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The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad Paperback – 4 Sep 2008

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Product details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Arrow (4 Sept. 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099478676
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099478676
  • Product Dimensions: 13 x 2.5 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 2.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 818,775 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

"Formidable ... Stape's succinct way of dealing with Conrad's 'several lives' must be applauded." (Independent)

"A Fascinating portrait of a mind-boggling, globe-spanningly modern life." (Evening Standard)

"Conrad is dead. I finished reading in something like a state of mourning. John Stape has brought him so much to life - a living man, a working writer, not a 'study', not a statue - that one can't help suffering with him. I am so pleased to have had the experience of this book. But it's sad as it is triumphant." (Cynthia Ozick)

Book Description

Published to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth, The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad is a brilliant and highly readable biography of a literary figure of world-wide reputation.

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Ms. J. Cantrell on 22 Nov. 2012
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I'm afraid, I am about half-way through reading this and I still know little to nothing about Conrad the man. I know the dates that he sailed "in" or "on" ships, whose houses he visited on which dates, but nothing much more than a list of dry facts. This biography is painstaking on details, but infuriatingly frequently lapses into comments like "why did he choose her as his wife? We can only make guesses", "we will probably never know why he ...", "it is now impossible to know, after a lapse of so many years, what was in his mind when ..." and so on. I love reading biographies, but when I do so, it is to get inside the mind of the person and try to understand what it was like to live a life such as theirs. If you read biographies for the same reason, I think you are going to be very disappointed ....
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful By R. M. D. Bennett on 6 Aug. 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
It is always fascinating how a Pole who started out as a merchant seaman and only learnt English when he was 18 became one of England's greatest novelists; Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness and The Secret Agent among his books. A well-written account of his sometimes turbulent life.
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Amazon.com: 8 reviews
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
A solid biography, but not wholly satisfactory 17 Dec. 2008
By R. M. Peterson - Published on Amazon.com
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. For example: "Although incontestably a great writer, having contributed to shaping the way his own and the generations after him 'see', [Conrad] is, perhaps, in the scheme of things, not quite a 'great' novelist, missing -- just -- the glacial perfection, of a Stendhal or Flaubert, and in this perhaps more closely resembling the achievement of a Tolstoy or Dostoevsky."

On the plus side, THE SEVERAL LIVES OF JOSEPH CONRAD is tolerably well-written and I believe one can trust what it says about the facts of Conrad's life. On balance, I prefer it slightly over the one other biography I have read of Conrad, "Joseph Conrad" by Jeffrey Meyers. But, as noted, it is not a fully satisfactory biography. To be sure, Conrad -- to indulge in a gross understatement -- was an exceedingly complex person. And his fiction reflects again and again his dismissal as futile and delusory any effort to fully comprehend any human being, even oneself. Perhaps, then, it is too much to expect any biographer to fully capture the essence of Joseph Conrad. Still, knowledgeable Conrad scholar that Stape undoubtedly is, he is not supremely skilled in the art and craft of biography. So I maintain hope that some day we will get a thoroughly responsible biography of Joseph Conrad that, if not definitive or ideal, does bring us much closer to this elusive, and great, writer.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
Homo multiplex 7 Jan. 2009
By H. Schneider - Published on Amazon.com
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. Henry James, a friendly colleague, said: being serious and subtle isn't one of the paths to fortune. Many of Conrad's books achieved lasting fame in later times. The man was too modern for his world.

I had read most of Conrad's books in the 70s and 80s and am now re-visiting him. I realize that I underestimated him in the past. I saw him as some kind of older Graham Greene. I did not realize the full extent of his importance. And I had some struggles with his language, which I found often unnecessarily compact and slow. I realize now that was largely my own fault.

Stape's biography is useful, but too much is missing, and not all in it is necessary. It gets a little repetitious with all the gout attacks and the wife's knee operations and Walpole coming for lunch etc etc.
Most bios of writers have the habit of placing the target in a social context of other writers. That is also one of the strong sides of Stape's book too. I never knew that Conrad was close to Stephen Crane; SC died while JC was writing the ending of Lord Jim. The death may have influenced the tone of the book. What I find a little irritating is Stape's habit of hinting vaguely at Conrad's friendships with younger men, somehow not quite saying that he suspects an underlying unspoken motive. (The Melville bio that I read recently did the same, ie hint at hidden homosexual streaks in the pattern of the man.)

Other friends and good colleagues: Galsworthy, Henry James, H.G.Wells, Ford Maddox Ford (the target of much scorn from Stape), Hugh Walpole, J.M.Barrie, Hardy, Russell, Gide... It seems Conrad was seriously hoping for the Nobel, and he was a giant in his world.
As we know, he wasn't the only giant who was not en-Nobled by Stockholm. A smaller move from Britain's royalty was rejected by him, in line with his some of his peers.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
The many lives of the same fascinating man 12 Mar. 2008
By Armchair Interviews - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
When you hear Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, or The Secret Agent, does "Joseph Conrad" come to mind? Reading about Conrad's jinxed life turned those books more intimate and all the more tragic.

John Stape opens his Conrad biography with notes and appendices as you into Conrad's life. Without these pieces, any Conrad non-professional would most likely be lost, as Conrad's world was so vastly different from anything imaginable.

Born to Polish parents, he was exiled to northern Russia before he could read. His father, a Polish Revolutionary, was forced to flee after defying the Tzar. His mother had died in Siberia when he was 7; then at 11 he became an official orphan. At 16 he moved to France and then moved onto England, where he became a sailor with the Merchant Marines. This job fuelled his writing power, though he led such a brilliant life in solitude.

Conrad quickly married working-class, Jessie. As with the sailing voyages, his fragile marriage also gave birth to plots and the passion put into his earlier short stories. Fears that his wife may leave him should he become delusional was one main plot, and in another a wife killed her husband due to his sexual advances-which he wrote on his honeymoon.

Conrad who seemed to attract bad luck. As he was finishing a lengthy novel, a tipped oil lamp destroyed the manuscript, as another was being shipped on the Titanic. Enough said. Misfortune and scarring events gave him material to write fictional portrayals of his own experiences. On a voyage through the Belgian Congo, he produced Heart of Darkness, even though his health and morale were shattered by the experience.

Stape writes an eloquent portrait of Conrad's life. Overall, the book was so intensely in tune with what one could imagine Conrad's experiences to be, that I had to balance out the depressing read with something lighthearted.

Clearly Stape is a Conrad expert. Despite the absence of good fortune during Conrad's life, the literary community was blessed with a writer no less than a genius.

Armchair Interviews says: If you love biographies that paint vivid and realistic pictures of a famous writer, this is for you.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Stape's "Several Lives of J. Conrad" a Bravura Performance 29 July 2009
By Frank - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This book by Dr. John Stape is a bravura performance by one of the world's foremost Conrad authorities. Stape is the editor of The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad, co-editor of two volumes of The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad, head of the Conradian society, and has published many, many articles on Conrad, so he knows of what he writes about. Several things impressed me about this book. First, it is an enjoyable read, beautifully written, with the several lives examined (youth with family in exile; young mariner; First Mate at sea and then Captain; novice writer; and then world famous author). Because of page limitations and its scope, it is not a literary criticism of all that Conrad wrote but one learns so much about the works from the biographical information. For example, we learn that young Conrad while serving in service of the Saint-Antoine, met the man upon whom he modeled Victory's "plain Mr. Jones", Conrad's first known encounter with a [...] man. This is but one example, another being Conrad's first encounter with John Galsworthy on ship. Galsworthy, of course, became a profound friend and influence on Conrad. So, although the book is not intended as an exegesis of each of Conrad's works, we learn about the experiences that affected Conrad's writing and learn vital background information about his writings. The second thing that I must applaud about Dr. Stape's biography of Conrad is his wide historical knowledge; he really shows the eddies and swirls of history that influenced and shaped Conrad and his writings. This is shown in the opening pages by Stape's masterful account of the Polish Question and by Stape's command of French and even the Italian language. A third vital feature of Stape's account is that he carefully weighs claims and controversies surrounding Conrad and gives new insights about them. Stape does not just accept anything Conrad or others say or write, he balances it, and checks it for its accuracy and its "ring of truth". This is a showpiece of biography written by a Conrad authority at the height of his powers. It is a must read for both generalists and for Conrad scholars.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Left Wanting 9 Nov. 2014
By LVT06 - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Disappointing. The title suggested the reader would glimpse Conrad's complex character, motives and thematic inspiration. Instead, the work is a standard chronological rundown with minute, research-highlighting details on display (such as Conrad's shore leave itineraries). As reviewers Schneider and Peterson wrote so accurately, there's sadly very little analysis of Conrad's writing itself or the experiences that inspired them. The several lives we observe are punctuated anecdotes along a standard timeline format. The best exploration of Conrad may simply be reading his works.
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