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The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad Paperback – March 10, 2009

4.3 out of 5 stars 8 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Joseph Conrad's lasting reputation has been built on his acclaimed books, Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim and The Secret Agent, but Stape, drawing on an encyclopedic knowledge of his subject, shows how Conrad's life can be sharply divided into three parts: his youth, dominated by the concerns of disenfranchised Polish relatives; his travels as a working seaman; and finally, his long career as a writer and family man. And while Stape, editor of The Oxford Companion to Joseph Conrad, admits to the difficulty of painting a portrait of a man who was inclined to bend the truth about his own life, he has done an exacting job tracking down the people and places Conrad encountered in his life. Unfortunately, this biography values detail over insight. We read about lunches with people who will never reappear in Conrad's life, but are left wanting over questions of literary import. For example, Conrad began writing about unhappy romantic affiliations long before he embarked on his uneventful if not impassioned marriage to Jessie George, but Stape barely touches upon previous romantic involvements that may have influenced Conrad's thinking. Readers are left with a great deal about Conrad's life, but little insight into how it shaped his work.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Digital edition.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* One of the world’s most captivating writers, Conrad led a demanding life long obscured by myth. Conrad expert Stape seeks to nail down the facts in a strict accounting of the wrenching ups and downs of Conrad’s struggle to survive and get words on the page. Writing with an eye to irony and paradox and evincing a love of description—qualities prominent in Conrad’s work––Stape lays the foundation with a sensitive rendering of Conrad’s traumatic childhood as the only child of exiled Polish dissidents. A sickly boy versed in the art of displacement, he was orphaned at 11, went to sea at 16, and was marked by all that he witnessed in far-flung places, from the Caribbean to Bangkok, Borneo, and the Congo. As Stape vividly portrays this seen-it-all “ardent Francophile” and feckless charmer resistant to authority, Stape admits that Conrad’s metamorphosis into a writer “remains an intractable mystery.” He then keeps diligent track of Conrad’s punishing cycles of creativity and despair within a marriage further burdened by financial worries and relentless bouts of ill health. Stape’s painstaking portrait clarifies many aspects of Conrad’s life, and reveals just how grueling it was for him to create his glorious and harrowing fiction. --Donna Seaman --This text refers to the Digital edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (March 10, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400095867
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400095865
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,465,977 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By R. M. Peterson TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on December 17, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
As might be expected from a distinguished Conrad scholar -- among other things, author John Stape is co-editor of Conrad's published letters -- THE SEVERAL LIVES OF JOSEPH CONRAD is a sober, responsible biography of one of the great novelists of the 20th Century. But it is not wholly satisfactory. It certainly is not the definitive or the ideal biography of Conrad.

Noting that "biographies of late have tended to bloat" (how true!), Stape states in his Preface that his objective is "brevity." In a sense, he succeeds: THE SEVERAL LIVES OF JOSEPH CONRAD comes in at 272 pages of text. (Additional pages contain photos, maps, family trees, biographical profiles of people of note who interacted with Conrad, and extensive footnotes and bibliography -- all of which are welcome.) But the last two-thirds of the book, dealing with Conrad's career as a writer, bogs down in the details of a seemingly endless cycle of gout and depression, financial irresponsibility followed by scuffling and cadging for funds, visits with assorted literary and cultural figures, and Conrad's continuous bemoaning of the toil of the writing life. All in all, as relatively short as it is, the book is too much biographical fact and too little biographical essence.

Stape, in his Preface, also disavows any effort to pursue "literary criticism," and indeed THE SEVERAL LIVES OF JOSEPH CONRAD contains only the barest and briefest discussion of the literary aspects of Conrad's works. That is unfortunate because what little Stape does offer in the way of literary analysis is worthwhile.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is definitively not the definitive Conrad biography.
For one, Stape explicitely focuses on the life, or 'several lives', and nearly ignores the work, usually just mentioning titles and extremely briefly what they were about and how they fared in the market place.
Second, there are still so many gaps in the life story. That seems to be largely due to the fact that the man moved about a lot and much documentation got lost. This problem gets more and more difficult to solve with time.

Which 'several lives' are we looking at?
The Catholic- Polish 'gentleman' (not quite aristocrat), who never lived in Poland (because that country was not a political entity at his time; rather, born in the Ukraine in the Russian empire, then moved to the Polish part of the Austrian/Hungarian empire); not a good Catholic either, Conrad never was a religious man, God bless him.

Then seaman in France and England, travelling the world, but not quite making a success out of his chosen career.
Then, out of nowhere, he becomes a writer in his third language, quits the sea, becomes a family man and a literary professional with literary friends. Conrad produces a string of masterpieces, but never has enough money and never seems to be able to handle money well when he has some.
Then a good English patriot with proper anti-Russian, anti-German, and also anti-American sentiments. Not anti-French, that he couldn't do.
In his last years financial sanity, but dwindling artistic power, and terrible health trouble, as well as great sorrows with a failing son.

Many of his books were praised by the critics, but ignored by the public. In his own words:his books dropped into the past like stones in water.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Up until the 1950's, mostly what was known about the famous writer Joseph Conrad (Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski) was scattered at best. The author of this biography, John Stape, has taken great pains to track Conrad's life with diligent research and documentation, and we get a good look at the struggles of the famous writer both with the circumstances of his life and his obsession with writing.

Jozef was born in 1857 to an ethnic Polish Roman Catholic family and spent his early years in the Russian Ukraine. His father Apollo wrote journalistic poetry with political overtones about the Ukrainian peasantry, later translating some works of Shakespeare, Dickens and most of Victor Hugo's plays, exposing Josef to both cultures at an early age.

In 1861 to escape Russian authorities for his political writings, Apollo moved his family to Warsaw but was still imprisoned in the Warsaw Citadel, an immense Tsarist dungeon where Polish patriotism was cruelly punished. Josef's earliest memories are of visiting his father there. Moved around by the Russians and in ill health, Conrad's mother was allowed to go to a family estate to recover, but she died a year later of tuberculosis leaving six-year-old Josef motherless. During this time Jozef learned to speak and write French. Conrad's father, also tubercular, tutored his son in the classics the best he could until he died in 1869 with his son at his bedside.

Conrad's grandmother already in her early 60's, sent him to a boarding school where he ignored his lessons to read about Arctic exploration and the mapping of Africa. By the age of 15, after traveling around Europe with his tutor, Josef had developed a desire to see the world and figured the best way for him to do that was to go to sea.
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