biography, guidance notes, and literary criticism
This comes from a new series by Routledge which offers comprehensive but single-volume introductions to major English writers. They are aimed at students of literature, but are accessible to general readers who might like to deepen their literary understanding. The approach taken could not be more straightforward. Part one of the Critical Guide to Joseph Conrad is a potted biography, placing Conrad’s life and work in its socio-historical context. Thus we get his early years in Poland, his career as a seaman, his influences and ambitions, and his (relatively slow) rise to fame as a novelist. One of the interesting features of Conrad’s development as a writer is that his early novels were largely adult versions of boy’s adventure stories.
However, as his work became richer he tackled themes of intense political complexity. Read Heart of Darkness today and you would swear it had been written quite recently. Part two provides a synoptic view of his stories and novels. The works are described in outline, and then their main themes illuminated. This is followed by pointers towards the main critical writings on these texts and issues. I must say that reading through the synopses of some of his lesser known works made me want to go back to them again.
Part three deals with criticism of Conrad’s work. This is presented in chronological order – from contemporaries such as Richard Curle and his collaborator Ford Madox Ford, via early champions such as F.R. Leavis and Albert Guerard, to critics of the present day, with the focus on colonial and post-colonial criticism.
The book ends with a chronology of his life, a commendably thorough bibliography which covers biography, criticism in books and articles, plus pointers towards specialist Conrad journals.
This is an excellent starting point for students who are new to Conrad’s work – and a refresher course for those who would like to keep up to date with criticism.
© Roy Johnson 2006
Tim Middleton, The Complete Critical Guide to Joseph Conrad, London: Routledge, 2006, pp.201, ISBN 0415268524