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.
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.