Conrad First The Joseph Conrad Periodical Archive

Un des nôtres”: Joseph Conrad and La Nouvelle Revue française

Emily Wittman, University of Alabama

© Emily Wittman. No part of this text may be reposted or republished without the permission of the author.


Je me souviens qu’en achevant de lire ce récit [Conrad’s “Youth”] une profonde mélancholie se mêla à mon plaisir, à mon admiration. Je pensais que jamais je ne connaîtrais la belle et pure joie qu’avait éprouvée Conrad, marin du siècle passé.1
—Joseph Kessel, Marché d’esclaves (Kessel 1933, 125)

I beg you to tell Gide—who is a friend of yours, no?—that I am going to turn up at his door one of these days in a nightshirt, barefoot, with a rope around my neck. He will understand.
—Joseph Conrad to Henri Ghéon (Conrad 1983–2007, 4: 510)


“Displacement,” notes Walter Putnam with respect to the letters written to Joseph Conrad by French translator Philippe Neel, “modifies both the work that travels and the path along which it travels” (Putnam 1999, 60). And in a notorious judgment, F. R. Leavis criticized readers who celebrated Conrad’s early fiction “about the sea, the jungle and the islands,” which he emphatically dismissed as works of “apprenticeship” (Leavis 1948, 225). Yet it was precisely this period of Conrad’s work that attracted his first French readers, particularly the writers connected with the highly influential literary journal La Nouvelle Revue française (henceforth NRF) who were extraordinarily successful in helping to acquaint Francophone audiences with Conrad’s writings in the years around the First World War. As Putnam remarks, “one would be hard-pressed to find a richer example of literary adoption than that of the French vis-à-vis Conrad” (Putnam 1989, 98). This essay will demonstrate that the members of the NRF pioneered this adoption and gave it its particular character.
The following account of Conrad’s reception in France establishes that it was primarily his early writing—writing perceived as partially, if not entirely, autobiographical—that attracted the writers associated with the NRF, many of whom claimed to find a marked decline in his later work. This selective appreciation of Conrad demonstrates that these writers almost exclusively celebrated writing that they could tie to his years at sea. Their appreciation is discernable in French translations and critical commentary from the interwar period, as well as the commemorative issue of NRF which appeared in December 1924, barely four months after Conrad’s death.
Pascale Casanova’s The World Republic of Letters (1999; English trans. 2004), which can be seen as a response to Susan Bassnett and André Levefere’s call for “comparative study of the ways in which texts become cultural capital across cultural boundaries” (1998, 138), offers us useful conceptual tools with which to understand Conrad’s reception in France. Casanova revisits Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of consecration in order to illustrate the ways in which literature is produced, circulated, and valued. Of particular relevance to a study of Conrad’s French reception is her account of the way in which metropolitan literary centers controlled, and continue to control, the translation and critical evaluation of writing from the “periphery.” In the history Casanova outlines, acceptance by Paris—the principle center of consecration from the fifteenth through the first half of the twentieth centuries—was primarily limited to books which met the dominant aesthetic criteria of the time. Consecrated books had to reflect enough of their diverse origins to make them interesting and even fascinating, but they also had to conform to what Casanova terms “universal” writing. This imbalance of power meant that international writers who sought consecration from the “center” often wrote in French or English. She argues that writers from the “periphery,” including the Polish-born Conrad, were wise to this formula for success, and typically “adopted one of the great world literary languages,” without being compelled to on “economic or political grounds” (Casanova 2004, 281).
Casanova exhorts literary scholars to reread international literature with these notions of periphery and center in mind. Bracketing literature written explicitly for an exclusively national audience, i.e. literature that almost always fails to reach the global stage, she directs readers to consider both the national context within which a writer writes and the international context of literary power within which such writing was consecrated. Every writer, she argues, is locked into an international orbit of literary hegemony. Works of literature are likewise subject to a “literary temporality” (Casanova 2004, 350) that cannot be reduced to historical or political contexts, although it is necessarily informed by them.
Although the scope of Casanova’s book, as the title indicates, is world literature in general, she draws particular attention to her field of expertise: the French consecration of modernist writers. She offers historical reasons why texts were translated and praised at certain points, while others were not. Because of his profoundly international life and knowledge of three languages, first Polish, a “peripheral” language, followed by French and then English, Conrad’s reception in France via critical writing and translation is well worth reevaluating with Casanova’s thesis in mind. Although Casanova typically addresses the issue of translation in order to criticize specific translators, her work nonetheless offers a valuable starting-point for a fresh exploration of Conrad’s appearance in Francophone literary culture.
Casanova lists Conrad among the many writers of the “periphery” who of necessity wrote in English. Such writers have not suffered critical neglect; indeed, in 1940, sixteen years after Conrad’s death, three successive editions of Les Nouvelles littéraires—a journal founded in 1922 and devoted to literature and cinema—devoted space to an extended study by George Higgins entitled “Les Conrads Français.” This study discussed the adoption of French for literary purposes by a number of non-native writers (Delbart 2005, 33). Casanova, however, overlooks Conrad’s claim in his autobiographical A Personal Record that he was “adopted by the genius of the language,” and would not have written at all if he “had not written in English” (Conrad 1912, vii). Indeed, Yves Hervouet, while suggesting that Conrad “thought in French,” also claimed that by the time Conrad started writing fiction, his Polish had deteriorated to the point that writing in his mother tongue was no longer an option (Hervouet 1990, 263) Furthermore, Conrad once protested to Spiridion Kliszczewski, who had suggested that he write about the miserable state of Poland, that he “would lose my public” (qtd in Najder 1964, 26). Casanova often cites authorial statements, yet one senses that she would question Conrad’s claims about his relationship with the English language and point instead to “the weight of the unequal structure of the literary world” that leads “some authors—without any apparent coercion—to exchange their native language for another” (Casanova 2004, 281). In Casanova’s view, Conrad’s peripheral status disposed him to adopt one of three strategies available to peripherals: differentiation, assimilation, or a combination of the two.
What did Conrad’s critical recognition in France mean for him and what did it mean for his French consecrators? Conrad had long desired that his writing be translated into French. Until the publication of the English edition of Chance in January 1914, Conrad’s British book sales had lagged. He sensed that translation would afford him greater recognition on the continent where he had spent his first twenty years, four of them in Marseille (1874–78). Indeed, he had been looking for French translators since the beginning of his literary career. In 1894, a year before its publication in English, he asked Marguerite Poradowska, his French-speaking distant cousin by marriage, if she would participate with him in a collaborative translation of Almayer’s Folly (1895) (Conrad 1983–2007, 1: 165). In 1900, Poradowska translated “An Outpost of Progress,” but it was never published (Conrad 1983–2007, 2: 269).
Conrad did indeed offer a welcome challenge to his French counterparts, who expressed a complex admiration for his inimitable life and writing. He appeared to anticipate Jacques Rivière’s 1913 call in the NRF for English adventure novels capable of renewing French literature by example. In this seminal essay, Rivière suggests that French literature will profit from the translation of English literature: “French literature, which already has so often been able to rejuvenate itself through its borrowing, is going to seize upon the foreign novel and melt it into its blood” (1960, 92). A foreign writer who could renew the forms and subjects of the French novel, Conrad appears thus as a solution to its “state of crisis”. Significantly, Rivière linked his call for a renewal of French literature to the overall project of the NRF: “L’idée de La N.R.F. est née d’une tension féconde entre la fidelité à un classicisme, entendu comme une école de rigeur et d’accomplissement formel, et une ouverture, un renouvellement incessant des singularités psychologique, un «aventure» aux confins de l’étrange ou de l’interdit” (“The idea of the N.R.F. was born from a fruitful tension between fidelity to classicism— understood as a literary school of rigor and formal accomplishment—and an opening, a constant renewal of psychological peculiarities, an ‘adventure’ on the borders of the foreign or forbidden”) (Rivière 1913, 160, 123). Putnam has documented Gide’s overwhelmingly positive response to Rivière’s provocative essay which meshed well with his own robust interest in English literature (Putnam 1990, 187).
Conrad’s early French translators, reviewers, and champions, who included writers as diverse as André Gide, Henri Ghéon, Jean Schlumberger, Joseph Kessel, Pierre Mac Orlan, and Valéry Larbaud, favored works with British protagonists which they could connect to Conrad’s first career. Their preference for Conrad’s early writing suggests a nostalgia for seemingly obsolete trials of manhood. During the interwar period in France, Conrad’s accounts of dangerous experiences provided literary models of honor, masculinity, and authenticity. For many French readers, Conrad’s first career justified and authenticated his writing. As André Chevrillon, scholar, travel writer, and immortel of the Académie française noted: “Ses tableaux de mer sont d’un artiste de génie mais c’est l’expérience d’un marin professional qu’il interprète” (Chevrillon 1924, 62).
Conrad was consecrated in France during and after the First World War, yet his consecrators celebrated a heroism anchored in the prewar world, in merchant ships, not passenger trains. They preferred writing about his seafaring past and the faraway locales which had become familiar and accessible to the postwar traveler. Commenting on literary reception, Andre Lefevere has posited that this kind of selective appreciation is an essential part of literary history, which, he argues, “often projects the ‘fray’ of its own times back into the past, enlisting the support of those writers it canonizes for a certain ideology, a certain poetics or both” (Lefevere 1992, 122). Through their praise, commentaries, and translations, the French writers associated with the NRF encouraged a reading of Conrad that conformed to their nostalgia for risky prewar adventures.
Georges May has observed that “the most effective way of attracting the French public to a foreign writer has always proven to be the translation of his works by an established French author” (May 1950, 83), and Conrad’s success in interwar France, however narrow its circumference, surely owes a great deal to the prestige of Gide and the other writers and critics associated with the NRF. After meeting Conrad, Thomas Cazentre has noted, Gide articulated a rather quixotic plan to have a literary informant in every country: “[e]t c’est en partie à ce désir de découverte que l’on peut attribuer le soin que prenait Gide d’avoir, dans chaque pays étranger, un correspondant littéraire qui pût l’informer, le conseiller” (“To this desire for discovery we can partially attribute the pains Gide took to find in each country a literary correspondent who could advise and inform him”) (53). Conrad’s champions at the NRF functioned as what Casanova terms “foreign exchange brokers,” that is, eminent writers and translators whose work involves “exporting from one territory to another texts whose literary value they determine by virtue of this very activity” (Casanova 2004, 21). The French term “passeur”—often used to describe writers and literary critics who introduce and help foreign writers to achieve recognition in their own countries is relevant here, particularly with respect to Gide and Larbaud. Indeed, Casanova explores other relevant forms of literary consecration, including the introduction of peripheral writers through “the canonizing effect of prefaces and translations” by writers at the center (Casanova 2004, 115). Significantly, she also demonstrates that when a peripheral writer benefits from the attention of “great translators” and “the prestige of the collection” in which his or her works appear, then the translators themselves are often also beneficiaries of this success (Casanova 2004, 115).
This essay takes as a given that the tradition of invisibility and neglect for translators in the Anglo-American tradition did not hold for French letters. As this analysis of Conrad’s reception will show, Casanova’s thesis reiterates Lefevere’s important claim that a foreign writer’s success is never exclusively due to the intrinsic value of his or her writing. Drawing particular attention to the politics of rewriting, he asserts that the literary study of a text should include a study of its appearance, reception, and, wherever relevant, its adaptations and translations (see Lefevere 1992, 2). Conrad’s early recognition in France must be attributed to the patrons, publishers, and scholars who translated, reviewed, and promoted his writing. In what follows, I will identify and discuss the significant contributions of these various Conrad champions.

Conrad in French Translation
André Gide played a pioneering role in introducing Conrad to French readers, first by translating Typhoon in 1916, and then by overseeing the translation of his complete works for the Gallimard NRF publishing house. Conrad and Gide’s relationship originated in Gide’s visit to Conrad at Capel House in Kent in 1911 in the company of Valéry Larbaud, among others. Their discussions on that occasion marked the beginning of a long personal and professional connection during which Gide would lend his own style and temperament to the translation of several of Conrad’s works.
Gide was not the first Frenchman to express interest in translating Conrad, and the details of his early translation are for the most part well known. Prior to Gide’s visit, H. D. Davray, an accomplished translator of Kipling, Meredith, and Wells, and a committed advocate of British letters, had already promised Conrad that he would translate several of his novels. Davray, who contributed a “Lettres Anglaises” column to the literary journal Mercure de France, had begun corresponding with Conrad in 1898. In 1902, Davray initially proposed translating two of Conrad’s works, Tales of Unrest and Typhoon, and in 1908, Conrad signed a formal contract with Davray to translate all his writing, with the exception of The Nigger of the “Narcissus”, which the French poet and translator Robert d’Humières had already begun translating.
Like Gide, Davray was interested in translating and promoting the work of foreign writers in France, and his translations appeared regularly in the Mercure de France. But Davray only completed translations of Karain in 1906 and The Secret Agent in 1910 before apparently losing interest in what Conrad described in a letter to D’Humières as the project of “creating me a readership” (Conrad 1983–2007, 4: 195). D’Humière’s heavily bowdlerized translation of “The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’” was serialized in the Catholic literary journal Le Correspondant in 1909 and published as a book by Mercure in 1910. A translation of Typhoon by Joseph de Smet finally appeared in 1911. At the time of Gide’s visit Conrad was feeling frustrated by these pyrrhic victories.
Gide initially attempted to help Conrad by pressuring Davray to complete the promised translations. When this approach failed, Gide assumed responsibility for Conrad’s translation into English, and continued his role of “the twentieth-century translator trying to ‘bring the original across cultures’” (Lefevere, 1992, 2). In 1914, Gide proposed that Conrad break with Davray and offered to oversee the translation of his works and their publication in the Éditions de la Nouvelle Revue française (known, since 1961, as Les éditions Gallimard). Gide had long hoped to enlarge the scope of the NRF and its affiliated publications by introducing foreign authors in translation. Conrad would be the first foreign writer to have his collected works translated for the edition, a choice that testifies to Gide’s exceptional interest. Gide initially hoped to contribute at least two translations of his own every year and was particularly interested in Heart of Darkness. However, his initial ambition quickly waned and he began assigning translators in 1915. In 1916, he finished his one and only translation of Conrad’s work, Typhoon. In 1911, Gide thus charged himself with Conrad’s reception in France. Yet the alliance between Gide and Conrad, which lasted from 1911 until Conrad’s death in 1924, was often fraught. Gide had aligned himself with an author conversant in French and apprehensive about the foreign reception of his work.
Gide had begun English lessons around the time he met Conrad. His journals document how he studied Conrad’s novels with his English tutor. In a 1910 letter to Edmund Gosse, he confessed, with no little chagrin, that his knowledge of the language was poor. Gide’s interest in Conrad and the English language, in addition to his trip to England, was part of a broader interest in English and in English writers. In 1911, the same year that he visited Conrad, Gide had begun Les Caves du Vatican, which he conceived of as an adventure novel along English lines. We should contemplate the significance of Gide’s imperfect command of English when exploring his translation of Typhoon as well as his revisions of translations done by others. In his study of Gide’s reworking of Isabelle Rivière’s translation of Victory, J. H. Stape argues that Conrad’s style posed particular problems for Gide: “Often highly idiosyncratic and rhetorical, and even at times unidiomatic, it poses formidable difficulties even for the experienced translator, let alone for the neophyte” (Stape 1990, 156).
Was Gide’s loose theory of translation the result of his linguistic shortcomings? To what extent did it exacerbate the appropriative elements of his translation? In an oft-cited open 1928 letter to André Thèrive about the “épineuse question des traductions” (Gide, 2009, 15, 541)—the thorny question of translations—Gide argues that translation is but one of many kinds of authorship. In Gide’s view, writers should translate works with which they feel a particular kinship, works that share the translating writer’s dominant spirit. In his defense of translation, Gide does not distinguish between affinity and recognition; for him, the work of translation involves affinity but also the awakening of something already latent in the writer. Literary influence is not the stuff of new ideas but rather the activation of dormant impulses (Gide 2009, 15: 546). Accordingly, instead of offering a word-for-word translation, a translator should attempt to capture the essence of a book, “d’exprimer, sans en rien perdre, pensée et émotion, comme l’auteur, sans en rien perdre, eût écrit directement en français” (Gide 2009, 15: 545). For Gide, translation often served as a substitute for original writing during unproductive periods. In his journal, he reflects on the task of revising Isabelle Rivière’s “poor” translation of Victory, contrasting it with the practice of translating Typhoon: “[I]n that case it is my own work, freely chosen, and I shall gladly sign it” (Gide 1948, 1: 193). He also begrudged Rivière what he saw as her wearisome literal approach to translation. The morning after an evening spent revising her translation, he noted in his journal: “her childish theories about how faithful a translation must be—which makes her present hers studded with errors, awkward expressions, cacophonies, ugly passages (Gide 1948, 1: 191).
Unlike Rivière, Gide favored a sense-for-sense approach and believed that translators should chose faithfulness to a work’s dominant spirit over faithfulness to the letter. In his letter to Thèrive, itself a defense of his many translations, including Typhon, Gide argues that the core project of translation is not to offer literal word-for-word rendering of an original text, but rather to capture the “essor de la pensée” (Gide 2009, 15: 541). In this view, the translator should pick texts to translate that seem familiar to him or her, texts that he or she might feel they could have written themselves. Relevantly, West has argued that Gide felt a particular affinity with Typhoon, one informed by his “désir d’échapper à l’angoisse et au déchirement causé par la guerre” (“desire to escape the anguish and heartbreak caused by the war”) (West 1993, 601). Others, including Conrad translator and scholar Sylvère Monod, maintain that “Typhoon” is a loose translation that bears neither thematic nor stylistic resemblance to Gide’s own work; “rien ne rassemblait moins que Typhoon au genre de récits que Gide avait lui-même écrit ou pouvait envisager de produire encore” (“nothing resembled less than Typhoon the kind of narrative that Gide had written or could even conceive of producing”) (Monod 1993, 578).
Gide took translation very seriously and hoped to elevate its status, in Putnam’s words, “au rang d’un art noble” (“to the rank of a noble art”) (Putnam 1990, 21). However, Gide’s preference for non-literal translation led to conflicts with translators as Putnam noted elsewhere: “Ce fut justement la question de la littéralité qui oppose Gide à d’autre traducteurs de Conrad, notamment Isabelle Rivière et André Ruyters” (“It was precisely this question of literal translation that pitted Gide against other translators of Conrad, Isabelle Rivière and André Ruyters in particular”) (Putnam 1991, 81). Gide’s criteria for accuracy were highly subjective but a translation could meet the criteria by satisfying the “sensibility” of both author and translator (Cigoj-Leben 1984, 43).
If we accept Lefevere’s argument that all translation is rewriting, Gide’s view of translation is both true and false; Gide is right to argue that the work is his own, but he avoids a larger question when he casts his ownership primarily in terms of aesthetic affinity. As Lawrence Venuti has repeatedly demonstrated, translation targets the translator’s mother language and culture, resulting in a translated text inscribed with “domestic intelligibilities and interests” (Venuti 2004, 482). Although Conrad offered a breath of fresh and doubly foreign literary air perfectly suited to renew French literature, the theories that guided his translation by Gide and others were appropriative and “densely motivated” (Venuti 2004, 482) to the extent that they allowed translators to claim partial authorship through claims of identification.

Les Traductrices
Lefevere demonstrates the extent to which the ideological concerns of patrons and publishers influence translations (one of many forms of “rewriting” in his view) as well as the presentation of a translated writer (Lefevere 1992, 7). Like all “rewriters,” Gide, as translator, clearly occupied a high position within many notable literary institutions. Nevertheless, Gide’s position in the world republic of letters, and his adoption of Conrad’s cause did not sustain Conrad’s declaration in a 1916 letter to Gide that his friendship was “quite the greatest treasure” that he had “won at the point of [his] pen” (Conrad 1983–2007, 4: 592, trans.). Conrad’s unmitigated gratitude did not outlive the following three years, particularly when it came to questions of female translators. Gide initially gave Victory and Typhoon to women, the former to Isabelle Rivière, the latter to Marie-Thérèse-Müller. Stuart Barr and Frederick R. Karl give a detailed account of the “trying period of the translation of Victory” (Karl 1977, 163; see also Barr 1981). An extremely significant dispute between Gide and Conrad erupted in 1919 out of the former’s choice of a female translator for the novel The Arrow of Gold.
In 1919, with the NRF translations well underway, Conrad sent Gide a copy of The Arrow of Gold shortly upon its publication, suggesting that G. Jean-Aubry, his friend and future biographer, translate it. (Conrad 1983–2007, 6: 470, trans.). Gide, however, had already given the task of translating the novel to Mme Madeleine Octavie Maus. In a now lost letter, Gide wrote Conrad to explain the situation and offer an apology. However, he did honor Conrad’s request to replace Mme Maus with a male translator (Vidan and Vidan 1970, 526).
In his enraged response to the lost letter, Conrad insists again that Gide take his novel away from Mme Maus, arguing that the essential “virility” of his writing could not be sacrificed without damaging the whole.

If my writings have a pronounced character, it is their virility—of spirit, inclination, style. No one has denied me that. And you throw me to the women! In your letter, you yourself say that in the final reckoning, a translation is an interpretation. Very well, I want to be interpreted by masculine intelligences. It’s perfectly natural. And I believe I have the right to ask for whatever I please concerning the Arrow of Gold. (Conrad 1983–2007, 6: 516, trans.)

Conrad cleverly makes use of Gide’s own philosophy of translation in his letter. Despite his declaration in a 1911 letter that “[w]omen as far as I have been able to judge have a grasp of and are interested in all the facts of life,” Conrad here maintains that women are incapable of understanding and therefore translating The Arrow of Gold (Conrad 1983–2007, 4: 532). Conrad’s preference for a male translator appears to him “perfectly natural” and he perceives Gide’s behavior as an indefensible betrayal. Conrad’s letter invokes an implied code of masculine conduct, and ends with a plea for Gide to respond to his request with a “Yes or No – as is proper between men (Conrad 1983–2007, 6: 516, trans.). Conrad’s assertive response anticipates contemporary theories of translation that cast it as an interpretive act. If violence, appropriation, and disfigurement are inevitable, the choice of a translator is not. Conrad believed that a woman could not translate The Arrow of Gold in an acceptable manner.
Conrad’s incensed letter to Gide dates from November 1919. One month earlier he had written another letter to G. Jean-Aubry, explaining the disagreement from his perspective.

I have just now had a letter from Gide in which he says that a woman has just got hold of The Arrow for translation. I am going to protest with all my might. He throws me as bait to a gaggle of women who have made a fuss (he says it himself). All this annoys me. (Conrad 1983–2007, 6: 503, trans.)

Jean-Aubry supported Conrad in the dispute. Perhaps Gide’s response to Conrad’s letters—asking him: “Êtes-vous si sûr que cela qu’un traduction masculine sera forcément meilleur qu’une feminine?” (“Are you really so sure that a masculine translation would necessarily be superior to a female one?”)—was interpreted by either Conrad or his preferred translator Jean-Aubry as a slight (Vidan and Vidan 1970, 530). Conrad was in dialogue with and befriended many of his French translators, critics, and biographers, such as Richard Curle, Larbaud, Paul Valéry, Hugh Walpole, and G. Jean-Aubry. In addition to correcting translations, he sought to rectify misconceptions about himself, and often relinquished control of his translations with difficulty. He hoped to distance himself from his seafaring past, although he knew that most readers cherished this image. He wanted to see his seafaring relegated to his biography as he made clear to Gide when the latter commented favorably on an engraving of the sea at Conrad’s home: “Ne regardez pas cela, me dit-il en m’entraînant dans le salon. . . . Parlons de littérature” (“Don’t bother yourself with that he said while leading me into the salon… Let’s talk about literature”) (Gide 1924, 18).
Conrad reluctantly but cannily published his only explicitly autobiographical work, A Personal Record. By his own account, he published the book version of a serialized set of reminiscences originally published in Ford Madox Ford’s The English Review between 1908 and 1909, in order to indulge his British readers and sell more books. As he wrote to Thomas Fisher Unwin a year before its publication: “I know that there are people who’ll want to read it: My public. I also think that if published at a proper time as, for instance, in the months following the issue of a novel of mine it may secure a larger sale” (Conrad 1983–2007, 4: 442).Earlier in that same letter, however, he also makes clear that although he will revisit his sea years, his book will be “the work of an author, who, whatever his exact merit, has his place in English literature” (Conrad 1983–2007, 4: 441). Conrad thus did not hesitate to make use of his renowned past, particularly in his self-professed capacity as a natural writer, born like a masculine Venus after eighteen years at sea. Indeed, A Personal Record describes his early relationship with the written word, offering a light-hearted nod to “the reluctantly-taken-up pen of a sailor ashore” (Conrad 1912, 154). Although this self-interpretation is quite at odds with the extensive correspondence that survives Conrad’s years at sea, it is echoed by those of his admirers who seek to emphasize his distance from other writers by noting that a powerful vocation resulted from a maritime past and a self-professed lack of literary ambition.
In a 1924 letter to Gide, G. Jean-Aubry wrote that any woman, “quelqu’elle soit, est incapable, par nature, de comprendre Conrad. . . Conrad est un auteur essentiellement masculin: quand une femme le traduit, elle l’émascule” (“whoever she is, is incapable, by nature, of understanding Conrad…. Conrad is a fundamentally male author: when a woman translates him she emasculates him”) (Vidan and Vidan 1970, 532). Jean-Aubry echoes Conrad’s anxiety. To be sure, there were female translators whose work met with Conrad’s approval. He expressed particular admiration for Geneviève Séligmann-Lui’s 1919 translation of Almayer’s Folly. But this specific instance of harmony between female translator and male writer runs counter to the pattern governing Conrad’s translation into French. This pattern, negotiated early in Conrad and Gide’s relationship, characterized the relationship between Conrad, the writer, and Gide, the translator and overseer of other translations. Conrad’s writings could not be detached from Conrad himself; fidelity to Conrad’s work required fidelity to Conrad the man. Gide knew that Conrad was an unusual case in that he was alive, at least semi-fluent in French, and particularly concerned with the caliber and fate of his translations. Conrad’s knowledge of French is, of course, a topic of much contention. Jean-Aubry corrected grammar, spelling and infelicitous phrases when editing Conrad’s French-language letters for the 1929 Lettres Françaises compilation. René Rapin’s essay, “Le Français de Joseph Conrad” (1966) also questions Conrad’s knowledge of French.
Jean-Aubry’s translation of The Arrow of Gold was published in 1928, four years after Conrad’s death, by which time Jean-Aubry had long taken Gide’s place as overseer of the Conrad translation project. We can speculate as to whether Gide’s conflict with Conrad might have influenced his decision to hand over supervision of the entire Conrad project to Jean-Aubry in 1920. After their disagreement, Gide limited his participation in the NRF edition to review translation manuscripts. During the following decade, Gide also relinquished his plan to translate Heart of Darkness. The project was successful nonetheless. Under the combined direction of Gide and Jean-Aubry, the NRF published twenty-two translations of Conrad’s works between 1919 and 1946, approximately half of them translated by Jean-Aubry.
Conrad knew the difficulties his work posed for translators and was often generous with his support. He approved of several translations that differed significantly from the original, including Gide’s Typhon and a number of Jean-Aubry’s translations. Gide’s 1916 translation won Conrad’s approval although it contained numerous vocabulary errors and inaccuracies. As he wrote to his literary agent J. B. Pinker upon first reading it, Gide’s errors seemed inevitable and acceptable.

It’s wonderfully done—in parts. In others utterly wrong. And the worst is that with all my knowledge of the two languages I can’t do much either in the way of suggestion. I was not fully aware how thoroughly English the Typhoon is. I am immensely proud of this, of course. There are passages that simply cannot be rendered into French—they depend so much for their meaning upon the very genius of the language in which they are written. Don’t think I am getting a “swelled head.” It’s a fact. (Conrad 1983–2007, 6: 88–89, trans.)

Here and elsewhere, Conrad insists that his writing works exclusively in English; in a letter from 1916, he counsels Gide to translate his idiomatic style “faithfully by seeking the equivalent French idioms” (Conrad 1983–2007, 4: 592, trans.). Describing himself as “an English writer who lends himself so little to translation,” he encourages translators to match him in spirit, if not in exact sense (Conrad 1983–2007, 4: 29, trans.). The latitude Conrad conferred Gide in his translation of Typhoon underscores his preference for dynamic equivalence over literal translation.
Today, the majority of Conrad’s works have been translated into French. Gide’s translation of Typhoon was a success by popular standards, despite the criticism from fellow writer André Ruyters and the young scholar Réne Rapin about its accuracy. André Ruyters criticized the translation of Typhoon that appeared in the Revue de Paris in March 1918. René Rapin, a young Conrad scholar, studied the definitive 1923 edition, made his own translation and then offered an exhaustive study of errors and infelicities in Gide’s version, particularly its deviation from the literal sense of the original text: “La comparison à laquelle je pus ainsi me livrer. . . fit apparaître toutefois dans la traduction de Gide, à côté de incontestable réussites, un nombre de faiblesses, d’omissions plus ou moins importantes, d’erreurs même et qui me surprit sous la plume d’un écrivain si soucieux de sa langue et de son style” (“The comparison that I could then make… could be seen, nevertheless, in Gide’s translation. Next to incontestable successes, a number of weaknesses and even errors that surprised me coming from the pen of a writer so concerned with his language and style”) (Rapin 1974, 187).
Although retranslated, Gide’s translation remains in print. Typhon was the first publication of the NRF Conrad edition and Gide’s name gave Conrad’s writing a boost in literary circles as well as with the general public. It indelibly connected Gide with Conrad and contributed to both writers’ prestige in France. Sylvère Monod, the editor of the 1982 Bibliothèque de la Pléïade Conrad edition, insists on its status as a literary event (Monod 1992, 578).
During the six years (1920–1926) in which he worked on Les Faux-Monnayeurs, his only lengthy novel, Gide oversaw the translation and publication of four Conrad works: Under Western Eyes (1920), Victory (1923), Lord Jim (1924), and Heart of Darkness, which was serialized in the NRF, starting with the commemorative edition in 1924, and continuing through 1925. Following Conrad’s death and the publication of Les Faux-Monnayeurs (1926), Gide made an extended journey to French Equatorial Africa. This trip resulted in two journals, Voyage au Congo (1927) and Retour du Tchad (1928). He dedicated these journals to the memory of Conrad, who had been in Africa in 1890, approximately thirty-five years before. Gide appeared to be on the trail of Conrad as he searched for the extreme experience that might authenticate his account of his travels. Voyage au Congo and Retour du Tchad mark Gide’s transition from novelist to activist or “homme engagé.” Indeed, Gide was instrumental in raising a debate about the crimes of the concessionary companies and excerpts from his Voyage au Congo were read aloud at a session of the Chambres Députés on 23 November 1927, creating considerable controversy. Gide’s trip to Africa marks the break between his fiction writing and his activism. Gide cites Heart of Darkness numerous times in his carnet de route, making use of Conrad’s novella to give substance to his observations and reporting.
Gide’s late-life writing about Conrad mixes admiration with reservation. Rereading Under Western Eyes, he notes in his journal:

One does not know what deserves more admiration: the amazing subject, the fitting together, the boldness of so difficult an undertaking, the patience in the development of the story, the complete understanding and exhausting of the subject; and when one closes the book, the reader would like to say to the author: And now let us rest a little bit.” (Gide 1948, 3: 94)

Gide envisioned, but never began, a four-part study of Conrad that would likely have helped elucidate the influence the latter had on his own work, as well as his diminishing appreciation of Conrad’s postwar novels (West 1995, 1996). His journals indicate that he read this later work in a desultory fashion, often years after it was published. He openly preferred the earlier works which recounted the moral dilemmas and challenges experienced by young men at sea, particularly Lord Jim, which he mentions at length twice in his journals. Gide was critical of The Rescue, Falk and The Secret Agent, which he read before his trip to Africa in 1926 and disparaging of Romance, Nostromo and Chance, which he read during the Second World War (see West 1995 and 1996). He read the realistic novels such as The Secret Agent, Victory, and Nostromo, which were anchored more explicitly in socio-historical contexts, but continued to favor the works that transformed a human adventure into an existential quest (see Cazentre 2003). Through the penumbra of a language that he never fully mastered, Gide discovered a brilliant but inconsistent writer.

The group response of members of the NRF to Conrad’s death in 1924 illustrates the influence and effects of the Gide/Conrad collaboration. The 1924 NRF commemorative issue “Hommage à Joseph Conrad,” published four months after Conrad’s death, offers the testimony of a large number of notable writers associated with the NRF, including both those who knew him and those familiar only with his work. In addition to several eulogies, the deluxe commemorative issue includes several photos, letters written by Conrad in French, and the initial installment of André Ruyter’s serialized translation of Heart of Darkness.
Nearly every contributor addresses Conrad’s national heritage, questioning how it informs his writing, and alternately identifying English, French, and Slavic elements in his temperament, subject matter, and language. Contributors ponder his cultural and linguistic background and consider why he chose to write in English, his third language. Many contributors to the commemorative issue argue that Conrad’s connection with France is aesthetic as well as linguistic and situate him in the French literary tradition. Yves Hervouet has revisited such claims, arguing that Conrad was the stylistic inheritor of several French writers, including Flaubert and Maupassant (Hervouet 1979, 1990). Often contributors comment on Conrad’s mastery of French; “jamais une erreur de genre ni une faute de grammaire” (“never a faulty article, never a grammatical error”), declares Jean-Aubry erroneously (Hervouet 1979, 37).
Contributors to the commemorative edition suggest that Conrad did indeed have an eye on Paris and its literary trends. “Comme il connaissait bien nos auteurs!” (“How well he knew our writers!”), Gide writes (18). Some of Conrad’s interwar French champions settle the question of his nationality by identifying Conrad as a French writer sans le savoir . Conrad is thus in the unusual position of a writer without influences who was influenced by the French tradition. Indeed, although Conrad’s nomadism and cosmopolitanism are cast as necessary to his writing, nearly every essay in the volume attempts to pin down the enigmatic déraciné.
The prevailing tendency to demonstrate Conrad’s connection to the French language is most pronounced in Valéry’s account of Conrad. He recalls the shock he experienced when he heard the writer’s thick accent. Contrasting Conrad’s “accent horrible” in English with his fluent French and “bon accent provençal,” Valéry concludes: “Être un grand écrivain dans une langue que l’on parle si mal est chose rare et éminement originale” (Valéry 1924, 21). Valéry suggests that verbal-linguistic capacity indicates a larger cultural affinity; he identifies Conrad’s accent as a site of implicit resistance to a nation and its literature. He recalls contentiously grilling Conrad on the superiority of the British Navy during the Napoleonic era.
Like Valéry, Jean-Aubry emphasizes Conrad’s enviable command of French, although he nowhere criticizes his English. A great friend of Conrad, and his first biographer, Jean-Aubry notes the active role Conrad played in his own translations, often translating portions of his novels and stories himself. Although Jean-Aubry identifies Conrad’s nobility and chivalrousness with his Polish heritage, he ends his essay with a polemical statement that echoes the famous declaration of fellowship from Lord Jim: “si grand écrivain anglais qu’il fut, il était un des nôtres” (“To be a great writer in a language that one speaks so poorly is truly a rare and novel thing”) (Jean-Aubry 1924, 38). Indeed, Jean-Aubry’s commemorative essay underscores Conrad’s complicity with French values and aesthetics and his “sentiment de la langue, des resources, du vocabulaire, du style français” (Jean-Aubry 1924, 35–36). His decision to include several of Conrad’s French-language letters in the deluxe memorial edition appears polemical and perhaps intended to cast doubt on Conrad’s own claim about the relationship between his writing, the English language, and English themes. “You may take it from me,” Conrad wrote to British novelist and critic Hugh Walpole, “if I had not known English I wouldn’t have written a line for print, in my life” (Conrad 1983–2007, 6: 227).
Much as they address Conrad’s national identity and linguistic capacities, contributors draw attention to his astonishing life and strength of character, using adjectives such as âpre (bitter, mordant) to invoke Conrad’s person as well as the characters that people his novels and stories. Gide’s commemorative essay is exemplary in this respect:

Et je crois que ce que j’aimais le plus en lui, c’était une sorte de native noblesse, âpre, dédaigneuse, et quelque peu désespérée, celle même qu’il prête à Lord Jim et qui fait de ce livre un des plus beaux que je connaisse, un des plus tristes aussi, encore qu’un des plus exaltantes. (“And I think that what I loved the most in him was a kind of native nobility, bitter, scornful, and somewhat desperate, the very nobility that he lends to Lord Jim and which makes of that book one of the most beautiful that I know but also one of the saddest and yet one of the most exhilarating.”) (Gide 1924, 20)

Other contributors dwell on the importance of Conrad’s path to literature via an exacting and virile métier, commemorating a writer whose literary vocation grew out of hardship and loneliness. For many contributors, Conrad’s years at sea spared him the superficiality and pretentiousness abundant in the world of letters. Chevrillon declares: “Il ne procède pas des écoles, des cénacles, il n’a pas cherché une nouvelle façon d’écrire” (“He didn’t emerge from a school of writing or a literary coterie; he wasn’t searching for a new way of writing”) (Chevrillon 1924, 62). In his contribution, Françillon addresses the generative element of Conrad’s seafaring years: “L’unité de la vie de Conrad navigateur et romancier réside en un acte d’abandon toujours renouvelé au pouvoir de l’imagination” (“The unity of the life of Conrad the navigator and Conrad the novelist resides in an act of abandonment always renewed by the power of imagination”) (Françillon 1924, 87). For Françillon, it is solitary imagination that made Conrad both an artist and a sailor; loneliness encouraged his imagination and fed his singular vision. For the immortel Edmond Jaloux, Conrad’s formidable life led him to reflect on the ways in which human nature is tested “en face de circumstances anormales” (“faced with unusual circumstances”) (Jaloux 1924, 75).
In his memorial essay, André Gide writes: “Nul n’avait plus sauvagement vécu que Conrad; nul ensuite n’avait soumis la vie à une aussi patiente, consciente et savante transmutation d’art” (“No one lived more savagely than Conrad; no one then patiently, consciously, and wisely submitted life to a transmutation into art”) (Gide 1924, 20). In his parallel declaration of genius, Gide praises Conrad’s talent for molding his life into his writing. With its emphasis on the connection between Conrad’s writing and his maritime years, Gide’s essay summarizes the guiding spirit of the interpretive community that penned the commemorative edition. Fittingly, the most frequently invoked work in the edition is Typhoon.

For many contributors to the NRF commemorative edition, appreciation for Conrad required a refined taste and the capacity to perceive hidden and rugged beauty beneath discernable surface flaws. Chevrillon’s commemorative essay articulates this view and reiterates the widespread preference for his early sea-oriented writing:

On peut discuter certains livres de Conrad, lui reprocher des longuers, une composition compliquée, parfois déconcertante. Mais quand il n’a dit que la mer et les marins, quelle sûreté de la conception, quelle directe, rapide venue du récit, quelle grandeur croissante des evocations! (“We could debate some of Conrad’s books, reproach them for their length and sometimes disconcerting and complicated composition. But when he writes about sailors and the sea—what certainty of conception, what direct and easy narrative flow, what increasing grandeur with which he evokes!”) (Chevrillon 1924, 65)

Even more critical of Conrad’s literary technique, André Maurois considers his later works as failures. He cites the example of Victory, which he later contrasts with The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus,’ Lord Jim and Typhoon: “Le Conrad d’Une Victoire ne peut pas avoir cru à ses personages romantiques et monstrueux comme le Conrad de Typhon croyait aux marins ses amis” (“The Conrad of Victory could not have believed in his monstrous and romantic characters in the way that the Conrad of the Typhoonbelieved in his friends, the sailors”) (Maurois 1924, 69). In this view, Conrad’s later works failed because he did not believe in them himself.
For many contributors, these oft-noted flaws nevertheless add to Conrad’s sublimity by providing a humble background for his noteworthy talents. The flaws also serve the crucial function of fashioning Conrad into a writer who will be appreciated by a select interpretive circle. Casanova distinguishes between literary centers—the chief of which is Paris—and literary peripheries. But the case of Conrad clearly demonstrates that there were equally important hierarchies and power struggles at work within the center itself. Several of Conrad’s French admirers and translators, much like their few English-language counterparts such as Henry James, make the case for Conrad as a writer’s writer. The gains for general French readers are rarely mentioned. As Venuti suggests, translation is undertaken in the interest of creating a “circle of appreciation” (Venuti 2004, 495). In this case it was an elite readership that could thus reinforce its status as a culturally privileged community with refined and exclusive taste. Although the success of a translation is necessarily contingent on a variety of factors, the translation itself inevitably marks out a future readership insofar as it is “linked to historical moments and social positions in the receiving culture” (Venuti 2004, 495). In his meditation on translation, Sous l’invocation de saint Jérôme, Larbaud notes the importance of writers “hautement classés dans l’estime des lettrés” (“highly ranked in the esteem of men of letters”) in introducing important English writers to an elite French audience (Larbaud 1946, 329). One could of course argue that such views offered consolation for Conrad’s translators and champions, as he only later achieved wide popularity.
Although conspicuously absent from the commemorative edition, Larbaud had earlier mixed criticism and praise in his review of Conrad’s 1914 novel Chance for the NRF. In the first review of Conrad’s work in France, Larbaud, the erstwhile “angliciste” of the NRF, dismisses Conrad’s plots as perfunctory nods to the demands of a large reading public. Larbaud, himself arguably a writer’s writer, laments that there isn’t “en Angleterre, comme chez nous, de division bien nette entre le grand public et the happy few” (“in England, as there is here, a clear division between the larger public and the happy few” (Larbaud 1914, 527). He maintains that English writers—he also names H. G. Wells and Charles Dickens—must write in two different registers, one for “la discrète élite,” the other for the “general reader” (Larbaud 1914, 527). Conrad, he argues, tarnishes his work with this stylistic compromise. Larbaud explicitly rejects any equation between widespread popularity and greatness. For Larbaud, Conrad’s limited appeal meant that he struck a chord audible only to those with advanced literary sensitivity.
Larbaud sets Conrad apart from his contemporaries not by the oft-remarked complexity of his plots, but by his use of an indirect narrator. Larbaud points to the indirect narrator as the conscience of the novel and its distinctly modern element, arguing that the reader must read Conrad’s writing through the optic of this conscience, despite the obligatory plot, the “vieille carcasse rouillé de l’intrigue” (“old rusty carcass of the plot”) (Larbaud 1914, 527). What distinguishes Conrad from his contemporaries, according to Larbaud, is the tragic element that governs his writing. Larbaud thus offers NRF readers the image of a writer of inconsistent genius, conjoining a frank assessment of Conrad’s limitations with an unequivocal affirmation of talent:

Joseph Conrad et son oeuvre attendent encore l’étude complète et détaillé qui le fera connaître des nombreux lecteurs que des romans comme Nostromo et Chance peuvent trouver en France; et nous souhaiterons qu’une telle étude fût offerte d’abord aux lecteurs de cette revue. (“Joseph Conrad and his oeuvre are still waiting for the thorough and detailed study that will introduce novels like Nostromo and Chance to numerous readers in France. We hope that such a study will be first offered to readers of this journal.) (Larbaud 1914, 529)

In part we can see Larbaud’s misgivings as rooted in Conrad’s perceived failure to conform to the more experimental style of writers then popular among literary circles in Paris. Conrad is an extraordinary writer, but stylistically retrograde, locked into a different era, according to Casanova’s notion of literary temporality. Despite these misgivings, Larbaud, informal agent and passeur of British, American, and Irish literature, is nevertheless quick to emphasize the role that the NRF might play in encouraging translations and publishing future studies. Valéry’s absence from the commemorative edition is likely due to his disagreement with NRF editor Jacques Rivière about the literary value of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Larbaud, devoted to Joyce, distanced himself from the NRF after the disagreement (see Mierlo 2004). Larbaud’s role as passeur was cemented through his critical celebration of Joyce’s writing and he oversaw the translation of Ulysses in the years following Conrad’s death.

Taking Stock
Written in English, Jean-Aubry’s Life and Letters (1927) was the first biography to appear after Conrad’s death. Its ten chapters of biography, supplemented by photographs and a collection of Conrad’s letters, remain faithful to key notions expressed in the book reviews and the commemorative edition essays. Jean-Aubry published Conrad’s French letters separately in 1930 in Lettres Françaises, a controversial editorial choice, but omitted much of Conrad’s later French correspondence including the Gide/Conrad correspondence. In 1947, twenty years after Life and Letters, Jean-Aubry published a second, revised biography of Conrad entitled Vie de Conrad. This book had no letters and was dedicated to André Gide although Gide is barely mentioned in this revised biography either. In his Conrad biography, Jean-Aubry echoes his commemorative essay by emphasizing Conrad’s fluent French, claiming in a footnote, that, “Conrad’s knowledge of French was perfect. He not only spoke correctly, with a good accent and with great fluency, but he showed later, as a literary man, a nice feeling for French style and a knowledge of the precise meanings of words which many Frenchmen might have envied” (Jean-Aubry 1927, 1: 28–29).
In Life and Letters, Jean-Aubry accentuates the significance of Conrad’s years at sea and highlights the writing that draws from that period. In the absence of other historical documents, Life and Letters joins biographical analysis with selections from Conrad’s fiction. For instance, he suggests that The Nigger of the “‘Narcissus” provides accurate accounts of Conrad’s life at sea: “From this beautiful book [Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’] and The Mirror of the Sea we know what Conrad’s life was like, not only during the voyage of the Narcissus, but during the twenty years he spent on board sailing ships” (Jean-Aubry 1927, 1: 78). Jean-Aubry thus underscores the connection between Conrad’s life and his writing, despite Conrad’s insistence, most notably in A Personal Record, that his novels bore only a tangential relationship to real events and were often fabricated out of the fragment of a story he had heard. In Life and Letters, Jean-Aubry stresses Conrad’s temperamental and yet unaffected nature, arguing that this nature led Conrad to write without pretense in the same devoted fashion with which he sailed ships. Conrad’s gloomy yet determined disposition is what made him a good sailor and a great writer. His vocation is “unconscious,” the result of “circumstances and the still secret impulse of his nature,” and a continuation of his work at sea (Jean-Aubry 1927, 1: 156).
French writers associated with the NRF in the interwar period thus situated Conrad between nineteenth-century aspirations and twentieth-century paradoxes, casting him as a chronicler of noble but outmoded masculine feats. The majority of them discovered Conrad during or after the First World War, whereas his life and writing were rooted in the illusions and aspirations of the prewar world. Conrad’s early works, in particular those that detailed emotional and physical strength in the face of adversity, certainly functioned as a literary balm for readers still recovering from the First World War. Several interwar literary readings and rewritings of Conrad also express notable anguish and sentiments of belatedness in the face of Conrad’s seemingly inimitable life and work. Two of the most significant interwar French novels—André Malraux’s The Royal Way (1930) and Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Voyage to the End of Night (1932)—question whether certain kinds of experiences are still possible. Isabelle Guillaume has argued convincingly that both these novels, in which the search for new territory cedes to the search for otherness (alterité), are rewritings of Heart of Darkness (see Guillaume 2006).
Much interwar travel writing places writers in dialogue with Conrad’s work. Indeed, his early writing provided a standard for interwar French writers of both fiction and non-fiction. Conrad was often invoked in searches for endangered experiences such as Gide’s account of his travels in Africa, as we saw above. Of similar significance is Michel Leiris’s L’Afrique fantôme (1934), the book version of his carnet de route from the Mission Dakar-Djibouti (1931–1933). In L’Afrique fantôme, Leiris adapts the plot of Conrad’s Victory, dramatizing the fictional relationship between a colonial “gentleman” and the indigenous “others” with whom he lives in East Africa.
Venuti describes the process of forcing foreign writing into familiar norms as a violent one that runs the risk of “wholesale domestication” (Venuti 1995, 18). Conrad’s French consecrators were drawn to the foreign elements of his writing. However, it was their domestic criteria for foreignness by which contributors to the NRF evaluated Conrad’s writing and privileged his early work. Yet if we speak of slanted or tendentious readings, we also suggest that correct and permanent readings are possible. The case of Conrad’s reception by writers associated with the NRF foregrounds the inevitably variable and time-dated nature of literary consecration.

Michel Leiris: Rewriting the Foundational Myths of the NRF
Michel Leiris’s adaptation of Conrad’s 1915 novel Victory appears in the official travel journal or carnet de route that he kept while acting as secretary-archivist for the Dakar-Djibouti ethnographic mission from 1931–1933. The Dakar-Djibouti mission lasted nearly two years and was the first mission of its kind to cross the continent of Africa. It was funded by the French state in the interest of advancing ethnographic studies in a variety of regions in Africa from the West Coast to the East Coast. The mission was lead by the French ethnographer Marcel Griaule, and included, among others, ethnographers, linguists, a musicologist, a painter, and a naturalist. Leiris acted as secretary-archivist for the mission.
Leiris’s “transgressively reflective journal,” which he transformed quickly from a public document to a private journal, was published in 1934 as L’Afrique fantôme (Hand 1991, 2). His command of English rather limited, Leiris read Isabelle Rivière and Philippe Neel’s translation, which Gallimard had published in 1923. In 1933, stationed in Abyssnia towards the end of the twenty-one-month mission, Leiris rewrote the plot of Conrad’s novel, transforming Axel Heyst’s self-imposed isolation into colonial misery arguably more redolent of Heart of Darkness: “Cafard effroyable. Le vrai cafard: le cafard colonial” (“Frightful blues. The real blues: the colonial blues.”) (Leiris 1996, 832). Although Leiris’s lengthy adaptation retains the name Axel Heyst, he transposes him from the Dutch East Indies to colonial East Africa, consciously incorporating elements of “la présente réalité” (“present reality”) into the plot (Leiris 1996, 832).
Michel Leiris, the Surrealist turned ethnographer turned autobiographer, contributed frequently to the NRF in the1930s. His lifelong obsession with masculinity colors his semi-autobiographical rewriting of Victory, a novel whose plot concerns, to a great extent, the Swedish-born British-raised Heyst’s ostensibly impossible trials abroad. Leiris’s adaptation is also informed by his interest in l’art nègre, which he championed as a longtime contributor to Georges Bataille’s Surrealist magazine Documents (1929–1930). Like Conrad’s Victory, the prominent themes of Leiris’s adaptation are failure and cynicism, as he outlines the humiliation of a man who sought to retain his dignity by avoiding action and social encounters. Both Conrad’s isolated Swedish Baron and Leiris’s colonial Heyst are gentlemen (the word is untranslated in Leiris’s journal) and both characters engage in “testing and molesting” the title (Tanner 1998, xv).
Leiris’s Heyst navigates the masculine behavior for which Conrad’s protagonists won praise from NRF contributors. His adaptation intermingles his own experience of the Dakar-Djibouti mission in with Conrad’s Heyst’s misadventures in the Dutch East Indies. Like Conrad’s Swedish Heyst, Leiris’s English Heyst is a self-controlled man who breaks the rules of behavior demanded of him by his countrymen. He runs afoul with the bulk of his fellow colonials because he does not adhere to custom and holds himself back from the rest of his community: “Certains disent que ce n’est pas «un homme»: il ne bouge pas, il ne chasse pas, il est très mou avec les indigènes, il se trouble très facilement” (“Some people some say that he is not a man: he does not move, he does not hunt, he is very soft on the natives, he is very easily disturbed”) (Leiris 1996, 833). His unusual demeanor and inappropriate joking lead the community to suspect that he is either homosexual or else impotent. Although he lives alone, he has apparently not had any sexual relations since his arrival.
Like Conrad’s Heyst, Leiris’s Heyst is aloof, but also jocular and playful, prone to “plaisanteries grivoises” (“bawdy jokes”) such as immature jokes about masturbation (Leiris 1996, 836). The small community of the colony has guidelines for correct behavior and Heyst grows increasingly isolated: “La plupart le considèrent comme un poseur; les moins incultes le traitent d’esthète. On trouve étrange qu’il ne monte pas à cheval et qu’il n’aime pas chasser” (“Most of them think he’s a poser, the more cultured ones think of him an aesthete. They find it odd that he doesn’t ride a horse or care for hunting.”) (Leiris 1996, 836). Leiris himself experienced similar alienation as he noted in his journal a few days before composing his adaptation of Victory: “Je suis chaste depuis bientôt deux ans. D’aucuns me traiteront d’impuissant, diront que je n’ai pas de couilles” (“I have been celibate for two years. Some think I’m impotent and say that I have no balls.”) (Leiris 1996, 815). In this passage, Leiris is particularly concerned with how the other members of the Mission perceive his mysterious chastity. This concern with group reflection is mirrored in another journal entry in which Leiris reflects on a possible misreading of his adaptation and offers a defensive apostrophe to his readers: “Qu’on ne dise pas qu’Axel Heyst est un esthèthe, un fou ou un original. Il n’est qu’un homme demi-lucide dans un monde d’aveugles” (Leiris 1996, 838). Neither Conrad nor Leiris’s Heyst can bear calumny but both are capable of self-mockery.
Whereas the native East Indians remain in the background in Conrad’s Victory while a drama plays out among Europeans, Leiris’s version brings indigenous people into the foreground. Conrad’s British Lena is transformed into a native woman with whom Heyst is enamored. The rumors that circulate about Heyst are not merely rumors circulated by fellow colonials but also rumors circulated among the indigenous community. The rumors suggest an impotence that far exceeds the sexual sphere. Unlike Conrad’s Heyst who is maligned for his Nietzschean independence and contempt, Leiris’s Heyst faces ridicule and humiliation for general ineptitude. Edward Said has relevantly noted Conrad’s affinity with Nietzsche, particularly in respect to Victory and Heyst’s flawed “code of philosophic disengagement from life” (Said 2000, 70).
In Leiris’s adaptation, a rumor starts that Heyst is having an affair with the above-mentioned native woman. Shortly thereafter he attempts suicide and fails because he is a bad shot, once again proving himself an incompetent colonial. This episode echoes the episode in Conrad’s Victory in which Heyst unpardonably lets his gun get stolen. Shortly after his suicide attempt, Leiris’s Heyst dies in a massive epidemic. Following Conrad’s penchant for second-hand narration, Heyst’s story is then recounted by an interested doctor, Leiris’s unnamed version of Davidson, the second-hand narrator who tells Heyst’s story in Conrad’s Victory. In an episode reminiscent of Heart of Darkness, the doctor in Leiris’s adaptation searches Heyst’s room, uncovering a photograph of a young woman and a messy personal journal (journal intime). In Heyst’s room, the “bloc assez gros de feuillets séparés” (“large pile of single sheets”) mirrors the piles of ethnographic notes which Leiris was taking for the mission. The papers are undated and include a variety of different kinds of writing (Leiris 1996, 834). There are reflections on suicide and accounts of affairs that suggest that Heyst was not impotent. There are also optimistic notes about his plantation work, work that could have elevated Heyst’s reputation in the colonial community: “montrer que lui aussi était «un homme” (“show that he too was ‘a man’”) (Leiris 1996, 835). The journal intime also includes reflections on various intimate topics such as love and sex and relations with native women. Yet when the doctor interviews Heyst’s domestic servant, he counters that Heyst’s only attempt at a sexual encounter in the colony was with a native prostitute who fled his house, terrified by his strange manners. The doctor understands Heyst’s suicide attempt as the result of this failed encounter.
Leiris, like so many of his interwar contemporaries, believed that travel would cure him of neurosis and prudishness. He hoped that the mission would allow him to escape his stifling and degrading European life, a hope that had as its foundation the belief that living for two years among Africans from a broad variety of regions would prove both curative and restorative. He anticipated returning from the mission a more virile and sexually confident person. In Leiris’s adaptation of Victory, the native prostitute whom his Axel Heyst terrifies with his sexual aggression and the “netteté écrasante” (“overwhelming tidiness”) of his room, was summoned to cure him of his fear of coitus (Leiris 1996, 836). His attempt to cure this fear, and the subsequent failure of that attempt, exacerbates his neuroses to the point of attempted suicide and a passive slide into an avoidable death.
The prostitute in Leiris’s adaptation, like Emawayish, the Ethiopian woman whom Leiris encountered on his trip, thus bears the impossible and absurd burden of emancipating him from what his journal describes as “toute l’éducation que j’ai reçue. . . toutes règles qui n’ont abouti qu’à me lier, à faire de moi l’espèce de paria sentimental que je suis, incapable de vivre sainement, en copulant sainement” (“all the education that I have received. . . all the rules that have served only to bind me, to turn me into the kind of sentimental pariah that I am, incapable of living healthily, copulating healthily”) (Leiris 1996, 838). Leiris invests both women with the power to liberate him from his neuroses. In his semi-autobiographical rewriting of the plot of Victory—as well as episodes from Heart of Darkness—Leiris, like his contemporaries, interprets Conrad’s characters as lonely and failed individuals who confront themselves in extreme situations, just as his own “cafard colonial” prompts him to confront his false expectations and personal failures, his “actes manqués” (“failed attempts”) (Leiris 1996, 832). Leiris emphasizes the extent to which Conrad’s places are more than backdrops and gives particular emphasis to the indigenous peoples living there.
In the preface to a edition of L’Afrique fantôme, Leiris, now “cessant d’aspirer au role romantique du Blanc . . . tel Lord Jim” (“ceasing to aspire to the romantic role of the White Man . . . like Lord Jim”), underscores the dangerous solipsism of his younger self, “poussé à voyager dans des contrées alors assez lointaines parce que cela signifiait pour lui, en même temps qu’une épreuve, une poésie vécue et un dépaysement” (“impelled to travel to such distant lands because it signified to him, not only a test, but a lived poetry and a change of scenery”) (Leiris 1996, 93–94, 94). The 1951 edition, with its new preface and notes, written almost twenty years after the initial publication of L’Afrique fantôme, offers a rereading of his adaptation and of his earlier understanding of Conrad’s work. If Leiris were to rewrite Victory at that later date, he remarks in a lengthy marginal note, he would have changed the doctor’s account to reflect quite different insights,

Si le docteur avait un peu plus réfléchit, sans doute aurait-il-épilogué sur l’affaire du coup donné au «manœuvre indigene célèbre dans le pays pour le grand development de son organe viril». Il aurait marqué combien la reaction d’Axel Heyst—ce movement de fureur puritaine á l’égard d’un homme de couleur—le montrait obscurément contaminé, malgré l’œuverture d’esprit qu’on peut lui supposer, par un des pire préjugés racists: celui qui, aux yeux des Noirs en rivaux sexuels dangereux qu’il est urgent de tenir à distance. Et peut-être aurait-il soupçonné que, si Heyst n’était pas parvenu à eviter le suicide, c’est que la crainte dont il souffrait de s’avérer inférieur –marquant la le prix élevé qu’il attachait à son prestige et le souci trop grand qu’il avait de lui-même –ne pouvait pas se liquider sans une conversion radicale, tel qu’en une femme, par exemple, il aurait su ne plus voir que cette femme au lieu de la réduire à l’état d’un instrument lui permettant de tenter une experience ou de faire ses preuves; telle en somme que, d’une manière tout à fait générale, inquiet de virilité à un moindre degré il se fût révélé plus prodigue de pure et simple humanité.2 (Leiris 1996, 835)

As we have seen, Lefevere uses the term “rewriting” to refer both to the translation proper of a work but also to all other forms of adaptation. He argues that the study of these rewritings can assist in establishing the factors influencing cultural production, reception, and evolution (Lefevere 1992, 7–9). Leiris’s belated analysis of his own adaptation does indeed offer a diagnosis of his youthful adaption of Victory. In Leiris’s adaptation, Heyst’s interactions with indigenous people serve primarily to instigate self-encounter and his Heyst is far more concerned with the opinions of fellow Europeans. According to Leiris’s 1951 preface and marginal notes, an enlightened Axel Heyst would concern himself far less with group perception, would not concentrate attention on the sexual prowess of a native laborer, and would not expect a sexual encounter with a native woman to cure him of his sexual neuroses (Leiris 1996, 830).
Edward Said has notably argued that Conrad’s Victory served as a kind of “re-invasion of his past by Conrad” (Said 2005, 287). Leiris’s 1951 rereading of his earlier adaptation of a writer whose work nourished his childhood also discloses an auto-critique. Indeed, Leiris’s rewriting of Victory adapts Axel Heyst in order to reflect the unusual way in which Leiris staged his own masculinity. Implicit in his 1951 preface is a critique of his own reading of Conrad and the way in which his notion of the redeemed Englishman abroad mirrored the obsessions and personal concerns of Conrad’s early French consecrators. In his rewriting, Leiris showcases the unthought backbone of the dominant early French interpretation of Conradian heroes: men made noble though rugged experience abroad, crafted by a writer whose voyages and early métier authenticated his work.
Lefevere challenges scholars to ask “who rewrites, why, under what circumstances, for which audience (Lefevere 1992, 7). French writers, critics, and translators associated with the NRF identified Conrad’s characters as antiquated heroes who stood for a bygone world and fading possibilities for heroism and adventure. Yet Leiris, in his 1951 preface and marginal notes, identifies this reading as flawed because it ignores the individuals who are an ineluctable part of these rugged experiences, as well as the colonial contexts that permitted such experiences. It is important to note that Leiris’s adaptation and later preface and marginal notes suggest that this view is not a criticism of Conrad but rather of the readings of Conrad that ignore this element. In Victory, Conrad foregrounds the dangers that Heyst and Lena face precisely because they do not recognize indigenous people as people. Conrad’s Victory thus offers a critique of the very romantic plot that it presents and “insinuates a resonant discord into the ‘innocent’ and ‘feminine’ discourse of popular romance” (Collits 2005, 173). In Conrad’s colonial fiction, Padimi Mongia notes that “Conrad’s interest in the white men who go soft in the heat and dust of colonial outposts is always attentive to the possibilities the colonial context makes available to these men” (Mongia 2005, 90). The younger Leiris, like his NRF counterparts, neglected this important aspect of Conrad’s work. In 1951, Leiris moved to center stage the presumed background of both Conrad’s novel and his own adaptation. Gide, although most likely unfamiliar with Leiris’s adaptation, began a parallel project later in the thirties when he traveled to Africa in the footsteps of Conrad, but ultimately with more concern for the plight of indigenous Africans than the personal transformation of white men among them. Neither reading is a self-righteous critique of Conrad, but both offer the possibility of a reinterpretation, and suggest that the interwar French reading of Conrad was due for revision, rejection, or reaffirmation. These works also anticipate later defenses of more recent Conrad scholars who seek to understand his writing by contextualizing it within their own cultural moment. As Said has reminded us with regard to a number of writers, such investigations offer a confirmation of merit, not a dismissal: “I see them contrapuntally, that is, as figures whose writing travels across temporal, cultural and ideological boundaries in unforeseen ways to emerge as part of a new ensemble along with later history and subsequent art” (Said 2004, 24). He asserts the value of reading Conrad “in all sorts of unforeseen proleptic ways,” giving particular preference to later reworkings and “echoing answers” (Said 2004, 24).
Casanova asks readers to “continually shift perspectives” by situating literary works within a literary temporality that is both historically and aesthetically defined but not reducible to either (Casanova 2004, 351). Rather than uniformly criticize the NRF reception of Conrad, we have combined a general and far-reaching study of Conrad’s reception in France with the analysis of specific commentary. In Leiris’s adaptation of Conrad’s Victory, we find a literary time capsule recognized and articulated by the author nearly twenty years later. In his adaptation of a remembered translation, Leiris offers us a more personal glimpse into how Conrad was read in France in the interwar years.
In interwar France, Conrad was read, translated, and appropriated by members of the NRF in an ethnocentric manner that reflected domestic aesthetic criteria. However, as Venuti argues, much is to be gained from identifying and acknowledging strategies of interpretation and translation. Edward Said argues that adaptations and rewritings of Conrad honor the originals, leaving Conrad’s writing, “further actualized and animated by emphases and inflections that he was obviously unaware of, but that his writing permits” (Said 2004, 25). He also makes a case for Conrad’s undiminished relevance, and likewise for the usefulness of returning to and drawing meaning from writers who “brush up unstintingly against historical constraints” (Said 2004, 27). Later writers like Leiris can, as Said argues, “dramatize the latencies in a prior figure or form that suddenly illuminate the present” (Said 2004, 27). Indeed, Said demonstrates Conrad’s role in his own self-understanding: “I don’t know a better, more encyclopedic description of the world from which I come than is provided by Conrad’s novels. . .the world of empire, the world of British empire, the aftermath of empire, the struggle with and against empire” (Said 2005, 289). Jean-Yves Tadié also notes that Conrad’s narrative style is particularly well suited for a productive afterlife: “[S]on mouvement est celui de l’interrogation, non du réalisme, ni de la certitude” (“His movement is that of interrogation, not of realism, nor of certitude”) (Tadié 1982, 182). As we have seen, Conrad has much to tell readers about themselves. In the case of the NRF in particular, we can see evidence of Conrad’s elasticity in the way in which he contributed to the group’s self-definition as they read, translated, commented on, and adapted his work.



1. I remember that after managing to read this tale [Conrad’s “Youth”] a profound melancholy joined my pleasure and admiration. I thought that never again would I know the beautiful and pure joy that had been experienced by Conrad, mariner of the last century.

2. “If the doctor had reflected a little more, he would doubtless have written an epilogue on the incident of the blow given to the “native labourer famous in that country for the great size of his male organ.” He would have noticed how Axel Heyst’s reaction— an access of Puritan fury towards a man of colour, by one of the most bigotted racists: someone from whom, in the eyes of the Blacks, as dangerous sexual rivals, it is essential to maintain one’s distance. And perhaps, too, he would have suspected that, if Heyst had not managed to avoid suicide, it was because a fear of owning to his inferiority—noting the inflated price which he attached to his prestige, and his excessive concern for himself—would not let itself be liquidated through a woman, for instance. He would have known how to see this woman as a woman without reducing her to a kind of instrument for testing and proving himself—to the extent that, in an entirely general way, worried as he was about the smallest details of his virility, he would have shown himself augmented by pure and simple humanity.

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“Emily Wittman is Associate Professor of English at The University of Alabama. She received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Princeton University. Her current work lies at the intersection of international Modernism, translation studies, and autobiography. She is the co-translator of the philosopher Félix Guattari’s Soft Subversions (2009 Semiotext(e)/MIT) and the author of several articles on translation, translation studies, and a variety of Modernist authors. With Maria DiBattista, she is currently editing Modernism and Autobiography and The Cambridge Companion to Autobiography. She is also working on a monograph on the politics of translation in the writing of Jean Rhys. Her previous and current work benefited from a year as a Visiting Fellow at the École normale supérieure (ENS) in Paris, where she had the good fortune to study at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) with the ethnographer, Jean Jamin. This essay benefited greatly from his advice and enthusiasm. While completing the essay, she had a moving and humbling correspondence with André Green about his brilliant study Joseph Conrad: Le premier commandment (2008). Green, who passed away in 2012, is the the unknowing secret sharer of this essay. Support for research for this essay was provided by the University of Alabama Research Grants Council.


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