “reaction against the political, aesthetic, and social formations of modernity,” also depends on a kind of literary engagement with the “natural world” (13-14). What exactly that engagement entails, and what is meant by the “natural world,” are two outstanding questions. The answers to each tend to vary quite a bit among the works studied in this volume, which range from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Under Western Eyes and Ford’s The Last Post to Mary Butts’s Armed with Madness and Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Other reviewers have faulted Green Modernism for failing to resolve these questions. Writing in English Literature in Transition, for example, Mara Scanlon notes: “A Congolese river is not an English forest is not a working family farm—yet too easily these and other elements of ‘nature’ are collected under that one term” (“Green Modernism & the Ecocritical,” 6.2, 2017, 256). Writing in Modern Fiction Studies, Ian K. Jensen laments what he calls McCarthy’s “new materialist” approach, especially in so far as it “bracket[s] the issue of language” and “fails to acknowledge that the only material component of a work of literature is the text itself” (63.4, 2017, 768).
What both reviewers overlook, however, is the extent to which McCarthy is acutely aware of these problems—both the ambiguity of what “nature” means and the question of whether a “materialist” account includes (or extends beyond) language. Indeed, one of the central tasks of Green Modernism, as McCarthy explains in the Introduction, is to trace the history of this “crisis of definition” over the term “nature” and to look at the ways that “modernist invention” helped “rethink just what the realm called ‘nature’ might actually be” (6). Language itself plays no small part in this re-defining, with Conrad’s narrator in Under Western Eyes, the ironically-named Teacher of Languages, for instance, famously proclaiming in the opening paragraphs that “words” are “the great foes of reality” and finding himself trapped in a “wilderness of words,” as he puts it. Jensen is right that Green Modernism does not deal at length with the questions of language’s ontology and whether, or how, it relates to the material world. Where the omission is perhaps most surprising is in Chapter Three, McCarthy’s discussion of Under Western Eyes. If critics like Edward Said are correct, and Under Western Eyes is largely about the “attempt to transcend language by vision” (“The Presentation of Narrative,” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, 7.2, Winter, 1974, 122), then any truly-encompassing account of modernism’s ecological component, especially as it pertains to Conrad, needs to take into consideration the very meddlesome question of how Conrad conceives writing: whether it is “physical” or not; and thus how it shapes, or finds itself shaped by, the environments humans perceive. 
. . [Full review in the JCT issue]

Anne Keithline on Wieslaw Krajka, ed., Some Intertextual Chords of Joseph Conrad's Literary Art

Some Intertextual Chords of Joseph Conrad's Literary Art

Wieslaw Krajka, editor
Conrad: Eastern and Western Perspectives
Maria Curie-Sklodowska UP / Columbia UP, 2019
272 pp. $60.00 hardcover

Close to the beginning of this collection, which takes as its unifying theme the concepts of intertextuality and juxtaposition, Peter Vernon reminds us that Henry James once commented on a distinctly Conradian strategy for narrative development, as demonstrated in Chance. According to James, Conrad creates a chain of narrators whose interconnected stories cause the formation of the subject at hand to “glory in a gap,” and the reader to experience “a profound hovering flight of the subjective over the outstretched ground the case exposed.” The glorious gap, and the hovering flight, go far towards explaining one of Conrad’s exemplary qualities: the fact that, as Professor Krajka writes in the introduction, Conrad’s “literary works have a wonderful ability to enter into productive intertextual relationships with numerous and varied literary texts and contexts, even remote ones” (11).  The critics in this collection do not so much try to fill the gaps as to identify the contours of the overlapping shadows cast by Conrad’s subjects as they move over the outstretched ground of art and culture. 

          The first paper in the collection, Peter Vernon’s “‘More perjured eye’: On the Relevance of Under Western Eyes,” discusses “how Under Western Eyes offers a pastiche of other texts to signify the fictionality of certain aspects of the narrative” (14).  Biblical references begin on the first page and remain the primary touchstone of the paper. Razumov, throughout the novel “an intelligent but weak protagonist who is adrift in the Space of Russia in the Time of pre-revolution” (14), has, by the end, “been washed clean in the blood of the lamb (Rev. 7.14; 12.11)” (13).  The overall effect of this paper is to appreciate and celebrate Conrad, and the wealth of well-selected references seems to have been marshaled, in large part, with the goal of responding to Leavis’s “faint praise” that “Under Western Eyes was merely ‘a most distinguished work’” compared to other political novels, like The Secret Agent (39). Vernon comes down on the side of Eloise Knapp Hay in the judgment that “Under Western Eyes is Conrad’s last great political novel” (40). Vernon parts with Hay, however, at her assertion that “Conrad eradicated his father’s ‘idea that Poland was a mystical reincarnation of Christ’” (38), reminding us—and here is what the Biblical points have been building to—that “mysticism is manifest in the Christian symbolism linked to the Haldin family: romantic, wrong-headed, but finally—heroic” (39). . . . [Full review in the JCT issue]

Nic Panagopoulos on Joseph Conrad: Prefaces 

Joseph Conrad: Prefaces

2nd Edition
With a foreword by Owen Knowles
Fire & Ash, 2016
xi + 214 pp. $21.00 hardcover

This volume of Conrad’s collected prefaces and author’s notes, beautifully bound and printed by Fire & Ash Publishers of Toronto, is a republication of an edition that first came out in 1937 and includes, besides a foreword by Owen Knowles, a rare essay on “Conrad’s Place in Literature” by Edward Garnett. The appendices also contain the original prefaces to A Personal Record and Victory as well as “A Chronological List of the Published Works of Joseph Conrad.” 

          Two questions spring to mind: firstly, why collect Conrad’s prefaces in one volume; and secondly, having done so once, why reissue them? Knowles provides an answer to the first question by arguing in his foreword that the introductions to the major novels “fascinatingly trace the origins and evolution of these works, showing how they grow out of a rich store of life-experiences, including the writer’s personal memories, and an inherited store of anecdote and hearsay” (xi). Of course, even the introductions to the “minor” works reveal invaluable insights into Conrad’s attitude to life and art, and the relationship between the two. This is particularly true of the prefaces to The Nigger of the “Narcissus” and A Personal Record, which have been seen as literary manifestos in their own right and important statements of Conrad’s artistic creed. . . . [Full review in the JCT issue]