Kate Symondson begins her TLS review of recent editions of Joseph Conrad’s letters and his novel Victory with a reminder of FR Leavis's complaint about Conrad's “insistence on inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery.”

Symondson writes, “Instead of the Victorian preference for pellucid—almost pedantic—hardened detail, mist shrouds and encircles Conrad's fiction. His narratives move seamlessly, almost imperceptibly, between different perspectives and voices. Dramatic scenes—explosions, collisions, shipwrecks, gunshots—are experienced as sensorial derangements, as they ‘happen.' We only come to understand what exactly has happened after the event. Conventionally held opposites collide, elide and even exchange in what Conrad refers to as ‘the incomprehensible alliance of irreconcilable antagonisms.' He makes it impossible to fix to any one understanding, or to see anything directly.”

In short, “Conrad's incomprehensibility tended to ‘muffle' rather than ‘magnify.'” Ultimately, Symondson doesn't think this a weakness: Conrad's “metaphysically infused, hazy vision inexhaustibly fascinates readers” and “the chasm-like quality of ‘what isn't said' creates a space to be filled by the reader.”

The opaqueness is a principled one. In a letter to Sidney Colvin, Conrad complains that “I have not been very well understood. I have been called a writer of the sea, of the tropics, a descriptive writer, a romantic writer - and also a realist. But as a matter of fact all my concern has been with the ‘ideal' values of things, events and people.”

One unexpected revelation: “Conrad could be funny. ‘My dear Mr Sandeman,' he begins in a letter of 1917, ‘I am scandalized by your unpatriotic choice of disease [German measles], but I hope you have repented and got rid of it by this time. You should model yourself on me and (if you must have something) employ the best brand of gout, as patronised from time immemorial by the Nobility and Gentry of this country.'”

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