The Skipper by Christopher Morley

Story type: Essay

I have been reading again that most delightful of all autobiographies, “A Personal Record,” by Joseph Conrad. Mr. Conrad’s mind is so rich, it has been so well mulched by years of vigorous life and sober thinking, that it pushes tendrils of radiant speculation into every crevice of the structure upon which it busies itself. This figure of speech leaves much to be desired and calls for apology, but in perversity and profusion the trellis growth of Mr. Conrad’s memories, here blossoming before the delighted reader’s eyes, runs like some ardent trumpet vine or Virginia creeper, spreading hither and thither, redoubling on itself, branching unexpectedly upon spandrel and espalier, and repeatedly enchanting us with some delicate criss-cross of mental fibres. One hesitates even to suggest that there may be admirers of Mr. Conrad who are not familiar with this picture of his mind–may we call it one of the most remarkable minds that has ever concerned itself with the setting of English words horizontally in parallel lines?

The fraternity of gentlemen claiming to have been the first on this continent to appreciate the vaulting genius of Mr. Conrad grows numerous indeed; almost as many as the discoverers of O. Henry and the pallbearers of Ambrose Bierce. It would be amusing to enumerate the list of those who have assured me (over the sworn secrecy of a table d’hote white wine) that they read the proof-sheets of “Almayer’s Folly” in 1895, etc., etc. For my own part, let me be frank. I do not think I ever heard of Mr. Conrad before December 2, 1911. On that date, which was one day short of the seventeenth anniversary of Stevenson’s death, a small club of earnest young men was giving a dinner to Sir Sidney Colvin at the Randolph Hotel in Oxford. Sir Sidney told us many anecdotes of R.L.S., and when the evening was far spent I remember that someone asked him whether there was any writer of to-day in whom he felt the same passionate interest as in Stevenson, any man now living whose work he thought would prove a permanent enrichment of English literature. Sir Sidney Colvin is a scrupulous and sensitive critic, and a sworn enemy of loose statement; let me not then pretend to quote him exactly; but I know that the name he mentioned was that of Joseph Conrad, and it was a new name to me.

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Even so, I think it was not until over a year later that first I read one of Mr. Conrad’s books; and I am happy to remember that it was “Typhoon,” which I read at one sitting in the second-class dining saloon of the Celtic, crossing from New York in January, 1913. There was a very violent westerly gale at the time–a famous shove, Captain Conrad would call it–and I remember that the barometer went lower than had ever been recorded before on the western ocean. The piano in the saloon carried away, and frolicked down the aisle between the tables: it was an ideal stage set for “Typhoon.” The saloon was far aft, and a hatchway just astern of where I sat was stove in by the seas. By sticking my head through a window I could see excellent combers of green sloshing down into the ‘tweendecks.

But the inspired discursiveness of Mr. Conrad is not to be imitated here. The great pen which has paid to human life “the undemonstrative tribute of a sigh which is not a sob, and of a smile which is not a grin,” needs no limping praise of mine. But sometimes, when one sits at midnight by the fainting embers and thinks that of all novelists now living one would most ardently yearn to hear the voice and see the face of Mr. Conrad, then it is happy to recall that in “A Personal Record” one comes as close as typography permits to a fireside chat with the Skipper himself. He tells us that he has never been very well acquainted with the art of conversation, but remembering Marlowe, we set this down as polite modesty only. Here in the “Personal Record” is Marlowe ipse, pipe in mouth, and in retrospective mood. This book and the famous preface to the “Nigger” give us the essence, the bouillon, of his genius. Greatly we esteem what Mr. Walpole, Mr. Powys, Mr. James, and (optimus maximus) Mr. Follett, have said about him; but who would omit the chance to hear him from his proper mouth? And in these informal confessions there are pieces that are destined to be classics of autobiography as it is rarely written.

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One cannot resist the conviction that Mr. Conrad, traditionally labelled complex and tortuous by the librarians, is in reality as simple as lightning or dawn. Fidelity, service, sincerity–those are the words that stand again and again across his pages. “I have a positive horror of losing even for one moving moment that full possession of myself which is the first condition of good service.” He has carried over to the world of desk and pen the rigorous tradition of the sea. He says that he has been attributed an unemotional, grim acceptance of facts, a hardness of heart. To which he answers that he must tell as he sees, and that the attempt to move others to the extremities of emotion means the surrendering one’s self to exaggeration, allowing one’s self to be carried away beyond the bounds of normal sensibility. Self-restraint is the duty, the dignity, the decency of the artist. This, indeed, is the creed of the simple man in every calling; and from this angle it appears that it is the Pollyananiases and the Harold Bell Wrights who are complicated and subtle; it is Mr. Conrad, indeed, who is simple with the great simplicity of life and death.

Truly in utter candour and simplicity no book of memoirs since the synoptic gospels exceeds “A Personal Record.” Such minor facts as where the writer was born, and when, and the customary demonology of boyhood and courtship and the first pay envelope, are gloriously ignored. A statistician, an efficiency pundit, a literary accountant, would rise from the volume nervously shattered from an attempt to grasp what it was all about. The only person in the book who is accorded any comprehensive biographical resume is a certain great-uncle of Mr. Conrad, Mr. Nicholas B., who accompanied Bonaparte on his midwinter junket to Moscow, and was bitterly constrained to eat a dog in the forests of Lithuania. To the delineation of this warrior, who was a legend of his youth, Mr. Conrad devotes his most affectionate and tender power of whimsical reminiscence; and in truth his sketches of family history make the tragedies of Poland clearer to me than several volumes of historical comment. In his prose of that superbly rich simplicity of texture–it is a commonplace that it seems always like some notable translation from the French–he looks back across the plains of Ukraine, and takes us with him so unquestionably that even the servant who drives him to his uncle’s house becomes a figure in our own daily lives. And to our delicious surprise we find that the whole of two long chapters constitutes merely his musings in half an hour while he is waiting for dinner at his uncle’s house. With what adorable tenderness he reviews the formative contours of boyish memories, telling us the whole mythology of his youth! Upon my soul, sometimes I think that this is the only true autobiography ever written: true to the inner secrets of the human soul. It is the passkey to the Master’s attitude toward all the dear creations of his brain; it is the spiritual scenario of every novel he has written. What self-revealing words are these: “An imaginative and exact rendering of authentic memories may serve worthily that spirit of piety toward all things human which sanctions the conceptions of a writer of tales.” And when one stops to consider, how essentially impious and irreverent to humanity are the novels of the Slop and Glucose school!

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This marvellous life, austere, glowing, faithful to everything that deserves fidelity, contradictory to all the logarithms of probability, this tissue of unlikelihoods by which a Polish lad from the heart of Europe was integrated into the greatest living master of those who in our tongue strive to portray the riddles of the human heart–such is the kind of calculus that makes “A Personal Record” unique among textbooks of the soul. It is as impossible to describe as any dear friend. Setting out only with the intention to “present faithfully the feelings and sensations connected with the writing of my first book and with my first contact with the sea,” Mr. Conrad set down what is really nothing less than a Testament of all that is most precious in human life. And the sentiment with which one lays it by is that the scribbler would gladly burn every shred of foolscap he had blackened and start all over again with truer ideals for his craft, could he by so doing have chance to meet the Skipper face to face.

Indeed, if Mr. Conrad had never existed it would have been necessary to invent him, the indescribable improbability of his career speaks so closely to the heart of every lover of literary truth. Who of his heroes is so fascinating to us as he himself? How imperiously, by his own noble example, he recalls us to the service of honourable sincerity. And how poignantly these memories of his evoke the sigh which is not a sob, the smile which is not a grin.

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