Joseph Conrad’s Flight from Poland

Frank Kermode

  • Conrad in the 19th Century by Ian Watt
    Chatto, 375 pp, £10.50, April 1980, ISBN 0 7011 2431 8

Ian Watt began work on this book in 1955, and the intervening years have seen a boom in Conrad studies: but the thought that there might be nothing left for him to say quite rightly didn’t enter his head. What’s more, he has only just got under way: for all that it contains close on 200,000 words, this book is merely an antechapel to the main building. It considers the career of Conrad from Almayer’s Folly to Lord Jim, and it does so at its own majestic pace. The section on Heart of Darkness is much longer than the novella itself, and those on The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ and Lord Jim are on a scale only a little less generous. No space could be found for extended treatment of the other early works, except Almayer’s Folly. One can’t help wondering how Watt expects to get the rest of Conrad – which includes what most people regard as his greatest work – into one volume, given that he proposes to proceed with the same deliberateness, to have his fully matured say on everything he regards as relevant, and to dismiss with due consideration all that isn’t.

We can be confident, however, that the next instalment will be, like this one, patient, alert and, within certain temperamental limits, wise. What we have so far is a portrait of Conrad as artist (with enough biographical material, freshly and succinctly presented) by a writer who is himself clearly delineated in his work – measured, critical, unidolatrously in love with his subject. It’s a very sane book, and Conrad might well have picked Watt as something close to an ideal reader.

For example, Watt has at the outset to pronounce on the accusation, often made in Poland but not only there, that Conrad’s departure to the West was a betrayal, and that the guilt attached to it haunted the novelist and his work. The very name ‘Konrad’ has, for Poles, connotations of hostility to Russians, and if Conrad had stayed in Poland he would have been liable to 25 years’ service in the ranks of the Russian Army. So he had a good reason for getting out, though of course he might still feel badly about doing so. Watt decides that the proper word is not ‘guilt’ but ‘pain’, remembering Conrad’s unabated love for his country, and reminding us, in a Conradian sentence, of that ‘intimate alliance of contradictions in human nature which make love itself wear at times the desperate shape of betrayal’. The same tolerance of complexity characterises Watt’s account of Conrad’s attempted suicide as a young man, later converted into a duel. ‘Surely not many people, especially when young, have got into a spectacular mess and then told the whole truth about it to anyone: it is much easier to confess folly in the abstract than to spell it out in all its foolish details.’ This sort of refined quasi-Johnsonian moralising is extremely rare in modern criticism, and it takes nerve, which Watt has plenty of. ‘Looking back on our lives,’ he muses, ‘it seems inconceivable that they should have been determined by accident or momentary convenience; and yet such is often, perhaps usually, the case.’

Meditating thus, he has the leisure to note patterns and relations that might be missed by somebody in a hurry. For example, he observes Conrad’s inspired aptitude for making apparently wrong choices. He chose the sea, and sail, at precisely the wrong moment, when steam was taking over and the increased size of ships meant there were many fewer berths for masters. He started business as a popular novelist with grotesquely inappropriate equipment (Flaubert, Maupassant, James) and never really mastered the themes and the manner of popular romance. Above all, he chose to write English, which was not even his second language.

Of course all these choices contributed to Conrad’s eventual triumph, though the last and possibly the most important of them, on which Watt says only a few judicious words, awaits the attention of some rare polyglot admirer. Conrad’s gallicisms are numerous and relatively easy to spot, his polonisms much less so. According to Zdzsilaw Najder, Polish syntax can induce an effect of artificial pomposity when imitated in English, and Conrad is often accused of that fault. But there is some ground for believing that there were compensating benefits. Watt observes that Conrad’s English prose got better – more fluent and idiomatic – with each succeeding book, which makes the extraordinary lapses from the norm in Under Western Eyes the more remarkable, unless they are to be explained as deliberate: there is a series of secret Polish puns, and unidiomatic speech may signal moments of narrative turbulence, when the story is saying more than it appears to be. Earlier there is a famous instance of this kind of thing in Lord Jim: the significance of Stein’s parable (‘A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea ...’) is certainly deepened by Stein’s odd English. Watt has a long and sensible analysis of the parable – adding the interesting information that Conrad couldn’t swim – but says nothing on the point of language.

Rational as ever, he also omits to notice the resemblance between the parable and an expression Conrad used to describe his feelings when he got into the train leaving Poland ‘as a man might get into a dream’; taken together with that other description of his leaving as ‘a standing jump’ it might be evidence that the connection between Lord Jim and the flight from Poland is closer than Watt allows, though it may be more subtle than some have proposed. Watt generally gives due weight to the intimacy of Conrad’s relationship to his past, emphasising certain ‘apparently pointless mnemonic adhesions’: Almayer is based on a man called Olmeijer, who was still alive when the book appeared; Lingard is based on a man named Lingard. Conrad ‘worked best not by inventing situations and characters, but by so intensely and questioningly remembering the past that it finally disclosed much more than had actually happened’. So with his own Polish past: the character of ‘Conrad’ is not unaffected by that of Konrad, hero of a poem by Mickiewicz. Between the remembered self and the writing self there were peculiar and painful tensions. A chivalric code coexisted with a deep Victorian pessimism; the emotional extravagance of the letters with the minute and painful labour of the novels; the powerful desire to please a large audience with a deep contempt for ‘the public’. Most of these tensions arise from the unique lack of fit between his past and his present, and Watt duly considers them all.

The last of them – Conrad’s need of, and contempt for, a large readership – Watt will have to go into again even more fully in his next volume. Conrad’s first story was published in the large-circulation weekly Tit-Bits, and his first novels, Almayer’s Folly and The Outcast of the Islands, were expressly aimed at the existing audience for ‘romance’ and ‘adventure’. He never could make himself conform to the prevailing conventions about sex in fiction, and this made ‘romance’ a little difficult; but even ‘adventure’, in which he seemed strong, had to submit to those processes of shaping, refining, Flaubertising, which, for Conrad, were writing. Unable to stop being an artist, he became an enemy of readers; he despised their mindless demand for the conventional, and they retaliated by not buying his books. His masterpiece, Under Western Eyes, is full of hatred for its readers, and cost Conrad his most severe breakdown. But signs of conflict are visible even as early as Almayer’s Folly. Watt writes better about that novel than anybody else has done, and is particularly good on the rudimentary appearance in it of narrative habits later strengthened, and forming part of the reason why simple readers might be put off: for example, ‘Almayer’s sufferings seem most real when they are reported at second hand.’ He also wonders, interestingly, whether Conrad may not have mistakenly supposed that English ‘folly’ had the same semantic range as French folie. Or is this an early example of polyglot punning?

As early as The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ Garnett was warning Conrad about the danger of getting too highbrow. He had discovered ‘how mysteriously independent of myself is my power of expression’, and again and again one has the sense of books that are struggling to get themselves written by a man who with one part of his personality desperately wants to write different books. The Preface to The Nigger is a serious but not very satisfactory attempt to develop an aesthetic appropriate to this situation. Watt examines it with leisurely care, reconciling the conflicting claims of form and strong reference to a real world; though I wonder whether the famous ‘Before all, to make you see’ is as simple as it sounds – whether Conrad wasn’t affected by the larger semantic field of verbs meaning ‘see’ in the Slavic languages. As to the ‘real world’, Watt has much to say about the Conradian admiration for ‘solidarity’, pointing out affinities with Tönnies and Durkheim, whom Conrad had almost certainly not read, and writing sympathetically of Singleton as the chief emblem of the virtue. He omits to say why the old sailor is called Singleton, perhaps thinking the point too obvious.

Much as he admires this book. Watt can be severely critical: when the crew of the Narcissus give ‘back yell for yell to a westerly gale’, he remarks that this is ‘a mode of affirming heroic solidarity more appropriate to a sea-scout regatta’. It is a lapse, one might say, into the conventional, often marked in Conrad by rhetorical inflation of one kind or another.

This is a problem that always comes up with Heart of Darkness, and like every other aspect of the book it is here meticulously considered. A great deal is now known about Conrad’s Congo, thanks largely to Norman Sherry’s Conrad’s Western World, and Watt has plenty of material for his study of the transformations of memory – how the models for Kurtz turned into Kurtz, how the rather grand trading-station at Stanley Falls shrank to Kurtz’s isolated ‘Inner Station’. On the nature of and reasons for such changes Watt is very sound. He puts in a bit of relevant history, not just of Belgian and other imperialist enterprises but also history of ideas: Max Nordau’s diagnosis of cultural degeneration, the fading theories of social evolution, supplanted by gloomy predictions of ‘rebarbarisation’. He opposes critics who see Kurtz as a Faustian spirit, seeing closer affinities with the Freud of Civilisation and its Discontents.

There is some superfluity in this very long chapter. Because Conrad is called ‘impressionist’ we are given a potted history of Impressionism, and later, for the same bad reason, of Symbolism. But even these excursions are in a good cause. Heart of Darkness has attracted an immense quantity of critical writing, much of it silly, and Watt is trying to undo its effects by cutting through its roots. He wants, therefore, to deny very explicitly that the novella is continuously symbolic, alluding to ‘some single cryptographic system which gives the main symbolic meaning to the work as a whole’, and is even willing to say that ‘there is really very little in Heart of Darkness which cannot be understood by a literal interpretation of what is said and done.’ Characteristically, he looks not into the depths of the book but outward, to the world it seems to reflect: Marlow’s terminal lie is therefore considered in relation to the Nietzschean fashion for untruth, and the pragmatism of William James. But it is equally characteristic that he will not use such methods to excuse what he considers to be the faults of the work, agreeing with Henry James’s judgment: ‘the abysses are all so shallow.’

I hope it has emerged that Watt’s method of saying his say about everything that seems worth it, though it makes for some longueurs, nevertheless pays off. I was particularly impressed by his willingness to adopt new methods of talking about narrative: he knows a good thing when he sees it, and won’t do without it merely to gratify admirers of his somewhat conservative stance. The Formalist distinction between fable and discourse should be a godsend to Conradians, who have to interest themselves in the disparities between a chronological order of events and the order in which Conrad chooses to present them. Watt uses it, and also its development by Gérard Genette. Characteristically, he doesn’t go far with that theorist’s beautifully articulated descriptions of ‘achrony’ (‘any narrative order which is not co-ordinate with that of the occurrence of the events of the story’), but he does, very sensibly, use the categories of analepsis, prolepsis and syllepsis, for they are a boon to any one needing to talk about Lord Jim. He himself invents Delayed Decoding (the belated understanding of the true significance of a series of events already registered by the consciousness), Symbolic Deciphering (a more complex version of the same thing) and Thematic Apposition (anachronic apposition of two events for thematic effect). I think Genette’s system could handle all three, but Watt shies away from system; his only system is to be very sensible, and to allow nothing to come between the critic and disinterested moral judgments. Thus he will not allow that Jim’s decision to let Gentleman Brown go is caused by a guilty identification with Brown: to speak thus is to be guilty oneself – of a fraudulent Freudianism (all errors are the consequence of guilt) that substitutes ‘moral melodrama’ for genuine moral inquiry.

Some readers may be irked by this prevailingly magisterial tone, and some others by the deliberation with which Watt embarks on trivial side-issues such as the parallel between Jim and Gilgamesh in the Babylonian epic (‘some of Marlow’s narrative recalls Gilgamesh’s threnody when Enkidu dies’): at such moments, brief as they are, he can look as tedious and frivolous as the criticasters he keeps putting in their place. But one shouldn’t end on that note. This is a noble book, and I hope we shan’t have to wait 25 years for its sequel.