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Joseph Conrad reviewed
December 4, 2007 6:59 AM   Subscribe

On the occasion of the 150th anniversary since the birth of Joseph Conrad [Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim etc], The Guardian's Giles Foden makes a fair attempt at assessing the great novelist's legacy. [via]
posted by peacay (15 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
Even supporters such as Leavis complained of language whose effect "is not to magnify but rather to muffle".

I don't find this at all -- his prose is clear and often gorgeous:
Between the darkness of earth and heaven she was burning fiercely upon a disc of purple sea shot by the blood-red play of gleams; upon a disc of water glittering and sinister. A high, clear flame, an immense and lonely flame, ascended from the ocean, and from its summit the black smoke poured continuously at the sky. She burned furiously, mournful and imposing like a funeral pile kindled in the night, surrounded by the sea, watched over by the stars. A magnificent death had come like a grace, like a gift, like a reward to that old ship at the end of her laborious days. (from "Youth: A Narrative")
Impossibly, English was his third language, and he didn't become fluent until he was 21.
posted by futility closet at 7:42 AM on December 4, 2007


Heart of Darkness audio book (the best free audio book I've listened to thus far) for those of you who are interested. [via]

Heart of Darkness is also one of my favorite books, due in no small part to that recording.
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 8:10 AM on December 4, 2007 [2 favorites]


Impossibly, English was his third language, and he didn't become fluent until he was 21.

And boy oh boy, how fluent he became. Writing well is the last skill you learn when you learn a new language - because it is by far the most difficult part. Understanding a new language is pretty easy, speaking fluently is a bit more challenging, but writing fluently - and well - is super hard. Conrad wrote as well in English as Henry James did.

You have authors who write well, you have writers who are great story tellers, but Conrad was master of both. Rereading "The Secret Agent" over the summer, this is one of the things that struck me.
posted by three blind mice at 8:26 AM on December 4, 2007


A little long (didn't really need the potted biography), but some good stuff there. Thanks for the post.

I don't find this at all -- his prose is clear and often gorgeous


Quoting a nice bit of prose does not answer the objection, which (in the words of the linked article)
was best put by HG Wells: reviewing An Outcast of the Islands (1896), he described Conrad's style as being "like river-mist; for a space things are seen clearly, and then comes a great grey bank of printed matter, page upon page, creeping round the reader, swallowing him up".
I think that's a fair description, but not necessarily a serious objection. Not all writing has to be perfectly clear at all times.
posted by languagehat at 8:32 AM on December 4, 2007


Today Guardian's artsblog had a reply-type piece, commenting with a little surprise on Foden's assertion that Conrad's language can be somewhat hard going in places. I have to say that from personal experience Foden's piece nailed some of the issues I myself have had with Conrad's language: its elusiveness, opacity, density (especially since a failed attempt at Nostromo). Language apart, one of the things that really fascinates me about Conrad is the way in which he utilises the thriller genre in his work; The Secret Agent is a deeply serious and bleak novel hijacking an anarchistic espionage pot-boiler, and Foden also makes a point about how much other work owes something to his early life as sailor/adventurer. His ability to smuggle the serious stuff in amongst the 'ripping yarns' genre (or vice versa) might be one very good reason to still care a lot about his work.
posted by hydatius at 8:35 AM on December 4, 2007


The horror.







The horror.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:38 AM on December 4, 2007


Not all writing has to be perfectly clear at all times.
True dat.

I agree that the piece has some faults (the rather token inclusion of Conrad's wife and her quote, which was lame or modest or mild at any rate, didn't live up to the way it was described) and was itself straining at times to emulate Conrad's own trans-inclusiveness.

But I disagree that it belaboured his renown for opaqueness; I thought it did a great job in quoting contemporaries and framing it up as in fact an almost misunderstood facet of Conrad's brilliance. His style requires the reader do some work and approach him on his own terms (there's something of a parallel for me with Joyce in this respect) because one of the overriding elements of that brilliance is the way he posits observations of scenes, characters and ideas from many standpoints requiring the reader to construct the subject from his offerings. That, for me, was the strength of the exegesis presented. It communicated what I've always admired (and what often astonished me, particularly knowing his background) about Conrad and what I've always had difficulty in encapsulating for myself as a descriptive appreciation of his work.

I haven't read 'The Secret Agent' but I'm sufficiently intrigued to go and check it out.
posted by peacay at 9:08 AM on December 4, 2007


Funny, I was just reading about Conrad last night, via this.
posted by notsnot at 9:11 AM on December 4, 2007


From the Guardian piece:

As Conrad put it in his 1905 essay "Books": "To be hopeful in an artistic sense it is not necessary to think that the world is good. It is enough to believe that there is no impossibility of it being made so."


That really speaks to me and I always find myself closest to literature that reflects this sentiment.
posted by Divine_Wino at 9:28 AM on December 4, 2007


Regarding his prose style:

Even supporters such as Leavis complained of language whose effect "is not to magnify but rather to muffle". The objection was best put by HG Wells: reviewing An Outcast of the Islands (1896), he described Conrad's style as being "like river-mist; for a space things are seen clearly, and then comes a great grey bank of printed matter, page upon page, creeping round the reader, swallowing him up". Seeing Conrad clearly can indeed be tricky.

This is the thing, this what I love about Conrad. Yeah, he often descends into a big ol' mass of words that other writers would deem unnecessary. But Wells's "river-mist" simile is totally on the money here, 'cause for me, reading Conrad's prose is less like seeing something and more like hearing it. It is indeed like a fog, and when you're in it, it carries the sound far better than clear air would. It gets around you and sticks to your skin and eventually it's so thick you can't breathe.

The first time I read Heart of Darkness, I thought it was pretty awful. But the more time I spent away from it, the more I looked back fondly on the experience of reading it. And with each subsequent reading, the greatest joy has been that feeling of being enveloped, with the knowledge that the fog will end, but with the momentary pleasure of deadening oppression.

Damn, now I wanna go back and read Lord Jim again.
posted by Greg Nog at 10:03 AM on December 4, 2007


This all makes me want to go out and re-read Conrad. Thanks for the post.
posted by blucevalo at 10:56 AM on December 4, 2007


I take Wells' point, but he might have gone on to note that Conrad could have been doing it deliberately; reading Conrad's descriptions, such as the beautiful example presented by futility closet above, has always evoked in me visual images like something painted by Turner. I have no idea whether Conrad was a myope, however.

There is an odd passage toward the end of Nostromo which, if not simply a typo, seems to me to be a turn of phrase very few literate native speakers of English would have chosen to use:

"Bosh!" said Captain Mitchell, concealing a disagreeable impression.
posted by jamjam at 1:24 PM on December 4, 2007


My favourite writer. You have to read his novels slowly.
posted by elmono at 2:16 PM on December 4, 2007


The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a
cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical, and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a
kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze.
But everyone else remembers that anyway though, surely? In fact, I seem to remember (dimly) our first year undergrad tutorial on Heart of Darkness being derailed by a discussion of the above in direct relation to Leavis's view mentioned. I think it was this that clued me in to the unfortunate truth that a study of "English lit" (back then at least) was really a study of literary criticism.
posted by GeckoDundee at 4:38 AM on December 5, 2007


jamjam: that is maybe a bit unidiomatic but I could imagine reading similar in, say, Henry James. Often Conrad writes these things because he's thinking in French (or in Polish then French, I dunno): you get a lot of straightforward Gallicisms in his stuff, I seem to remember.
posted by Mocata at 7:38 AM on December 5, 2007


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