Laborious Genius, Conrad’s Rodents

Not long ago amidst a casual perusal of journals at a local Barnes and Noble, I came across Michael Gorra’s intriguing essay on Conrad, recently published in the Hudson Review. (Link goes to an HTML rendering, the PDF version which is a more hospitable read can be accessed here). The essay will form the Introduction to the forthcoming “The Portable Conrad”–a prospect which greatly excites me; though secondary in comparison to the still distant prospect of the “Quotable Conrad.”

The article closely examines Conrad’s life, his labors and the complex (at times even esoteric) forces violently tugging at each other, that underlay Conrad’s literary dynamo. The intrinsic tenebrosity of Conrad’s writings, more readily attributed to the malaise of modernism, is examined by Gorra in terms of Conrad’s pathological malcontentedness with (among other things) what he deemed was his inability to completely fulfill the writer’s task: which…is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see! (Conrad, from his famous preface to The Nigger Of Narcissus.) Gorra writes in the essay:

The process of writing involved long hours of incapacitating doubt that left him
caught like a ship in a calm, an unrestful paralysis in which his mind remained “extremely active,” producing “descriptions, dialogue, reflexion—everything—everything but the belief, the conviction, the only thing needed to make me put pen to paper.” Days would pass without his writing a line, and Conrad would take to his bed, sick of a labor so great that it should have given “birth to masterpieces” instead of what he termed the “ridiculous mouse” his struggles would sometimes produce. Few of his letters are without some plaintive or even desperate note, and if it wasn’t the fight with words then it was his worries about money or housing, the illnesses of his wife and children, or the crippling attacks of gout with which his working life was spiked.

Also implicit in Conrad’s writing was his self-doubting relationship with the English language. I have always been intrigued by writers writing in English who are not native to the idiom; for e.g. Conrad, Nabokov and the spate of Indian writers writing in English–though I find Nabokov’s self-assured ebullience to be less interesting than Conrad’s wavering and the Indian writers are too large a group to assess here. (A forthcoming post on using the English language from the perspective of non-native writers is currently brewing in my head). The terse, muscular prose that Conrad is famous and infamous for was (IMHO, but Gorra is not entirely in agreement, see below) most probably a consequence what he perceived to be his inability to holistically express his ideas–perhaps a lack of confidence in his command of the language and his apprehension of the nuances of its elements; yet as Gorra relates in his essay, “he described the language as having ‘adopted’ him and maintained ‘that if I had not known English I wouldn’t have written a line for print in my life.’ Gorra writes further:

[Conrad] also complained, according to Ford Madox Ford, that the language was incapable of “direct statement” and that “no English word has clean edges.” French seemed to him too perfectly “crystallized,” but its vocabulary did at least have a limpid clarity of meaning. English words, in contrast, carried so many connotations as to be little more than “instruments for exciting blurred emotions.” And some readers have, accordingly, always found his prose rather muddy—“obscure, obscure,” in E. M. Forster’s words, and “misty,” with his sentences serving as a “smoke screen” that hides not a “jewel” but a “vapour.” Yet while Conrad may have seen English as an alien medium, something he needed to wrestle with and subdue, we cannot with any precision link that tussle to his trials before the empty page. What we can do, though, is to connect both the language itself and the difficulty Conrad had in writing to the difficulty of his writing.

The hallmark of Gorra’s essay is that it provides an accessible edifice for “wrestling” with and understanding Conrad’s confusing locomotion upon the plane of his writing; a highly recommended read for any Conrad enthusiast!


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