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Ivory Apes and Peacocks

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In these piping days when fiction plays the handmaid or prophet to various propaganda; when the majority of writers are trying to prove something, or acting as venders of some new-fangled social nostrums; when the insistent drums of the Great God Réclame are bruising human tympani, the figure of Joseph Conrad stands solitary among English novelists as the very ideal of a pure and disinterested artist. Amid the clamour of the market-place a book of his is a sea-shell which pressed to the ear echoes the far-away murmur of the sea; always the sea, either as rigid as a mirror under hard, blue skies or shuddering symphonically up some exotic beach. Conrad is a painter doubled by a psychologist; he is the psychologist of the sea—and that is his chief claim to originality, his Peak of Darien. He knows and records its every pulse-beat. His genius has the rich, salty tang of an Elizabethan adventurer and the spaciousness of those times. Imagine a Polish sailor who read Flaubert and the English Bible, who bared his head under equatorial few large stars and related his doings in rhythmic, sonorous, coloured prose; imagine a man from a landlocked country who "midway in his mortal life" began writing for the first time and in an alien tongue, and, added to an almost abnormal power of description, possessed the art of laying bare the human soul, not after the meticulous manner of the modern Paul Prys of psychology, but following the larger method of Flaubert, who believed that actions should translate character—imagine these paradoxes and you have partly imagined Joseph Conrad, who has so finely said that "imagination, and not invention, is the supreme master of art as of life."

He has taken the sea-romance of Smollett, Marryat, Melville, Dana, Clark Russell, Stevenson, Becke, Kipling, and for its well-worn situations has substituted not only many novel nuances, but invaded new territory, revealed obscure atavisms and the psychology lurking behind the mask of the savage, the transpositions of dark souls, and shown us a world of "kings, demagogues, priests, charlatans, dukes, giraffes, cabinet ministers, bricklayers, apostles, ants, scientists, Kaffirs, soldiers, sailors, elephants, lawyers, dandies, microbes, and constellations of a universe whose amazing spectacle is a moral end in itself." In his Reminiscences Mr. Conrad has told us, with the surface frankness of a Pole, the genesis of his literary début of Almayer's Folly, his first novel, and in a quite casual fashion throws fresh light on that somewhat enigmatic character—reminding me in the juxtaposition of his newer psychologic procedure and the simple old tale, of Wagner's Venusberg ballet, scored after he had composed Tristan und Isolde. But, like certain other great Slavic writers, Conrad has only given us a tantalising peep into his mental workshop. We rise after finishing the Reminiscences realising that we have read once more romance, in whose half-lights and modest evasions we catch fleeting glimpses of reality....