Letters From Joseph Conrad, 1895-1924

edited with Introduction and Notes by Edward Garnett. Indianapolis: The BobbsMerrill Co. 1928. 8vo. 318 pp. Illus. $3.50.
LORD BACON, in his essay ‘Of Friendship,’ said: ‘We know diseases of stoppings and suffocations are most dangerous in the body; and it is not much otherwise in the mind. You may take sarza to open the liver: steel to open the spleen; flour of sulphur for the lungs: castoreum for the brain; but no receipt openeth the heart but a true friend to whom you may impart griefs, joys, fears, hopes, suspicions, counsels, and whatever lieth upon the heart to oppress it, in a kind of civil shrift or confession.’
Such a friend Joseph Conrad had in Edward Garnett, who for more than thirty years fulfilled his office with a high sense of its privileges and obligations. There seems to have been from the first a sympathy and understanding between the two men which their long association served to make more precious, but could hardly have made more complete. It was an amazing piece of luck that Conrad should have found, at the outset of his literary career, a friend who was at the same time so discerning, enlightened, and honest a critic of his work. Taking all the facts into consideration, the chances were at least a thousand to one against such a possibility, and no one realized this better than Conrad himself. In one of his earliest letters to his ’literary father,’ as he called him, he said: ‘To be read— as you do me the honour to read me — is an ideal experience — and the experience of an ideal. . . . Your appreciation has for me all the subtle and penetrating delight of unexpected good fortune — of some fabulously lucky accident. . . . Your words have not fallen into barren ground, The crop will ripen in good time. You shall see.'
That it ripened we know, and the manner of its ripening is here made plain, for most of these letters, which cover the entire course of his writing life, are concerned with Conrad the literary artist. But the note of confidence struck in the early letter just quoted is a rare one throughout this correspondence. Viewed in the light of his achievement, it is a matter for wonder that Conrad’s doubts and black despairs with respect to his work should have so far outweighed his hopes, and he seems rarely, if ever, to have known that keen joy in creation which other great artists have experienced. According to Mr. Havelock Ellis, ‘whatever the art may be . . . there is no mastery till ease is attained.’ If this is true, then Conrad is the brilliant exception that proves the rule, for, if we may trust the evidence of the letters, ease he never attained. Every victory he gained, as an artist, seems to have been won only at the cost of desperate toil, in a bloody sweat of the spirit. It was fortunate indeed, one feels, that he had a few friends such as Mr. Garnett, who knew victories when they saw them and who runtinually heartened and encouraged him in a struggle which often seemed to him nothing more than a succession of defeats.
That he was splendidly heartened again and again is clear. His rich, generous, and unconquerable nature is made equally clear throughout this intimate record; and yet the effect — the cumulative effect —of the letters is to cast a kind of gloom over the spirit of the reader. One feels that Conrad had far more than his share of suffering, not only as an artist — as a man. Persistent ill health and the nagging worries about how to make ends meet are, no doubt, partly responsible, but there were deeper causes for the bitterness, the weariness of spirit that so often reveals itself. Perhaps he saw life too clearly. He had few, if any, of the illusions that enable most of us to walk complacently across our little strips of daylight out of one darkness toward another. To be sure, in one of his letters he says: ‘When once the truth is grasped that one’s own personality is only a ridiculous and aimless masquerade of something hopelessly unknown, the attainment of serenity is not far off,’ but one feels — again judging from the correspondence — that if he grasped this truth it must have been only intellectually.
Mr, Garnett’s letters to Conrad are not included in this volume, but it is to be hoped that they still exist, and that eventually we may have the complete record of one of the most interesting and fruitful friendships in the history of English letters. JAMES NORMAN HALL