BOOK REVIEW: Conradology

I was named after Joseph Conrad, as he was one of my father’s favourite authors. As such, I’ve always had a soft spot for him. But even bearing this personal affection in mind, there continues to be something remarkably fresh about Conrad. This is not just due to his subject matter, although novels such as The Secret Agent and The Heart of Darkness still feel remarkably relevant, but because of the enduring modernity of his writing style. Clear, crisp, focussed and concise, he really is a masterful author for any age.

Therefore it was a delight to read Conradology, an anthology of short stories and non-fiction essays from a number of authors to mark 150 years since Conrad’s death. It features more established novelists, such as Paul Theroux, and less well known writers, from both the UK and Poland.

The short stories examine Conrad’s work, playing with his legacy to try to create something that is true to the source material whilst still being original. For the most part the stories concentrate on three aspects of Conrad, his seafaring novels, his interest in the impact of colonialism and his sharp appreciation of psychological motivation. Within this the range of plotlines is enormous. Some stories feel close to home, such as Sarah Schofield’s brilliant Expectant Management about the aftermath of a miscarriage, while others are far more expansive, for example Wojciech Orlinski’s clever tale of a virus that only affects people with a Caucasian background in Conrad Street.

Across the collection the short stories are consistently excellent, although if forced to choose a favourite it would either be Schofield’s heartbreaking piece, or Theroux’s characteristically stylish Navigation Hazard, which is an homage to Conrad’s nautical background. However, if I was to have a complaint it would be that, as a whole, the collection is a tad po-faced. To me, the only story that makes a consistent effort to recall Conrad’s black humour is Farah Ahmed’s The Helper of Cattle. It’s a shame, because Conrad’s dry-bones comedy is a vital part of his appeal.

For those more interested in placing Conrad in context the three non-fiction essays do a good job, and of the three Conrad, Capital and Globalisation by Dr Richard Niland of the University of Strathclyde is probably the most accessible. Although they do leave the reader wanting a little more, especially if you want to understand Conrad’s later London works.

Despite this it is an excellent collection, well edited by Becky Harrison and Magda Raczynska, and a vital companion to Conrad for his many fans.

Conradology is edited by Magda Raczynska & Becky Harrison

To mark his 160th birthday, 14 authors and critics from Britain, Poland and elsewhere have come together to celebrate his legacy with new pieces of fiction and non-fiction. Conrad felt that the writer’s task was to offer ‘that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.’ In an age of increasing isolationism, these celebrations remind you of the value of such glimpses.

Commissioned as part of the Joseph Conrad Year 2017, the book has been published with the support from the Polish Cultural Institute, the Polish Book Institute, and the British Council.

Conradology is available from CommaPress here.

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Reviewed by Joseph Surtees

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