By Andrew Glazzard, London
John G. Peters. Joseph Conrad’s Critical Reception (Cambridge, New York, Melbourne et al.: Cambridge University Press, 2013). £55.
If evidence were needed for Conrad being a major subject of international literary scholarship – what the Times Literary Supplement once dubbed the “the Anglo-American Conrad critical-industrial complex” – a glance at the bibliography of John G. Peters’s formidable Joseph Conrad’s Critical Reception would supply it. It lists no less than 360 mostly book-length works, all of which receive generous attention in Peters’s text. From the biographical and belle-lettristic works of the early-twentieth century to the dizzying variety of theoretical approaches in the twenty-first, it seems that no methodological stone has been left unturned. Political, philosophical, psychological/ psychoanalytic (Jungian, or Freudian, or both, or neither) and historicist approaches have remained influential since the 1920s; more recently, structuralist and post-structuralist theories have come and many have stayed. Gender has been a preoccupation since the 1980s, while issues of race and empire have been controversial and exceedingly prominent since Achebe’s ground-breaking (in several senses) “An Image of Africa” (1977). More recently, as Peters shows, queer studies, eco-criticism, and historical formalism have further enriched the theoretical and methodological diversity of Conrad studies.
This range may seem to be nothing more than a reflection of academic trends and of the diversity of Eng. Lit. as a dynamic (some would say chaotic) collection of methods, theories, and practices. But, in a brief conclusion, Peters argues that there is something special about the protean nature of Conrad criticism that reflects the depth and diversity of Conrad’s work. Whereas some authors respond to certain approaches and resist others, Conrad’s fiction seems to have sufficient range and depth to make it responsive to whatever our discipline can throw at it. At one time, a book entitled Conrad and Women might have seemed an unlikely prospect, but Susan Jones’s 1999 monograph showed how much there is to say. Similarly, who would have thought an entire book could be devoted to the subject of Conrad and comedy? Stanton de Voren Hoffmann’s Comedy and Form in the Fiction of Joseph Conrad (1969) would seem to prove that Conrad can be funny. Conrad himself might have been surprised to know that one day an eminent scholar would write Sexuality and the Erotic in the Fiction of Joseph Conrad, but Jeremy Hawthorn’s 2007 book is richly evidenced and convincingly argued. Moreover, as Peters shows, there is an extraordinary range of more specific topics that have been treated at book length, from scapegoats to suicide to Schopenhauer.
How can anyone master this vast literature? Peters deserves our admiration and gratitude for having read, digested, and re-presented so much critical thought. And this is more than a Herculean effort: the summaries of each work are almost always thorough and to the point. There are some exceptions: I was, I am afraid, none the wiser after reading Peters’s summary (pp. 122–24) of what Frederic Jameson is actually saying in the Conrad chapter of his enormously influential (but, to me, exceedingly opaque) The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981). Take the following: “In place of this repressed knowledge enters the aesthetic gratification of Conrad’s writing – gratification of the fragmented and intensified image: the reified sense-data of literary impressionism. In other words, Conrad aestheticizes labor such that it mutes the actual conditions of production” (p. 123). Here, the explication is barely more intelligible than the original. However, in most other cases Peters is a reliable guide to even the most subtle and serpentine critical argument. He is particularly good on some of the major studies of the last thirty years: Michael Greaney’s Conrad, Language, and Narrative (2002), for instance, earns a full and appreciative exegesis (pp. 207–08).
As may already be apparent, this book is synoptic in method. Indeed, although Peters protests in his preface that his is not an annotated bibliography, I would contend that it is in most respects precisely that: it summarises a very comprehensive selection of book-length studies, supported by a digest of several shorter works that appeared in Conrad’s lifetime. But the focus on monographs is one problem with Peters’s approach: why include some now quite marginal volumes while omitting nearly everything published in academic journals? While he mentions a couple of recent essays in order to illustrate a new critical departure (eco-criticism), he deliberately misses much important and interesting work including nearly everything published in Conradiana, The Conradian, and L’Époque Conradienne. For this reason, I was left pining for a supplement to Owen Knowles’s An Annotated Critical Bibliography of Joseph Conrad (1992), which includes a rich selection of essays, and which surely deserves a volume II.
A second problem is that, despite eschewing the format of a reference work, Peters does not set out to provide much by way of argument, or analysis, or assessment: he is usually silent on his or others’ opinion as to whether the works he summarizes are actually any good, but there is a much more significant missed opportunity here. A work entitled Joseph Conrad’s Critical Reception suggests engagement in how and why critics have grappled with Conrad in the way they have, and what we might learn both about Conrad’s work and about its position in the many cultures that have received it – rather than a “digested read”. The questions that have preoccupied Conrad’s critics over the years – Does his later fiction show evidence of decline? Is his work racist? How far does knowing about the man help us understand the work? – do not receive any sustained treatment, although they appear fleetingly throughout. By taking a broadly chronological rather than thematic approach, the book rarely gets below the surface of what Conrad’s critics are really discussing. Take, for example, the “achievement and decline” paradigm, which Virginia Woolf was one of the first to advance in “A Disillusioned Romantic” (1920). Peters helpfully identifies in passing those critics who subscribe to this view and those who dissent from it. But the issue is so fundamental to the declared topic of this book that it seems surprising that it does not receive a full examination. Peters’s own views are not stated explicitly, but can be inferred from passing comments. He refers, for example, to Conrad’s “literary decline” (p. 147) as if it were an established fact, while his summary of Albert J. Guerard’s “landmark study” Conrad the Novelist (1958) highlights Guerard’s condemnation of Victory and the later novels, before concluding: “Guerard first articulated many accepted views of Conrad’s works, and Conrad the Novelist remains a standard work of Conrad criticism” (p. 57). The phrase “accepted views” rings an alarm bell – and there is plenty of evidence in Peters’s own book to counter the assumption that, like the Whig view of history, Conrad criticism is heading towards some kind of objective truth on this or any other matter. Whether it is F. R. Leavis finding “Heart of Darkness” to be an inferior work by comparison with Chance and Victory, or Ian Watt arguing that Guerard and others of that ilk are simply overlooking the technical flaws of the fiction they prefer while exaggerating the flaws in the works they dislike, or Robert Hampson’s case that the later fiction simply requires a different set of critical tools from those used to analyse the mid-period work, there has never – thankfully – been a consensus on this point.
Peters’s synoptic method creates a further problem which will be swiftly apparent to anyone who attempts to read this as a book rather than (against the grain of its form) as a reference work. In his preface Peters declares an aim “to present a readable narrative history” (p. xi). But his structure means that narrative is conspicuous by its absence. As a result, I for one found it hard-going. And this is not helped by repetitive paragraph construction: Peters generally starts with a broad statement of the book’s contents that would be obvious from the title. Thus, “Arnold E. Davidson’s Conrad’s Endings: A Study of the Five Major Novels (1984) […] focuses specifically on the endings of five novels” (p. 141); “Andrew Mozina’s Joseph Conrad and the Art of Sacrifice: The Evolution of the Scapegoat Theme in Joseph Conrad’s Fiction (2001) […] considers sacrifice in Conrad’s fiction, particularly the scapegoat theme” (p. 221). These are not isolated examples. Moreover, they are symptomatic of a prose style that is workmanlike but lacks vigour and crispness.
That is not to say that Joseph Conrad’s Critical Reception is anything other than a worthwhile addition to a university library or even a personal collection. It is a useful and impeccably researched compendium of summaries of book-length criticism. But it falls between being “a readable narrative” and a handy work of reference, and its omission of journal articles is both surprising and, to my mind, disappointing.
© 2015 Andrew Glazzard