By Michael Gorra in TLS
You don’t hear very much about gout any more. None of the meat-eating drinkers I know seems to suffer from it, you don’t read about it in the papers, and, unlike consumption or the pox, it doesn’t now appear under another name. You might almost think it vanished along with the rubicund gentleman in knee-breeches whom we imagine as its principal victims, and it therefore comes as a shock, in reading The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad, to learn of the degree to which it afflicted that lean and grizzled figure. His attacks were frequent and severe, and though he didn’t have a diagnosis until 1898, when “gout or some other devil” so inflated his wrist that he was unable to write, his legs first began to swell soon after his return from the Congo in 1890. It punctuated book after book, it broke his rhythm and kept him in bed, incapable – or so it seemed to him – of writing anything but one letter of complaint after another. There were other illnesses too. He never fully shook off the malaria he caught in Africa; its recurrent fevers would leave him shouting in Polish. There was dysentery, influenza, angina eventually, and some form of depression almost always, with a full breakdown in 1910 after the completion of Under Western Eyes (published in 1911).
Both his children were desperately sick during the writing of The Secret Agent (1907), when Conrad – a critical but not yet a commercial success – was without enough ready cash to pay the doctor’s bills. His wife, Jessie, lived in constant pain that both necessitated and was exacerbated by a twenty-year series of operations on her knees. Their oldest son, Borys, would know the effects of gas and shell shock. The difficulties Conrad faced were real; however detailed his account of his symptoms, the novelist was no hypochondriac. In some way, though, he almost always managed to conquer them. In 1899, he wrote of lacking “the belief . . . to make me put pen to paper”, as though a year that included both “Heart of Darkness” and Lord Jim (1900) were somehow unproductive. In 1917 he described himself, in a letter to Edward Garnett, as feeling “broken up – or broken in two – disconnected. Impossible to start myself going impossible to concentrate to any good purpose. Is it the war – perhaps? Or the end of Conrad simply?”. He had written almost nothing in the previous year, and yet was soon productive once more; it hardly matters that his next novel, The Arrow of Gold (1919), would be his worst.
Last year was the 150th anniversary of Conrad’s birth, an occasion marked by John Stape’s new biography, The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad, a Penguin repackaging of Conrad’s major works, and the completion of the Cambridge University Press edition of all his surviving letters. Still, anyone reading the later volumes of his correspondence will have on their minds not his birth, but his death, in 1924. The seven years covered by Volumes Six to Eight are like a long slow fading of the light. From his last decade, only The Shadow-Line (1917) can stand with his best books, and by Volume Eight Conrad has reached a point at which he can merely hope to work; he mutters about the distractions of journalism, but remains too worn out for anything more sustained. In another sense, however, these are years of triumph, the years when Conrad found his largest audience and became in some measure a public figure. His 1913 novel, Chance, had become an unlikely bestseller. Marketed as “a sea story that appeals to women”, its narration was as maddeningly indirect as anything in his oeuvre. But it did at least tell a familiar story of romantic rescue, in which an upright sailor saves a troubled young woman from the tangles of her past. Ten thousand copies of the American edition went in the first week alone, and, once those readers had arrived, they stayed.
Later books did even better. In Britain, his last novel, The Rover (1924), sold 30,000 copies in not much more than a month, and the boom was accompanied by a growing demand for his earlier work. There were movie deals and theatrical adaptations; there was a collected edition for which Conrad wrote a set of gruff avuncular prefaces. His only visit to America was in 1923 for a publicity tour, a trip made just fifteen months before his death. He gave just one reading, at a private house in New York, but there were reporters on the dock when he arrived; he enjoyed being lionized, but took to his bed as soon as he was back home in Kent. Ramsay MacDonald offered a knighthood; Oxford and Cambridge honorary degrees; all were refused. Yet Conrad in his last years worked hard at tending his posterity, paying close attention to translations and doing his best to massage what his critics might say; he even revised an overview of his career written for the TLS in 1923 by his disciple Richard Curle. By then Conrad rejected, sometimes angrily, any identification as a “spinner of sea-yarns”, arguing that “the nature of my writing runs the risk of being obscured by the nature of my material”. The sea was a “biographical matter, not literary”. It would be some time before his readers took the point….