Joseph Conrad: the linguistic outsider
“To begin with I wish to disclaim the possession of those high gifts of imagination and expression which would have enabled my pen to create for the reader the personality of the man who called himself, after the Russian custom, Cyril son of Isidor — Kirylo Sidorovitch — Razumov. If I have ever had these gifts in any sort of living form they have been smothered out of existence a long time ago under a wilderness of words. Words, as is well known, are the great foes of reality.”
So writes Joseph Conrad, introducing his protagonist at the start of Under Western Eyes. It is a strange choice to begin a novel — itself a great artifice of language — with a comment about the unreality of words. This is precisely where we would expect to find a writer attempting to lure or lull us into a suspension of disbelief, but instead Conrad only sharpens our sense of the work as a fiction. Why this commentary on the slipperiness of words, why this suspicion towards language? There are surprising answers to these questions, ones which shed a little light on the words we find alongside Conrad’s name in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).
Conrad’s deep fixation with the workings of words came about in large part because he was — as is often forgotten — himself not a native speaker of English. Indeed, he was born, on the third of December 1857, not Joseph Conrad of Great Britain, but Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski. A child of Polish parents born in Ukraine, he spent much of his childhood moving between states within the Prussian and Russian empires up until the age of 16, when he moved to Marseilles with the aim of becoming a sailor. Both maritime life, and the French language, would cast long shadows across his work as a writer.
Sea, storms, and shipwreck
We remember Conrad today for his tales of exploration and his nautical narratives. These include Nostromo and The Shadow-Line, tales of high-seas adventures and disaster, and Lord Jim, the story of a man disgraced after abandonment of ship. The recurring motifs of storms at sea and shipwrecks, of western gentlemen in the far-flung wilds of nature, animate the majority of Conrad’s works, and his own maritime experiences provided him with the backbone of a literary career.
The narrator of Lord Jim and Youth, Charles Marlow, is also the dominant voice in what is Conrad’s most famous work today: Heart of Darkness. If Heart of Darkness is a story of exploration, then it is an exploration of the mind and of madness. It follows Marlow as he journeys up the river Congo in pursuit of the elusive ivory trader Mr Kurtz. But as he journeys, the distinction between civilization and ‘savagery’ — Marlow’s own colonial-era term — becomes troubled, and by the time he meets Kurtz, who, mortally ill, has deemed himself a god amongst the local people, nothing seems stable. These are the themes that Francis Ford Coppola drew upon when he revisited Conrad’s narrative for the film Apocalypse Now, cementing Conrad’s place within the modern imagination.
Before he wrote these works, Conrad did not move to Britain until 1878, and he was not a British citizen until 1886. For much of this early period of his life, French was the language in which he felt most comfortable. Writing many years (and several major novels) later, in a letter of 1907, he states that even then “l’Anglais m’est toujours une langue etrangère” — “English is to me always a foreign language”.
He was, of course, a master of the language, but his status as an outsider does momentarily shine through from time to time. Scholars have noted that unusual phrasings such as ‘to develop to you my ideas’ and ‘in pass of becoming famous’, both from The Secret Agent, can be explained by their French roots — développer, ‘to elaborate’, and en passe de, ‘in the process of’. These Gallicisms offer glimpses of the rich life Conrad lived before he ever set foot on British soil — traces, indeed, of the former Józef Konrad.
Words for which Conrad currently provides the earliest evidence in the OED also bespeak a mind that swam with the languages of the continent, and they are signs that he might have thought in French, even when he was writing in English. Amongst these entries is the borrowed phrase en pantoufles— literally, ‘in slippers’. Conrad neatly relocates the phrase to signify an individual who is at ease, at comfort, free, and informal — as if wearing slippers.
Creating new word forms
Conrad’s status as a relative outsider to the English language permitted him the freedom to create new word forms for artistic ends. He provides the first evidence for the transformation of the noun paraffin into the adjective paraffiny, describing the smell of a burning ship. He also transformed many adjectives into adverbs, a habit perhaps influenced by his status as a French speaker. Conrad coined words such as muffledly: ‘The church clock began muffledly to chime the quarters’. Convulsive sobbing becomes sobbing convulsedly.
Such words he often uses to enhance the images which they outline. When Conrad writes that ‘The second mate was lankily stalking the deck’ (inventing the word lankily as he goes), he maintains a subtle distance between the mate and lankiness. Was the man, then, ‘lanky’? Or did he simply move in the manner of a lanky person? Conrad’s artistry lies in the uncommon character of such expressions; for, by placing in front of the reader an unusual phrase, an unusual image, Conrad all the more encourages us to recreate that image in our minds.
It could be argued that a further reason why these adverbial inventions appealed to Conrad lies in their sounds. Conrad had an excellent ear for the rhythms of language, and his writings are often celebrated as ‘prose poems’. T. S. Eliot had originally planned to quote a famous phrase from Heart of Darkness at the beginning of his own poem ‘The Waste-Land’: “The horror! The horror!” (the final words of Kurtz). Sure enough, the regularity of the stresses here, as the eye rolls twice over ‘hor-ror’, makes the phrase sound like a short line of verse. And the same can be said of Conrad’s coinages. ‘He had been sobbing convulsedly’, seems to carry more poetic force than the alternative: ‘His sobbing had been convulsed’. Convulsedly itself has rhythm, and a sense of movement, through its multiple rising and falling syllables. Similarly, ‘a heavy, sooty, paraffiny smell’ builds through rhyme, in a way that ‘a heavy, sooty, paraffin-like smell’ does not. Conrad, a non-native speaker of English, plays subtly with words, preserving their meaning but promoting new sounds.
Ultimately, it is this poetic force which has secured Conrad a place in literary history. There are ongoing disputes — important disputes — about whether or not his depiction of colonial practices contain in themselves xenophobic views. Certainly, not all passages of Conrad’s prose are as palatable now as they once were. But the power of Conrad’s words, be they Polish, French, or English, have meant that his works have enduring appeal, and his explorations — geographical as well as psychological — speak to us as much today as they would have done a hundred years ago. Let us end on the description of London from the very beginning of Heart of Darkness, and let Conrad speak for himself:
“The water shone pacifically, the sky without a speck was a benign immensity of unstained light, the very mist of the Essex marshes was like a gauzy and radiant fabric hung from the wooded rises inland and draping the low shores in diaphanous folds. Only the gloom to the west brooding over the upper reaches became more sombre every minute as if angered by the approach of the sun.”