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This article is taken from PN Review 118, Volume 24 Number 2, November - December 1997.

Learning from a Master William Rivière

Most of the effects of canonization are innocuous, and in the years when Joseph Conrad's reputation was being posthumously revived and consolidated he was undoubtedly fortunate in some of his admirers.1 It is when reading a few of his more recent exegetes that one is aware, sometimes, in the haze of the falling dry-as-dust, of how generally unseen is the sheer magnificence of Conrad's enterprise.

It was T.S. Eliot who thought his way most trenchantly through the differences, and the similarities, between reading as a writer and reading as a critic.2 The perceptions of his which I shall resort to as starting-points are two. There is his grasp of 'the capital importance of criticism in the work of creation itself', which we find in 'The Function of Criticism'. This is where he wrote: 'Probably, indeed, the larger part of the labour of an author in composing his work is critical labour; the labour of sifting, combining, constructing, expunging, correcting, testing; this frightful toil is as much critical as creative. I maintain even that the criticism employed by a trained and skilled writer on his own work is the most vital, the highest form of criticism...' For my concern here is with the experience of repeated readings of a great novelist whose masterpieces offer an inextricable tangle of delight and illumination. And I am also concerned to stand back from what - when one idles, for instance, in a university library - can mistakenly appear to be Conrad's ...


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