Comparing Conrad: Essays on Joseph Conrad and His Implied Dialogues with Other Writers

November 19, 2009

This book has no ISBN. "Can it even exist?" I hear booksellers and librarians ask. It hasn't even come from a publishing house. It is a self-published work. I can now detect the gasps of appalled academics for whom self-publication is aligned with the near-criminal activity of vanity publishing.

However, this is no rogue text. It is a chronological collection of academic writings on Joseph Conrad by a highly respected scholar in the field, Paul Kirschner. Kirschner's Conrad publications span five decades, from the collection's opening "Conrad and Maupassant" (1965) to the closing essay "Conrad, James and the 'Other Self'" (2007). The essays in the volume originally appeared in a range of respected forums, from A Review of English Literature (in the days when it was edited by the legendary A. Norman Jeffares) to essays from two of the finest single-author academic journals in English literary studies, Conradiana and The Conradian.

Kirschner teases out a wide range of loose ends, surprising links and seeming contradictions in this most paradoxical of authors. Conrad once denounced John Buchan for having "stolen" a story from Rudyard Kipling and his style from Neil Munro. Yet didn't Conrad himself make extensive "use" of other writers? As Kirschner playfully suggests, the concept of "plagiarism" has largely been replaced by "intertextuality", and he proceeds to explore Conrad's multilayered and multifaceted relationship with other writers in detail.

One of the recent developments in the study of Conrad and intertextuality has been an unravelling of his ambiguous relationship with popular culture, but this is not the focus here. The intertextual Conrad analysed here is principally a literary giant who stands among writers of similar stature: Goethe, Maupassant, Dostoevsky, Henry James and several others. Some of these interrelationships have long obsessed Conrad scholars, but Kirschner's take on the topic still remains as refreshing as it is enlightening. Not only does Kirschner explore a wide range of Conrad texts from syllabus warhorses to the unjustly neglected but he also finds diverse and distinctive angles to take. It is, for example, delightful to revisit the innovative "topodialogic" approach to Under Western Eyes that Kirschner first developed in 1992.

Another pleasure is "Conrad, Ibsen, and the Description of Humanity" (1993). It is all too tempting to take Conrad's alleged dismissal of Ibsen as "that old fraud" at face value, and yet Kirschner does a compelling job in painting a more elaborate picture of the parallels between two artists whose writing is equally theatrical and symbolic, albeit in starkly different ways.

Kirschner has always been an accessible writer and each piece demonstrates his skills of close textual analysis and wide-ranging contextual reference. Moreover, one of the subsidiary pleasures of this book is the opportunity it affords the reader to chart the evolving style and concerns of a scholar's career. Touchingly, the book is dedicated to "Conradians past, present and yet to come" and a spirit of passionate generosity imbues the volume. It is a delight to hold the thoughts of such a significant Conradian in one volume. Evidently, ISBNs are not everything.

Comparing Conrad: Essays on Joseph Conrad and His Implied Dialogues with Other Writers

By Paul Kirschner. Geneva, 2009*

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