Books

Dry thoughts in a dry season

CONGO DIARY by Joseph Conrad

Mark Abley November 13 1978
Books

Dry thoughts in a dry season

CONGO DIARY by Joseph Conrad

Mark Abley November 13 1978

Dry thoughts in a dry season

Books

CONGO DIARY by Joseph Conrad

(Doubleday, $9.95)

The nonsense of a great man may be more interesting than the nonsense of a fool, but boring trivia is boring trivia, no matter what the source. Much of this volume of “uncollected” writing by Joseph Conrad comprises exactly that. If you’re keen to read Conrad’s foreword to the aptly titled Britain’s Life-boats, followed by the draft of Conrad’s speech to the Lifeboat Institution, followed by the speech he eventually made to the Lifeboat Institution, then by all means buy this book. If you’re hoping for insights into Conrad’s mind and work, or for good unpublished fiction, forget it.

A word about the title: Less than onesixteenth of the volume is occupied by the “Congo Diary” that Conrad kept in 1890 and that may have been a minor source for the great Heart of Darkness. The diary is available elsewhere, in Last Essays, and Heart of Darkness has more to do with Conrad’s imagination anyway than with this brief, mundane journal.

The rest of the pages are inhabited by a navigational logbook, letters to the press, a cable, several forewords and prefaces, a fragmentary novel, and a long story written in collaboration with Ford Madox Ford. This last, The Nature of a Crime, sounds intriguing; it’s not. Ford, who wrote more than 95 per cent of it, described it as “awful piffle.” He was dead right. Conrad, having contributed two florid paragraphs, promptly forgot about the story’s existence; yet the text provides the longest single item in Congo Diary. The only pieces of much interest are a short article in praise of Marcel Proust, and the fragment of a novel, The Sisters.

Congo Diary has appeared only because literature is a “growth industry” and great writers are profitable, once safely dead. Conrad scholars already would have known where to find all this. Their publication does no one any credit; their contents will give no one much pleasure. Mark Abley

Mark Abley