I don’t know whether Norman Sherry’s Conrad’s Eastern World confirms to the requirements set down by Harold Bloom in his How To Write About Conrad – a small, trembling fear in me suspects, sight unseen, that Bloom just may be recommending writing about what everybody else writes about – i.e. the “topical matter” – that being 1) racism (Heart of Darkness) – a topic not likely to leave us in peace ever (or do you really believe we can manage one day to spit, roast, and eat the world’s last racist?); and (what else – yahhhhwn – how does one yawn with distraction?) 2) terrorism.
It is hard being a literature professor, is it not: how do you make yourself relevant? Pursuit of relevance – the mirage of that ultimate consulting contract from the Homeland Security, no doubt – makes people do silly things – write about books – and topics – which Conrad clearly did not think terribly significant in his life experience or work. Neither Africa nor Anarchism earned more than one slim volume from him.
What was significant to him – a place he kept coming back to all his life from his first book – Almayer’s Folly – to his last – The Rescue – was a place about which he says that it swarmed with people who haunted him, demanding be brought to life. It was – what? — ready? – Berau: a stinking mud hole on sticks 40 miles up a crocodile infested swamp on the remotest east coast of Borneo; a place he visited four times in his lifetime, during one of his shortest berths ever, a mere seven-month stint as first mate of a barque – a barque! God damn it, barely a cut above a floating chamber pot – the S. S. Vidar.
And Sherry tells us about Berau: the place, the people, the ships, the trade. He tells us what Conrad saw there, the people he met there (Jim, Lingard, Almayer, Willems, Abdullah were all men he personally knew), the stories he heard about the place and books he read about it. He tells us how close to reality Conrad cut his work: almost nothing is invented, it turns out (the little that is has been exposed by SEA hands at the time of publication) – in Conrad´s words, “one owes a truth to the visible world” – even the broken bamboo stick Jim uses to propel himself over the stockade has an identifiable source.
Conrad spent a very short time in South East Asia – not quite 18 months all told; perhaps no more than a total of 12 days at Berau; yet he spent the rest of his life writing about them. How do fascinations like this happen? How does one go to a place like Berau, spend less than two weeks there, and then go back to Europe and spend the rest of his life dreaming, reading and writing about the place? Its weirdness, I suppose, its odd, wild nature, its cacophonic mixture of radically different peoples, its pure rawness which strips men down to their primitive warrior self, all contribute; indeed, some are able to become fascinated today — a hundred and forty years later –despite the Toyota SUVs and the karaoke bars — I bet the place has its Willems and Almayers today, some find it fascinating, then — but not all. Too dry, says a friend to whom I recommended it. I rub my ears: dry? To my mind Eastern World seems an incredible insight into the author’s mind and method; to her – it seems dry.
What does she find interesting in Conrad, I wonder – surely, not the totally predictable, boring, endless lovers’ quarrel in the Outcast during which I skip and skip and skip and finally whisper to myself with exasperation – pull the God-damn trigger, woman, will you?
My Polish friends, by and large, don’t like Conrad.
Partly, the reason is translation. Although Almayer and Lord Jim contain some of the most beautiful passages of English prose ever written (I am thinking of the cruise of Patna, or the view of Georgetown harbor from Strawberry Hill in Lord Jim, or the river covered with red fallen flowers in the elopement scene in Almayer) 1; and I have not checked whether these specific passages read well in Polish translation; I am pretty sure they do not. I am pretty sure because I remember clearly having had great difficulty working my way through Conrad in Polish, and switching, in frustration, to read him in my then very poor English, because that went better, however slowly. Why, some passages in the Polish translation of The Personal Record for instance — such as the bit about letting the cat out of the bag — were actually incomprehensible — yet, once I switched to the English, they proved clarity itself.
(Thus, it could be said, perhaps, that I owe my English fluency to the poverty of the existing Polish translations of Conrad).
I do not mean that Conrad is somehow untranslatable, but merely that the current translations are quite bad; as there seems to be afoot a kind of universal movement to re-translate, sooner or later these will be re-translated; perhaps then Conrad will sail more smoothly up the Vistula.
A more serious problem is Conrad’s… Englishness. Most of Conrad’s sea books are about man’s men who talk the way English man’s men do: sarcasm, understatement, elision, brevity, black and acerbic humor, and standoffish refusal to engage in touchy-feelies are all (Laconically) elevated to the status of virtues. Conrad’s heroes do not explain anything, ever: in court, Jim testifies about the moment of horror on a sinking ship — the horror which made him lose his mind and act foolishly — in two word: he says “I jumped”. He refuses to explain precisely when he absolutely must.
This is emphatically not the Polish way. Indeed, I have lost Polish friends because I have become too English, too Conradian. My sense of humor is too biting, my interpretation of human character too uncharitable; I tend to wish people to “break a leg” instead of “good luck”. And, perhaps constitutionally not unlike Jim (was he not “one of us”?) I, too, refuse to explain.
But mainly, perhaps, it is because of Conrad’s topics. Lord Jim is a novel about shame, for Chrissake; who ever feels ashamed of anything? In The Island of Day Before the (aristocratic, i.e. exceptional, i.e. old-fashioned) old de la Grieve makes a speech to his (ordinary, with-it yob) peons, whom he is ordering to go out and fight (I paraphrase): “We have always been loyal to our lord and we will be loyal now because to be loyal in good times and disloyal in hard times is to be a pig. Now, if any of you scum don’t like it, better tell me now while I have this convenient tree to hand on which to hang you”. In other words, the connoisseur of men’s hearts that he is, he does not expect his peons to be moved by fancy feelings like loyalty. Perhaps it is equally unreasonable to expect people to be moved by a novel about shame.
And what to make of a novel like The Shadow Line? It has no romantic interest. They haven’t killed him and he hasn’t run away. There are no screeching tires or ticking time-bombs. On its surface, it is a novel about a man’s first… independent job.
In the author’s note Conrad explains that he meant it to be, more broadly, a novel about one’s passage into manhood. Why? Perhaps even he felt his readers were liable not to get it (by and large they did not: invariably, Conrad sold poorly); so he went out and did something no man’s man ever should: he explained. Predictably, it didn’t work: critics still insist it is a novel about ghosts.
It didn’t work because, being one of us, he explained badly: The Shadow Line is not a novel about passage into adulthood; it is a novel about a man’s love for the sea:
A sudden passion of anxious impatience rushed
through my veins, gave me such a sense of the in-
tensity of existence as I have never felt before or
since. I discovered how much of a seaman I was,
in heart, in mind, and, as it were, physically–a
man exclusively of sea and ships; the sea the only
world that counted, and the ships, the test of man-
liness, of temperament, of courage and fidelity–
and of love.
Sell that in a (historically) land-locked country.
To me Conrad is –destiny: he went to sea inspired by books; I went to Asia inspired by Conrad. He lived a life of action before he ever entertained the idea of writing; I dropped the idea of letters and took up life of adventure instead. He wrote with profound respect and sympathy for Asians — particularly Malays — whom he saw as noble and proud; a lot of who I am has come about precisely because I too have adopted his attitude. On the other side of the ledger: Conrad evolved a peculiar ethos, one which combined chimeric romanticism and proud stoicism; unhappily, perhaps, it is an ethos I understand — and find easy to embrace.
But above all, Conrad is for me a case of a love foretold: long before I ever laid my eyes upon them, I knew, from reading him, that I would love intensely and madly the stifling heat of the jungle, the massive muddy fast flowing rivers, the screeching birds and howling monkeys, the intensely colored flowers and the madly scented fruit, the deliciously powerful trade-wind blowing onshore, the flavor of the foods, the patterns of the skirts, the curvature of the weapons, the otherworldly clang of the gamelan.
Conrad the writer interests me less: the sedentary life of struggling with writer’s block, agents, and publishers seems so much less than his life as a sailor. How can experimentation in new forms of narrative match the excitement of a good storm at sea? It is hard to believe that it was for this that he’d left the Otago.
1 The beauty of Conrad’s prose seems surprising in a man who, reportedly, spoke English with a heavy accent until his dying day. It isn’t English, wrote a critic, meaning that no Englishman could have ever written anything like it and that, to his mind, the greatness of the prose lay precisely in this fact: perhaps, he meant to suggest, it took a foreigner to realize the full potential of English prose, lying hidden, as it were in the native’s blind spots. Unlike Nabokov’s prose, which to my ears sounds like Englished Russian, Conrad’s prose is not Englished Polish — indeed, it translates badly into Polish. It is entirely — Conradian; entirely his own.