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A MODERN IN SEARCH OF TRUTH
ROMANCE AND REALITY IN RUMANIA Herbert Adams Gibbons An illuminating story that the Queen forgot to tell
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FIRST met Joseph Conrad in November 1894, some months after I, as Mr. Fisher Unwin's reader, had written one of my hasty reports and had advised the acceptance of "Almayer's Folly." My friend Mr. W. H. Chesson, whose duty it was to take charge of the manuscripts, tells me that he called my particular attention to the manuscript. My wife recollects that I showed her the manuscript, told her it was the work of a foreigner and asked her opinion of his style. What particularly captivated me was the figure of Babalatchi, the aged one-eyed statesman and the night scene at the river's edge between Mrs. Almayer and her daughter. The strangeness of the tropical atmosphere, and the poetic realism of this romantic narrative excited my curiosity about the author, who I fancied might have Eastern blood in his veins. I was told however that he was a Pole, and this increased my interest since my Nihilist friends, Stepniak and Volkhovsky, had always subtly decried the Poles when one sympathized with their position as "under dog."
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Since I spent the greater part of every week in the country I rarely made the acquaintance of authors whose manuscripts I had read. But on this occasion Mr. Fisher Unwin arranged a meeting between Conrad and me at the National Liberal Club. On the last Christmas before his death, Conrad described to Mrs. Gertrude Bone his recollection of this first meeting, and I quote from the account she has sent me.
"The first time I saw Edward," Conrad went on, "I dared not open my mouth. I had gone to meet him to hear what he thought of "Almayer's Folly." I saw a young man enter the room. "That cannot be Edward so young as that,' I thought. He began to talk. Oh yes! It was Edward. I had no longer doubt. But I was too frightened to speak. But this is what I want to tell you, how he made me go on writing. If he had said to me, 'Why not go on writing?' I should have been paralyzed. I could not have done it. But he said to me, 'You have written one book. It is very good. Why not write another? Do
you see what a difference that made? Another? Yes, I would do that. I could do that. Many others I could not. Another I could. That is how Edward made me go on writing. That is what made me an author."
My other memory is of seeing a dark-haired man, short but extremely graceful in his nervous gestures, with brilliant eyes, now narrowed and penetrating, now soft and warm, with a manner alert yet caressing, whose speech was ingratiating, guarded, and brusque turn by turn. I had never seen before a man so masculinely keen yet so femininely sensitive. The conversation between our host and Conrad for some time was halting and jerky. Mr. Unwin's efforts to interest his guest in some political personages and in literary figures such as John Oliver Hobbes and S. R. Crockett were as successful as an attempt to thread an eyeless needle. Conrad, extremely polite, grew nervously brusque in his responses and kept shifting his feet one over the other, so that I became fascinated in watching the flash of his pointed patent leather shoes. The climax came unexpectedly when in answer to Mr. Unwin's casual but significant reference to "your next book," Conrad threw himself back on the lounge and in a tone that put a clear cold space between himself and his hearers, said, "I don't expect to write again. It is likely that I shall soon be going to sea."
A silence fell. With one sharp snick he had cut the rope between us and we were left holding the loose end. I felt disappointed and cheated. Mr. Unwin expressed some deprecatory ambiguities and then, after turning his falconlike glance down
the long smoking-room, apologized for having to greet some friends in a far corner.
Directly he had left Conrad and me alone speech came to me in a rush. I may have been as diplomatic as Conrad has recorded. What I then said to him with the fervency of youth would seem to me a little bizarre now, had I not caught myself the other day, thirty years later, addressing a young author with much the same accents and convictions. But I spoke then with youth's ardent assurance. My thesis was that the life Conrad had witnessed on sea and land must vanish away into the mist and fade utterly from memory did he not set himself to record it in literature. And "Almayer's Folly" showed that he had the power. Conrad listened attentively, searching my face, and demurring a little. It seemed to me afterward that he had come to meet me that night partly out of curiosity and partly as an author who deep down desires to be encouraged to write. And the credo he heard matched his conviction that it was the thing that he could do that mattered. It was no doubt partly my curiosity about Conrad's life as a sailor in the Eastern seas that winged my words; and curiously the heavy, middle class atmosphere of the National Liberal Club with its yellow encaustic tiles, cigar smoke, provincial members, political gossip from the lobbies, and business news on the tape, jarred less and less in the presence of this stranger who charmed one by something polished and fastidious in the inflections of his manner. Yes, he had "the temperament." Shortly after Mr. Unwin's
return we bade him good night and Conrad strolled some distance with me past the brilliantly lighted Strand. Our relations had been settled for good by this first contact.
being, bred in the bone, and serving him as a foil in a master's hand, ready for attack or defense. That first evening he took from the mantelshelf and showed me the portrait of his mother with her sweet commanding eyes, and told me that both she and her father, a poet and translator of Shakspere, had been arrested at the time of the Polish rising of 1862, and had afterwards been sent into exile. Of himself Conrad spoke as a man lying under a slight stigma among his contemporaries for having expatriated himself. The subject of Poland was then visibly painful to him, and in those early years he would speak of it unwillingly, his attitude being designed to warn off acquaintances from pressing on a painful nerve. Later he grew less sensitive and in a letter in 1901, he sketched at length his family history and connections.
We did not meet again for some weeks, when Conrad invited me to spend the evening with him at 17 Gillingham Street. After dining in a private room at a Wilton Street restaurant where an obsequious Italian waiter dashed up and down the stairs all wreathed in smiles, I was introduced to Conrad's snug bachelor quarters. As soon as he had placed me in an easy-chair Conrad retired behind a mysterious screen and left me to study the coziness of the small firelit room, a row of French novels, the framed photograph of an aristocratic lady and an engraving of a benevolent imposing man on the mantelshelf. On a little table by the screen lay a pile of neat manuscript sheets. I remained conscious of these manuscript sheets when Conrad reappeared and plunged into talk which ranged over things as far removed as the aspects of Malay rivers and the ways of publishers. Conrad's talk that night was a romance, free and swift; it implied in ironical flashes that though we hailed from different planets the same tastes animated us. To no one was the art of harmonizing differences so instinctive, when he wished to draw near. To no one was the power of emphasizing them more emphatic, when he did not. There was a blend of caressing, almost feminine intimacy with masculine incisiveness in his talk; it was that which gave it its special character. Conrad's courtesy was part of his
In response to this first confidence about his family, thrown out with diffidence, I gave him some idea of my own position, which at that time, as indeed later, was peculiarly isolated. A stranger to editors and to literary cliques I had no influence outside the publishing firm I worked for; but I could and did give new authors encouragement and practical advice about placing their work. My few literary friends were struggling young men, such as W. B. Yeats, men abler than myself and not so unskilled in the methods of success. My six years' work as a publisher's reader had taught me fully the anxieties and the hazards of the literary life; but youth believes instinctively that luck is on its side, and I had been lucky in finding authors for Mr. T. Fisher Unwin.