First published in The Jellyfish Review 21 March 2016 | This metafiction is dear to me for two big reasons: 1. It’s the first flash I ever wrote, written as an exercise in Randall Brown’s class. As a matter of fact, it’s thanks to Randall’s suggestion that the tale’s necessary witness, Martyn Halliday, was created!
Reason 2, and the reason I am dedicating the story to Conrad scholar Dr. John Stape, is because writing this afforded me a reason to reach out to a writer whose work I admired, and tell him so. Stape’s “The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad,” is a favorite literary biography. I was able to track Dr. Stape by writing to places where he taught or had taught (I didn’t realize he had retired, so one of the e-mails was forwarded to him), and then I finally connected to send my fan-mail.
I asked Dr. Stape if he wouldn’t mind fact-checking this little story for me. I didn’t know, for instance, if Conrad in his own lifetime would prefer to be addressed as a Russian or a Pole. Stape gloriously and generously responded with intelligence, and kindness, and patience, and a very human, very moving endearment. I treasure his correspondence on the matter. Here’s a bit of it:
June 4, 2015 12:10 PM
Thanks for letting me see this, and I can’t express my gratitude sufficiently for your kind words about the biography. My aim was to make the tale of Conrad’s life readable, or at least as much as it could be, a goal that my noble predecessors — like myself of the ivory tower — didn’t much think about, I confess.
… I don’t much follow literary magazines, being too busy myself with my writing (academic) and editing (an even more rarified academic activity) to read much contemporary fiction at all, being firmly settled in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and keeping the good company of the glorious dead.
I should think that the description ‘Russian’ might have chafed too, although Polish is, of course, also slightly awry as a descriptor, for it more often than not raises the image today of the boundaries of contemporary Poland, not where Conrad was born and where, in fact, he only spent a very few years, so the identity was mainly cultural, and then, with time and experience, became multi-layered, with the Polish ground much covered, and even covered over, by other layers, the Continental (France) and the English.
Although Russian might have proved rebarbative to him, ‘The Russian Count’ might have wryly pleased him, a nickname that was used by some of his contemporaries in playful jest. He certainly detested Russia and the Russians, and, after all, owed little to the culture; but, in point of fact, and we don’t choose where we are born, he was of Russian nationality until he took up British subjecthood (not citizenship, whatever modern parlance) when he became a subject of HM Queen Victoria.
I like Leggatt’s (note spelling, but in fiction one can do anything) hostility here. He is a very unsympathetic man in the original, although in earlier critics readings, of the 1950s and 1960s particularly, was seen as a kind of hero. The tide, I think, has turned in views of him, which have become much more fine grained, and you capture something essential about him: a kind of nastiness that resides in all self-absorption. (That’s a rather wide statement, but let it pass.)
Like all meta-fiction, your story is very playful with pre-texts, but demands, as you know, a well-educated reader. (Ah, they are out there, but seem to diminish daily.)
I do wish you luck — all I have to offer — in placing it, and, indeed, good wishes with your writing. It’s a marvelous privilege to write, isn’t it, for whatever audience. We forget what an acquisition writing is, and how few readers and writers there must have been before the late nineteenth century in terms of the population.
Thank you for this epistolary and literary opportunity.
In letters, yes, I like that!
June 4, 2015
Thank you, John. I shall treasure your note.
Your academic take on Leggatt is the mirror of my intuition about him. It all became apparent when I put his snobby self below-boards.
And yes, I mean to spell Leggett for my version of him — in the world of my little fiction, it is Conrad who modifies MY character’s name to Leggatt. How dare I, indeed. Score 1 for fiction. Hah hah!
I’m a mouse, but I should like to return the favor one day if you should ever need a reader. I’m so glad to know you are writing, and editing, and still sharing your gift. Yes, it’s a privilege to write.
Your friend, yes, in letters,
June 4, 015
Thanks for this too. It is so very kind of you.
I had glossed over the congratulations about retirement but since you mention ‘one day’ I am tempted to intimacy: I am in the final stages of my life, and that occasioned my departure from teaching.
I got the prognosis a year ago … and have outlived it by six months, but the curtains are now, indeed, drawing in. It is news we all have, after all, but it has taken on a new and different character when someone tells you, a stranger, too, so I share this with you, another stranger, hoping you don’t mind the breach of protocol.
June 4, 2015
God bless you. I pray we meet again up in the brawling and glistering milky way. The Russian Count, too.
What protocol? What is life if we cannot say, you are a stranger and you matter much to me.
I shall pray for you, please pray for me.
Love, four letters, like
You are really too kind. We must all go through this. It requires a good deal stamina, whether the time be short or long.
Go in peace, brother. x
And I don’t want to overstay, but I’ll add three thoughts. You are still playing with words, even as you complete your excursion. I wonder at our whole conversation here, John. Life is a wonder.
Ah! It is indeed. And everything, including the universe, will end, so accepting that fact with grace and dignity — we few things in its vastness who enjoy/suffer/exist consciously — is so important, so crucial…. John
And so, a chapter ends. Here is my historical flash meta-fiction about Joseph Conrad. Thank you to Jellyfish Review editor Christopher James for accepting and publishing this work so enthusiastically. Thanks Randall Brown for being such an interested reader and excellent mentor. Thank you dear Dr. Stape for taking time to answer a letter. Here is: Joseph Conrad Took Twenty-Five Years to Bust My Balls, That Twit, by my alter-ego and stoosh character who inspired Conrad’s stowaway in “The Secret Sharer”: Louis Roddan Leggett.